Sunday, April 28, 2013

Expert Generalism

I read THIS article on expert generalism a month or so back (thanks to Simon of Ancestral Movement for the link).  An expert generalist is a term normally applied to someone who has a wide range of knowledge and creativity, and whose innovations rest on a foundation of this broad knowledge base via the ability to jump between these different fields of inquiry quickly and effectively. 

The article lists:  Openness to experience & love of the learning process (defined in the article as 'Need for cognition', but I like 'love of the learning process' more) as two of the primary traits of an expert generalist.  

Despite at some times running dangerously close to being 'jack of all trades, master of none',  I find the approach of the expert generalist works well when applied to the broad area of movement training and physical//somatic exploration and cultivation (and Life in general!).

For me, expert generalism in a physical culture context consists of both theoretical knowledge (of a wide range of topics) and body knowledge. This body knowledge consists of both sensory (sensuous) information that can be cultivated with increasing accuracy despite its subjectivity, and also the sensori-motor patterns to do all types of different physical activities and movements (something I call a movement lexicon).

An example of the sensory awareness body knowledge is the cultivation of the awareness of visceral sensations (visceroception) that is key to my 'early warning' system for illness. I find this body knowledge very useful.  I can't give you any studies about this, as I mentioned, it is by nature a subjective knowledge. You'll have to practice, explore and see what happens for you.

I feel that embodied knowledge has a realness and aliveness to it that make me personally rate it more highly than theoretical knowledge (Just my opinion! Most likely not shared by many!).  I'd much rather be able to do something, and not know how it works; than know about how something works and not be able to do it.

Now that being said, obviously the best combination (especially with things related to the physical body) is to be able to both do them and to know how they work, and be able to explain both aspects  to others - as I'm sure most people will agree.

The best people I've met in the field normally have a high degree of both theoretical and practical knowledge.  This practical knowledge doesn't necessarily mean they are amazingly talented at the physical skill-set, but that they have a high degree of experience with the physical skills, and teaching them to others, too. 

Interestingly, in Michael Gelb's awesome toilet book How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci, Gelb states descriptions of everybody's favorite renaissance man (super expert generalist), Leonardo - proclaiming his amazing strength, dexterity and body knowledge of things like equestrian, fencing and swimming (to go with his well know intellectual brilliance and artistic talent). 

Indeed, the book details how Vasari describes the citizens of Florence turning out to just watch Leonardo walk down the street, such was his "more than infinite grace in every action".


  1. I agree. The things I truly know, are those I have embodied. This embodiment has at times been initiated, informed, enhanced or reduced, by theoretical knowledge. And no doubt some experiential knowledge has been denied by the theoretical being presented first i.e 'avoidance of an experience'.
    Great post Dave.

  2. Seems like being a Renaissance (wo)man is a luxury of an era when info was scarce. Now expertize has been popularized by the 10,000 hour theory to develop a core talent (piano, bodywork knowledge or work of Warcraft) and the ability to fill in the rest is only a google search away. Its a weird shift that info abundance makes and the problem converts more to filtering and curation.

    My thesis is that experiental curators such as yourself are the most interesting players in this new landscape and that blogs/social seed/accelerate that experience to others (who can't invest the 10,000 hours - such as me!)

    BTW I have a (unfounded) theory that da Vinci also eschewed relationships as a waste of time in order to get such a high output. Nowadays that might be compared to Zuckerbergs alleged asperger's. Perhaps there is always a trade off.

    Here's a voice in the wilderness for generalists:

  3. Nice video! It is indeed a strange new landscape we are in. If I can help a few people (somehow), or get a few laughs, via the 10,000hrs+ I've spent in the last decade sifting through the various types of information I post about here, then I will feel very good about it.

    I'm quite partial to unfounded theories, and your da Vinci one is interesting. In the past I definitely leaned more towards introversion, but find that meeting/talking/studying with like minded/like-spirited people is of highest importance and usefulness to me nowadays (more so than reading non-fiction, which I still enjoy). Hopefully the trade off only occurs at the extreme edges..

  4. Here is Kit's comment (he couldn't post for some reason):
    "Hello Dave,

    Great post. I am a generalist myself, as we have discussed before, and I agree wholeheartedly with YM's comment about about the need for embodiment. But David's post ("ability to fill in the rest is only a google search away") I cannot agree with: you may be able to 'fill in' this way, but it is ephemera, all.

    And the 10,000 hours/repetitions? Agree with that, as you know! Cheers, KL"

  5. Yep, I've been to this post previously Dave. Will be back to your blog, but GOT TO SLEEP.




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