The essentialist. Do you know when you meet one?

There’s this well-known joke about generalists and specialists which says: a generalists knows a little about a lot, a specialist knows a lot about a little. The underlying message of the joke being that you can’t be both at the same time. Either you digg deep into a subject or you widen your scope. Either you try to find the essence of life by studying the particles that make up our life (say DNA or atoms or quantum particles that are present in a very particular species) or you study the universe. You can’t have both at the same time.

Really? Can’t you by studying a very specific subject discover something that says something meaningful about the way the universe works? Can’t a relationship between two employers tell you something about human behavior in general? And vice versa?

Maybe there’s a third option, one that sidesteps the opposing other two.

Maybe there’s also something like the essentialist, someone who does what both the specialist and the generalist do in their field of work and at the same time can do what either and what neither of them does.

I’ve tossed the concept up in a couple of conversations over the last few days, trying to figure out the characteristics of the people I believe to have essentialist-qualities.

This is what we came up with so far:

  • they meet their subject with curiosity and surprise,
  • they look for patterns,
  • they look for meaning in relationships, not within the subjects themselves (like intelligence not being in a person but happening in between people or a person and an object at a certain time and place),
  • they know that one thing can theoretically mean the same thing to somebody else,
  • they know it can (and more likely does) mean something different at the same time as well,
  • they have an awareness that their relationship to the subject changes both the subject and themselves,
  • they know that it’s not always about digging deeper nor being superficial,
  • they know that they don’t know,
  • they usually smile when someone says: “you’re wrong” and ask questions like “tell me more”,
  • they know they fail at all of the above from time to time and they usually don’t deny it.

Some of the essentialists I’ve ‘met’: my wife, Gregory and Nora Bateson, Milton Erickson, Anton Stellamans, Liselotte Baeijaert, Batist Vermeulen, Malcolm Gladwell, Fernando Sousa, John Maeda, Thich Nhat Hahn, Joris Bryon, Sofie ‘Lamazone’ Verhalle, Jesper H. Christiansen, <your name here>, …

Do you know an essentialist? What makes him or her stand out?

Let me know and I’ll be happy to publish your contributions in one of the next posts.


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