Trollope, Fitzgerald and Holmes for the Generalist’s Soul

I think I must be a generalist by default, because I am not stand-out good at anything in particular. Generalists cannot live forever on left-handed ‘renaissance man’ compliments, so we must become good at collecting pieces of validation about our attitude towards life (and our resistance towards specialization). Three quotes have anchored my views on being a generalist. I thought I’d share them.

The first is from Anthony Trollope’s novel, “The Prime Minister,”which I have not read, describing the character Everett Wharton:

“[He] had read much, and although he generally forgot what he read, there
were left with him from his reading certain nebulous lights, begotten by
other men’s thinking, which enabled him to talk on most subjects. It
cannot be said of him that he did much thinking for himself — but he
thought that he thought.”

You have to have a sense of humor about yourself. I see enough of Wharton in myself that I get a good laugh at myself now and then. My next quote is from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:

“And now I was going to bring back all such things into my life and become again that most limited of specialists, the “well rounded man.” This isn’t just an epigram — life is much more successfully looked at from a single window after all.”

Curiously, the metaphor of the window appears in another famous quote (though this isn’t one of my three), by an uber-specialist. The Nobel-winning biologist George Wald, quoted in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, describes his work on the biology of eye cells thus:

“…a very narrow window, through which at a distance one can see only a crack of light. As one comes closer, the view grows wider and wider until finally through this same narrow window, one is looking at the universe.”

I don’t think I’ll ever get to these windows Carraway and Wald talk about. I sort of get the see-the-world-in-a-grain-of-sand thing at an objective level, but I’d never want to study the world that way. My last quote is from Oliver Wendell Holmes, and on the face of it, it isn’t a quote about generalists. It goes:

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

Burger flipping is simple, anyone can do it. Engineering, law and medicine are not simple. They are complex and only some people can do them. But on the far end of the scale of professional success, isn’t it curious that all sorts of people become CEOs and presidents? I think of that as the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. CEOs and presidents? That’s triviality on the other side of complexity.

    BTW, putting one’s thoughts into prose so well (as you do consistently in your blog) is not an ability everyone has.

  2. Ah, c’mon Ramu; not all presidents are GWB, and not all CEOs are clueless sons-of-founders. There’s definitely a ‘simplicity on the other side of complexity’ aspect to their skills.


  3. Anthony Gonsalves says

    Venkat old chap, I would have thought you are stand-out good at back-handed compliments to yourself. ;-)

  4. Anthony Gonsalves says

    By the way, no offence meant. Just teasing.

  5. None taken. Gotta lead the cheers surreptitiously in this age of personal branding. Sorry for late show-up. Your comment got marked as spam by Lord Akismet.