On the Common 077
Questions and more questions.
Last week, I severely cut back on the amount of caffeine I drink, as I was noticing some anxiety and jitters. On my first morning with less caffeine, I got into my first-ever fender-bender.1 I plan on using this excuse with the insurance company. It’s kind of a medical condition, right?
OK, no I’m not.
The Part Where There’s an Essay: Being Bad at Something, Part I
(confession: if you’re a longtime subscriber, you’ve already read the essay below. But it’s part one of a larger bit, so I’m reprinting it for our newcomers. Feel free to scroll by — and come back next week for the next part.)
In his book What’s Wrong With The World, GK Chesterton reminds us of the value of generalists. A generalist is someone who is sort-of good at many different things. His primary example is the stay-at-home mom, who makes countless pretty-good meals, does a decent job keeping the family organized and clean, and is a decent influence in her home and community. She is not a “specialist” -- the word Chesterton uses in contrast to a generalist. A specialist would be a world-class chef or a professional home organizer or a children’s librarian. But because her efforts are divided across such a broad spectrum of abilities, the mom excels mainly at being herself and doing the things that her people need. Her good influence is narrow (she serves a small number of people) but broad (she performs a wide array of duties).
Our culture undervalues generalists.
Unfortunately, the advent of social media has brought about pressure like never before to be a specialist in a broad range of areas. The average person logs into Instagram and sees an array of delicious, healthy meals, beautifully decorated homes, children in embroidered clothing with perfect hair -- all made possible by the woman behind the camera, dressed in the latest trend, and sporting perfectly applied makeup.
What the pictures don’t say is that these images are mostly brought about by specialists! The person is excelling in that area at the expense of other areas. No one can be a specialist in that many things. It’s not possible. Your travel blogger Instagram friend, though she appears to do it all by herself, is most likely supported by a small army of specialists: a marketer, an assistant, a hairdresser, a manager, and an editor.
Beyond recognizing the false idea of the specialist-in-all-areas-of-life, let’s think about the value of the generalist. No one can do what the generalist does in his particular area of influence. While his skill set seems replaceable -- someone else could read that story to that child or show up to serve in that volunteer slot at church -- no one can do it with that particular personality, with those particular people. Even when it seems like someone else could do it, the generalist brings tremendous value just by being himself and filling the role.
What does a generalist do in a friend group or local church community? He brings the snacks for small group, not apologizing that it’s something he bought at the grocery store on the way. She supplies a meal for a person in need and is not ashamed that it’s a gift card to a local restaurant instead of a home-cooked three-course feast. She gives somebody a ride home. He shows up a kid’s birthday party and helps clean up when it’s over.
None of the things I’ve listed above are amazing. None of them show great skill or ability in a particular area. But each task brings value to the community it serves. And that is the material point -- being a generalist means you are a specialist at being where you are. You bring value to the people you’ve been planted alongside.
Furthermore, the fact that you are doing “generalist” kind of work means that you are most likely doing it with a good heart. When you willingly dive in to do something you’re not great at, you can’t possibly be doing it for the acclaim it will win you. Nobody is going to make a big deal about your store-bought snack and tell you that you should attend culinary school because you’re so good at buying snacks. You’re just showing up, bringing food, and not drawing attention to yourself. That’s good, humble service to your community.
For the Anglophiles
If you saw any news about the coronation, you might enjoy this episode of The Rest is History: Coronations: The Deep History.
I for one was extremely impressed with whatever covert operation got little Louis out of the front row and back again without being seen by the cameras. He disappeared for a while so he could blow off some steam in the middle of the two-hour ceremony. And then suddenly, he was back again. They should put that stealthy nanny in MI6.
Reads & Listens of the Week
Waiting in Faith Without Drifting Into Hardness. A tiny meditation on the falling out between Paul and Barnabas (recounted in Acts 15). “It took “time + grace” for Paul and Barnabas to get back together. The same is true in some of our stories—some of which will only be healed in heaven. Free us to wait in faith without drifting into hardness.”
Love the Place You Want to Leave. One day a few years ago it dawned on me that the popular verse “For I know the plans I have for you…” is smack dab in the middle of a passage (Jeremiah 29) where God tells Israel to seek the good of Babylon. Kind of a shocker when you’ve always associated that verse with graduations and the like.
In important bovine news: Some cows in Boone, NC helped the police apprehend a suspect. “Officers said though they had never considered cows' pivotal role in tracking down suspects, this incident opens up all kinds of questions as to the bovines’ role in crime fighting. The department thanked all parties involved, including responding officers and the heroic cows, for their assistance.”
A Few Questions for You — Is this one of the more excellent commencement addresses you’ve ever read? What do you think?
…it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing. — C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Thank you to the friend who reminded me that making it to your mid-40s without an accident is pretty good.