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  • Writer's pictureLihong

I am a generalist.

Note: this was written when I first created my website in Jun 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic first started and I had more time to pontificate. Since then, I've decided it's too longwinded and slightly cringey because I'm no longer at that point in my personal journey where I felt I had to legitimise who I am and what I do. So now it's just gonna be an archived blogpost for people who actually read my blog.

The world pushes us to specialise without fully exploring our potential. As a result we sometimes feel like we're in large, dark room with only a penlight - unable to appreciate the full picture. I believe there is value in being a generalist (or a neo-generalist, if you want), especially in an increasingly complex world. There are lots of ways to define neo-generalism, but Mikkelsen writes:

"It is this ability to reframe, to see problems and opportunities from multiple perspectives, to understand if not agree with different points of view, that is inherent in the neo-generalist. If you live in more than one world, you tend to see in more than one way.”― Kenneth Mikkelsen, The Neo-Generalist: Where You Go is Who You Are

A lot of times, we commit to long term challenges without really knowing why. Sometimes it's a good thing, because we learn to commit on the faith that we will make something out of it, and a lot of creative collaborations work like that. But sometimes we realise we're on a train towards someone else's destination. We have to be willing to get off that train and make a transfer if we need to, to be a beginner all over again. However we're never really starting from zero. Past experience will add to the new realities we're creating, for

“breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. That is, the more contexts in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models, and the less they rely on any particular example. Learners become better at applying their knowledge to a situation they’ve never seen before, which is the essence of creativity.” ― David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

After graduating junior college in Singapore, I listened to the collective wisdom of my milieu which told me to "keep my options open", reject an offer to study Anthropology and International Relations, and study engineering. I complied but I threw in a wild card. I traipsed off to INSA Lyon, a French engineering grande école for five years and graduated with a Diplôme d'Ingénieur in Materials Science and Engineering. I proved to myself that despite not being a Physics student beforehand, I could earn an Engineering degree in a foreign language. Mathematics was a constant struggle but unexpectedly philosophical. Learning to prove theorems required letting go of knowing what the end result was at the start. Soit x un intègre. To engage with the process in lockstep.

It wasn't all ponies and roses, though. There were many times I felt like giving up, truly. Engineering is hard, and engineering in a foreign language, while struggling with understanding your role, purpose and identity while running away from home was even harder. After graduating, I wondered what I was going to do with that engineering degree. I had worked really hard and truly enjoyed some parts of that journey -- I love understanding materials at the micro level, but probably not more than I love understanding humans -- but I felt like something was missing. I did learn a few more languages to various degrees of fluency (Spanish and Swedish), which I used to access different cultures and worlds (and continue to do so). I worked in a factory in Argentina for a spell, and spent a year in Stockholm doing lab-based final year projects where materials and sustainability intersected. But I still didn't feel like I knew where I fit in the world. And I realised I wasn't just satisfied with just applying sustainability principles to my work. I needed to delve deeper.

I decided to go back to first principles and learn to be critical about the world we engage with. I got into an MSc programme at the University College London: Environment and Sustainable Development. For the first time in my life, I studied with students who were 150% motivated. We would go to extra lectures, discuss what we learnt, what we had to unlearn, over beers at the university bars. We carried out action research​ in urban sustainability challenges in Lima, wrote bilingual policy briefs and made communication videos. Very often after a day of intense critical unpacking of socio-environmental changes through the lens of political ecology, I would have trouble falling asleep. It's easy to say on my CVs that I complemented my technical background with a critical education in sustainability. The truth is, the learning goes on long after the completion of a degree programme, and that programme only helped me put on the right pair of glasses (funny because since then I literally don't wear glasses anymore) to start to understand how everything is connected.

Coming back to Singapore, I constantly searched for ways to contribute what I could to causes I believed in. A chance meeting at a startup event led me to be a contributing member of the Young Sustainable Impact - Southeast Asiacommunity. I constantly learn from and contribute my knowledge in building sustainable systems. The most recent contribution was in the form of an education module on sustainable food systems. Right now, I am exploring where my interest in the performing arts and socio-ecological complexity may intersect. Shortly after doing a devised theatre workshop in July 2019, I co-produced a show "Nervous Laughter" in response to the climate crisis as part of a global participatory theatre movement called Climate Change Theatre Action. A few months later, during Covid-19 induced circuit breaker, I created a short film exploring my embodied experience of disconnection, a constant theme in ecological research.

Along the way, I learnt so many skills as a by-product: the basics of stage management, script writing, producing a theatre show, social media marketing, filming and directing, camera acting... it's endless. Yes, some of these are just seeds of a skill to be fleshed out and I can't possibly be good in everything. The point is, I didn't know I would learn all these before going in. I simply engaged with projects that spoke to my interests and trusted the power of voluntary collaboration. And ended up knowing a little bit more about myself, my strengths and how I want to combine my skills. That's what a neo-generalist does: do things because they haven't tried that before with the aim of learning something new, rather than follow tried and tested paths that lead to predictable and reasonably good results.

“Every polymathic generalist is, in fact, a serial specialist. Even as they become known for one thing, they are quick to demonstrate that they should be recognised for another too.” ― Kenneth Mikkelsen, The Neo-Generalist: Where You Go is Who You Are

Taking a neo-generalist approach helps me connect the dots across the various disciplines I work and learn in - engineering, sustainability, the arts, education. But it doesn't just mean superficial involvement in many fields. Discipline and focus is needed to pursue each thread with full presence in order to assimilate the new knowledge with what we already possess, to create more knowledge. It is especially hard once we're out of school because the only validation that matters comes from yourself. I am consciously switching off that internal voice that asks "Are you qualified?" when I pursue a self-curated arts education, which at first appears to be incoherent to my engineering background. Life's a constantly revised piece of work, and I'm probably only at my 3rd draft. Is there a final masterpiece? I'm not sure - any artist will say that a piece of work is never really "done". It is with this mindset that I am wandering through life with my eyes wide open.

"We learn who we are in practice, not in theory" ― David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

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