The Super Power of Generalists

Generalists build their problem-solving super power by always being ready to learn new things.

by Dave on Nov. 2, 2021, 1:32 a.m.

Driving around recently my thoughts went again to how I got here as a creative problem-solver. I was thinking back and realized I have been training all my life for problem solving. This starts by being around family that was always fixing things with whatever was at hand, with whatever materials were the most affordable to make things work. Along the way this leads to basic understanding of how things fit together, through taking them apart and putting them back together, sometimes making them work at least a little better.

My family definitely instilled curiosity into how things work when I was a kid, and I haven’t stopped doing that, whether it was to get the car running again, fixing the water pump, or doing home repairs that was last half-done by a previous owner or contractor. I love figuring things out and understanding how things work. I would read ahead at school to get past the basics and I’ve been known to go down research rabbit holes once in a while.

I have taken to researching the history of rural towns, to learn the history of that weird name, (the town of Horseheads New York is supposedly named after the literal horse heads left by the indigenous people to let the colonists know they were not welcome. I am not sure why the residents chose this particular piece of history to highlight.) or why anyone would build a town in the middle of the forest on the way between nowhere, and nowhere else, such as Potsdam, New York, apparently just a convenient spot to rest between two trading posts, or the giant factory in the middle of rural Tupper Lake in the middle of the Adirondacks that produced for a time, wooden disposable plates and cutlery, now destined to be a combination of affordable and luxury apartments.

I love figuring out the weird patterns and connections between things, whether I might find it useful or just interesting trivia to tell at a party. Sometimes it leads me to track down a obscure bug in some open source software, and a few of those and I invented a new 20 year career.

Whatever I do, I am always learning something new, and learning all these connections between random spots along the way in my life always leads to interesting solutions, or at least lead to understanding what questions need to be asked. Recently I heard Grant Alexander comment on the CLAMP(odcast) mention how he figures things out on the computer by pressing all the buttons until he finds the one that does the trick. I’ve been trying to tell people this is the secret for over 20 years.

Some people are button pressers and some folks maybe need to know which button to press before they try. Or another way that I thought about it, some people learn by collecting facts, and others learn by making connections. I am all about exploring connections, and the more I find, the more I am inspired to keep looking and learning.