This week’s blogpost is a guest post by Matthew Trinetti, freelance writer, facilitator and TEDx speaker on careers, startup and travel. He is co-founder of the London Writers’ Salon and he teaches at Escape the City. His work has been featured in Quartz, New York Observer, Huffington Post, Business Insider, Virgin Unite, Brazen Careerist, and in the Top 10 on Medium.com, and has been shared by Paolo Coehlo, Tim Ferriss, Arianna Huffington, Gary Vaynerchuk, and Chris Guillebeau.
Tell me if anything was ever done … Tell me … Tell me …’
Leonardo Da Vinci, Notebooks
Leonardo da Vinci is the quintessential Renaissance Man. He likely inspired the inception of the phrase itself. Yet, in his quiet private hours, the man we think of as the epitome of genius sat in despair of his countless incomplete and failed projects.
Da Vinci, one of history’s most legendary artists and inventors (and architect, urban planner, anatomist, pageantry designer, weapons inventor, geologist – the list goes on) was also a master procrastinator who questioned his ability to complete ‘anything’. In his recent biography on da Vinci, Walter Issacson writes:
‘As he approached his thirtieth birthday, Leonardo had established his genius but had remarkably little to show for it publicly’.
I love stories like these. First, they bring genius down a level. If Leonardo da Vinci beat himself up for not completing ‘anything’, then maybe we all need to cool down and lower our own perceptions and expectations of ourselves. Second, the way da Vinci approached his life and work is one that maybe we could – dare I say, must – adopt in order to future-proof ourselves for an ever-changing and uncertain world.
For these reasons, there’s an important lesson we can learn from da Vinci about education – specifically, about the concept of expertise.
Becoming an ‘expert generalist’
Da Vinci’s many interests and skills personifies a term I’ve learned recently: ‘expert generalist’. Rather than possessing a singular skill or interest, the expert generalist dabbles in many disparate fields of knowledge, building up an abundant repertoire of skills and abilities.
Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams calls this unique combination of skills a ‘talent stack’. Adams argues that there are two paths towards becoming extraordinary:
1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good – among the top 25% – at two or more things.
People often think of expertise as only corresponding to the first. Many people structure their lives around trying to become the best at one specific thing, often at the cost of pursuing other things they wish to pursue. Educational models of how to reach expertise are sometimes built around that goal: how to learn and practise so effectively that one can work towards becoming the best at one specific thing.
We rightly admire those who strive towards becoming the best at one specific thing. It requires a huge amount of dedication, hard work, self-discipline and sacrifice. But this is not the only path towards expertise, nor is it the only way to become extraordinary.
Perhaps rather than helping students to identify a single path or even a single set of paths they should pursue based on their abilities, achievements and interests, we should teach students that they need not focus on one path or a single set of paths to achieve extraordinary things. There’s as much a place in the world for those whose characters equip them better to become expert generalists as there is for those with the focus to work towards become the best at one particular thing.
Adams’ unique talent stack – drawing, humour, business skills, and familiarity with corporate American humdrum – gave the world Dilbert.
Scott Adams, Dilbert (image courtesy of Medium.com)
Da Vinci’s greatest insights and contribution were also born from his unique ‘talent stack’ and reluctance to focus just on one thing. He constantly linked two or more seemingly unrelated fields – technology and nature, pageantry and astrology, anatomy and art – to create unique and valuable contributions to a remarkable number of fields.
For example, da Vinci’s love of nature helped him invent sfumato, a technique of blurring tones and colours gradually into one another to produce softened outlines and hazy forms, eventually giving us Mona Lisa’s curious smile. Another example is da Vinci’s obsessive (and illegal) dissection of cadavers – both human and animal. This gave him a deep understanding of bodies beneath the skin and enabled him to draw some of the most iconic works in human history.
Vitruvian Man [L’uomo vitruviano], c. 1490, by polymathic genius and master procrastinator, Leonardo da Vinci
These creative peregrinations across multiple disciplines became common in the Renaissance. As Issacson writes of da Vinci’s time, ‘This mixing of ideas from different disciplines became the norm as people of diverse talents intermingled’.
The importance of being an expert generalist today
Maybe we’re entering a similar age. Maybe we’re already here. A recent study by Upwork predicted freelancers to become the U.S. workforce majority within a decade, with ‘nearly 50% of millennial workers already freelancing’. Sounds crazy. But Seth Godin reminds us of something crazier:
‘100 years ago, almost no one on earth had a job… This idea that you would go to a building where a stranger would tell you what to do all day was pretty alien. Now everyone has a job! That’s a massive shift.
‘Now that we’re coming out on this other side, where the internet is changing so much of what people do. That perfect world of the 60s and 70s we grew up with, with endless industrial growth, is going away. And it’s being replaced with something that is completely impossible. Which is one guy, by himself in a room, can press one button and thousands of people around the world can support a project that lets me go build it for a year…and I didn’t have to take out anyone’s permission! That’s revolutionary.’
The biggest driver toward freelancing seems to be autonomy and independence: working when you want, where you want and how you want.
From my perspective, the great opportunity and aim of freelancing isn’t to become a hired gun to perform a single job autonomously. It’s to become more like Leonardo: a multi-interest expert generalist with a robust talent stack, combining skills and abilities to create something unique and revolutionary. Or, at the very least, being able to earn a buck in whatever ways are fashionable and marketable at the moment.
There’s a name for this: a ‘full-stack freelancer’.
Image by Tiago Forte
Coined by Tiago Forte in his article, ‘The Rise of the Full-Stack Freelancer’, the potential of becoming a full-stack freelancer lies somewhere in between salaried employment and entrepreneurship. Forte writes:
‘Formal schooling frames our career choices in stark terms: either hyperspecialize, putting all your eggs in one basket you hope and pray will be relevant for years to come; or take a gamble on self-employment, testing your resilience and risk tolerance under extreme conditions.
‘Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Full-Stack Freelancing is that it offers a middle ground, with potentially the best of both worlds. It is pragmatic, recognizing that most people are generalists who want to pursue diverse interests. But it is also aspirational, recognizing that you need the flexibility to take advantage of unexpected opportunities.
‘A Full-Stack Freelancer does not see a black-and-white world of free agents vs. wage slaves. They are more than willing to incorporate full-time employment as one item in their portfolio, temporarily or long-term, knowing that it neither defines them nor limits them. Breaking down this barrier, we see that the full stack is available to everyone. It requires only a level of engagement with technology as producers, not just consumers. More fundamentally, it requires a willingness to grow your portfolio toward toward areas of uncertainty and discomfort, instead of only toward existing strengths.’
Maybe the future belongs not to those who do one thing well, but instead to those who connect random dots like da Vinci: creating that which does not yet exist and constantly adapting to a rapidly, forever-evolving world.
If you find yourself freaking out at age 25 or 30 or 55, with your list of half-started projects and failed ideas, wondering if ‘anything was ever done’ – maybe you’re well on your way to becoming the next da Vinci.
Here’s the catch: we won’t know it for another couple hundred years or so.
An earlier version of this blogpost was posted on Medium.com on 15 August 2018, under the title, ‘Lessons from Da Vinci – The Ultimate Portfolio Careerist’.
Related CIRL resources
For a related CIRL blogpost, on what we can learn from da Vinci about the role of wonder in education, see here. That blogpost relates to a CIRL talk last year by Ian Warwick on what we can learn about learning, creativity and innovation from da Vinci, which is available on our podcast.