skill trees

4 minute read

TLDR: Generalist vs Specialist


I sometimes like to think of life as an RPG. You have an avatar - a blank slate. You start of at level 1 at most skills, and then the more time and deliberate practice you put into skills, the better you become. You ‘level up’.

Obviously the analogy isn’t entirely accurate. Video games are bounded, and life is unbounded. There is no end point. There is no ‘victory’. You often have to set the goal posts yourself. Life is also full of inequality. Not everyone starts off at level 0.

But humour me.

In RPG’s you can choose a ‘class’. You can then assign skill points in various trees. You can choose to to ‘deep’ into a skill tree. Or you can become more of a generalist, and spread those skill points around.

This brings up the question :

Is it better to master one skill or be a jack of all trades?

How do you choose which skills to develop, which trees to go down, where to put your ‘metaphorical points’. It’s a deeper question of : how do you choose to assign your time.

‘Choose your character!’ (My LOTRO Hunter Skill Tree)

tree

the min maxer

‘Min-maxing’ is the concept where you put all your points deep into one skill tree, and neglect others. You therefore become hyper-specialised at a certain skill (DPS/Tank/Healer), but at a cost. For example : the glass cannon - putting all your points into DPS (damage per second), but becoming ultra squishy.

Applying this analogy to life. The min-maxer might be the brilliant genius scientist, who has hyper specialised in physics. They’ve put all their skill points into deeply understanding physics from the ground up, and have become top 0.0001% in the world. They’ve neglected other skillsets to become hyper specialised.

Arguably this is what ‘genius’ - as Alexey Guzey writes. Focusing on a few topics and going way beyond what anyone else would devote to it.

It’s about reaching the cutting edge of humanity’s collective intelligence on a topic, and then going beyond it. Expanding the circle of collective intelligence.

The danger of the min-maxer is that they burn out, or neglect aspects of their life so much that it becomes a hindrance. (Look at all the famous artists who were unbalanced/lived short lives).

the generalist

The generalist chooses to go more superficially into multiple trees. They are not as deep as the min-maxer, but they can be better than ‘average’.

They may choose to have a basket of hobbies and interests, and devote equal time to them. They may even start many hobbies and drop them.

The danger of the generalist is that they spread themselves too thin, and therefore remain subpar at everything they do.

Which is ‘better’?

Depends on what you are optimising. For contentment/happiness/peace, arguably mastery doesn’t factor into it. You don’t need to be good at anything.

This is what the Pixar film ‘Soul’ touches on. Compare that to ‘Whiplash’ - the frantic pursuit of excellence and mastery. But that is a different discussion.

what should you do?

From a birds eye ‘humanity’ aspect : we need both generalists and specialists.

If you want to min-max : I am in awe of you. I never min-maxed in RPG’s. I was the guy who put points into all the trees.

Speaking to future me : I would argue that being a generalist but limiting the number of domains is smart.

Pick a few skills and become good at them. Especially economically - Matt Ridley advocates

Specialising as a producer, so you can diversify as a consumer

Your vocation/career should involve a level of craftsmanship and mastery. That is valuable.

As I said, the video game analogy isn’t perfect because not everyone is born with the same innate abilities. Some things come easier to you than others (this may be due to early childhood exposure/genetics/environment - it’s a vast confluence of factors).

But you should

  1. Pick a ‘class’ : Hunter/Tank/Mage. The analogy would be to pick a skill/set of skills. You can’t be ‘all the classes’. You can’t do everything. True freedom is not feasible. It involves choosing one path over another.

  2. Ideally pick something in which there is an element of mastery (you can go deep), that is intrinsically enjoyable to you, that is practically feasible ( don’t decide you want to master surfing living in rural Scotland).

  3. Deliberate practice : you can put time into it and improve. This doesn’t mean doing the same thing again and again, but training ‘smart’.

I’ve been thinking about this topic because I’ve picked up a few different skills that I’ve wanted to learn for a while. (Drums, Brazilian Ju Jitsu, Climbing).

But I’m now putting less time into other interests (Programming, Writing, Gymnastics, Guitar).

At some level they help each other. Gymnastics helps climbing. Knowing guitar helps learning drums and vice versa. But I am dangerously close to spreading myself too thin. Suddenly having so much free time has meant I wanted to tick off as many ‘bucket list’ items as I could. Probably need to drop something or accept subpar progress in some domains.

Conclusion

A reasonable approach is to treat life as a series of 5 year experiments. So for ‘5 year stretch’, you may focus on career/becoming a better whatever you do for a living. Then another 5 years, you may focus exclusively on becoming proficient at a martial arts. Then another at learning an instrument.

This is a better alternative than to try tackle several skills at once.

This post is just coming to terms that I think I’m going to have to drop learning the drums temporarily, and focus on putting points into the skill trees I’m already invested in.

Areas I should go deep in

  • Calisthenics
  • Climbing
  • Guitar

Going to abandon some of the other projects, and leave some space.


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