On Being A Generalist

MacGyver, the specialist of generalists

Image credited to Charles Williams on Flickr

This morning I was reflecting on what it means to be an instructional designer here at CDE, the skills that help me in that role, and how I might communicate those things to others. Before I came to UAF and was working as a graphic designer I had a very specialized set of skills that was unique to a particular domain. In my current job, my skill set is much more broad and is constantly shifting, which ensures I never quite become an expert at one particular skill. In the past this has been a frustration for me, but more and more, I have come to better understand the nuances of what it means to be a generalist versus a specialist. The first hurdle was learning how to say the words, “I don’t know”. After that, I found I was less resentful of having to play the role of a generalist, and could think more objectively of generalization as a skill in itself.

What are qualities that might make a person an effective generalist, and by extension, an effective instructional designer? I refrain from listing the diverse functional areas IDs operate in which might qualify them as generalists and assume that as a given, although I am curious if other designers on our team share my perspective. Below I have listed qualities that seem to lend themselves to helping me do my job. By no means is this an exhaustive list, but rather a simple documentation of continuing reflection – not a touchy-feely inspiration list.

Be Curious

Do you find yourself intrigued by the world that surrounds you? I do. At times I feel like this is both an asset and a fatal flaw. It is important to find ways to feed this inquisitive nature. Exploring, building, and making helps keep things fresh and spark new ideas. At the same time, I sometimes overindulge myself with inspiration. I definitely think it is possible to go on an inspiration binge, which in turn causes overload. I’m still learning how to balance inspiration with the act of making to stave off the feeling of overload.

Learn to Search Well

As generalists, we can never know as much as we need to, but we can know how to find what we need efficiently. This goes beyond knowing how to wield a search engine. Building a PLE/PLN and making connections to others in your network is key. Your connections can help answer questions and solve problems.


Read, watch video, view art, listen to music, and pursue those curiosities. I think this directly dovetails into the importance of being curious.   Beyond being curious, the importance of consuming, curating, and sharing directly addresses the speed of technological change we are subjected to as instructional designers. Consuming, of course, helps to keep us informed on what is new.  My father once told me that focusing on an area for even one hour a day can help fast-track you to becoming an expert. I believe him, though I have yet to feel like an expert in any one area. Curating and sharing allow us to act as filters to bring the most valuable information we find to the top so others benefit from it.

Leave Your Comfort Zone

Exploration into the unknown can help solve problems, uncover hidden connections, and combats the stagnation of inertia. Pushing our own limits is never a comfortable thing to do, whether it is our choice or not. Great things can happen in that unknown space, and if nothing else, we can walk away from it learning a lesson or two. We might even have some new stories to tell.

Embrace Failure and Accidents

I think failure too often gets a bad rap, and the fear that is often associated with failure can be a motivator that can push a person through adversity or paralyze them into doing nothing. On the other side of the coin, failure can also yield unforeseen opportunities, where some of the most memorable lessons can be learned. A generalist will need to know what works and what doesn’t, so failing can al so be beneficial. Learning how to fail gracefully is the trick. Working in an environment that embraces failure is very helpful for making all of this possible, and we are fortunate here at CDE to work in such an environment.

I tend to think of failure as an accidental type of thing. Accidents I learned about from Bob Ross – yes, those “Happy Accidents”.

These are all things I am still contemplating, but I thought I would share in the hope that maybe others have both similar or divergent thoughts along the same lines they are also willing to share.