How to Be a Generalist Without Losing Your Soul

Iiro Isotalo is a Product Designer at BetterDoctor
Photo credit: Senja Larsen
I’m curious. It’s the curiosity that has taken me to live on different continents. Above all, curiosity has directed my professional life.
It’s the curiosity about product development that has taken me on a journey through many different disciplines. I started learning full-stack programming at the age of 15, and later I would find myself studying typography, artificial intelligence, usability, service design, engineering processes and marketing to name a few. There is always yet another skill to learn.
What I’m describing is the generalist mindset.
Being a generalist is hard. Fights traditionally fought between engineering, marketing and other departments are an internal struggle to the generalist. There are many challenges generalists face, but to me, there is one much greater than others: admitting I cannot learn it all.
A place like Silicon Valley is the generalist’s candy shop. Design, product management, programming, marketing, growth hacking, sales. There are numerous interesting meetups each week, an ever-flowing mass of articles and books, webinars, podcasts and events. I’m constantly being buried under read-later lists, pending online courses and books that lay open around the house. I feel bad missing a webinar or seeing an article hanging in backlog for days, often weeks. This is frustrating and occupies my mind. I can’t learn it all.
How do you keep learning the right things? Life in Silicon Valley has made me learn new ways to cope with the struggle I have. Staying afloat comes down to visualizing a goal, prioritization and efficiency.
A goal keeps you focused long-term. A practice I have already followed for years is to regularly look 5 years into the future and imagine myself in my dream role. Writing down alternative paths that could get you there is a good way to make the goal (and the steps along the way) stick to your memory.
Memorizing a goal helps you prioritize. Admitting you cannot learn everything makes you focus on learning the right things. Don’t feel bad not finishing a book if it’s a bad one. Don’t feel bad not getting to articles that aren’t relevant to your goal. There’s always good material out there that you could spend your time on instead.
Maximize your time and effort by being efficient. I’ve started to listen audio books while walking or exercising. I’ve signed up to Lynda for video courses that are easy to consume when I feel lazy. I’ve taken the time to unsubscribe from distracting emails that break my flow. I go to a coffee shop on Sundays to read articles or books, or to work on my own projects. I’ve got a Flip Band to motivate myself read an article a day. Articles I store in Evernote where I maintain my read-later lists and archive good articles into categories. I’m even considering hiring a virtual assistant to maximize my time doing things that matter.
Working in an environment like Silicon Valley makes you constantly want to improve. For a generalist, Silicon Valley offers so much it can be overwhelming. To not lose your soul, you’ll first have to admit you cannot learn it all. And that is the hardest part.

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