This I Believe

Victoria - Bethlehem, New Hampshire
Entered on August 10, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50
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This I Believe

Last summer I started building a cedar-strip sea kayak. I’ve never really built anything before, so this was a challenge. I have begun to acquire a new language. I can now speak about hand-planes, spoke-shaves, and beveled edges. I am by no means an expert at this point, but I have some basic skills. I can rip a strip on the table saw and know how to laminate several layers of wood together on a curved form.

I don’t intend to become an expert at boatbuilding. I just want to learn enough to make a beautiful boat. Some might say, “Jack of all trades, master of none,” and I say, “Yes!” I like being a generalist. In fact, I believe in being a generalist.

The problem with being a specialist is that it narrows the focus. As an ecology major in college, you couldn’t have dragged me to an economics or a politics class. Now I teach both, in addition to environmental science. What happened? Somewhere along the way, I heard the saying, “An expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.” At the same time, as I followed my passion for the natural world, I found that my background in ecology was not enough to understand and address the myriad problems facing the environment. And so, I turn back to the idea of being a generalist – of seeing from diverse perspectives.

In graduate school, I looked for a program that would allow me to become a generalist – that allowed me to study economics, limnology, public policy, psychology, and education all within a single degree – a rarity in academia.

In ecosystems, the generalist is better able to survive changing food supplies and climatic shifts. In my life I believe in being a generalist because it makes me more flexible, in what I say, and more importantly, in how I think. Now, when I see a logging truck stacked with trunks stripped of their branches, I no longer think only of the ecosystem that was cut apart for this bounty. I also think about global supply chains and the impacts on my neighboring towns here in New Hampshire as the mills close down. I think about my cedar-strip kayak, and whose forest that used to be. I think about the livelihoods and communities – human and otherwise – that are connected to that wood, those trees, that forest.

For me, being a generalist makes the world a richer place. I can see into its complexities. Each time I begin to learn a new language – the ecologist’s, economist’s, psychologist’s, wood worker’s- I see the world through a new lens. Different features come into focus. Not only does this broaden my perspective and make me more creative, but I find it also makes me more compassionate and better able to listen to people with views different than my own, something else in which I really believe.