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Be A Generalist

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If you look at any of the great Stoics, you’ll notice that philosophy was just one of their many diverse interests. Seneca was a philosopher and a playwright and a political advisor. Marcus Aurelius was dabbling in philosophy…as he had the most important job on the planet. Cato was a senator who led the opposition to Julius Caesar. Cleanthes was a boxer and a water-carrier. And Zeno, the founding teacher of the philosophy, began his career as a successful merchant voyager.

The stereotype of the philosopher is one who spends all day and night with their dense textbooks and their denser thoughts. When the truth is that the great philosophers we hold up as having made these brilliant insights into human nature and the human experience were reading and studying philosophy in addition to many other endeavors and activities. They, David Epstein would say, had “range,” they were “generalists.” In his new book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, Epstein put to bed the myth that going all in on a particular field is the key to lasting success. As he told us in our interview for

We miss out on wisdom if we’re too narrow…Specialists become so narrow that they actually start developing worse judgment about the world as they accumulate knowledge…Breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. Transfer is your ability to take knowledge and skills and apply them to a problem or situation you have not seen before. And your ability to do that is predicted by the variety of situations you’ve faced…As you get more variety, you’re forced to form these broader conceptual models (in the classroom setting called “making connections” knowledge), which you can then wield flexibly in new situations. 

One can imagine Zeno translating things he learned on the open sea as a merchant into lessons for his students at the Stoa. Maybe Cleanthes discovered something about himself during his manual labors. It’s unquestionable that Marcus Aurelius’s real world responsibilities provided insights for his philosophical studies and vice versa. As for Seneca, his philosophy influenced his politics and his bloody and dark plays are undoubtedly influenced by what he experienced walking the halls of power.

The more things we open ourselves up to, the more we experience, the better philosophers we’ll be, the better leaders, employees, individuals we’ll be. Today, put an emphasis on variety, on opening yourself up to the opportunity of being a little outside your comfort zone. Read philosophy. Read subjects outside your field. Pursue those curiosities you’ve been postponing. Say yes to the experience you’re reluctant to make time for. 

You’ll be better for it.

P.S. Check out our full interview with David Epstein and if you haven’t already, check out his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

This was originally sent on July 2, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism. 

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