The Lost Art of Generalism: Becoming a Balanced Man in a Lopsided World

Arena Men,

Generalist. Huh? 

It was a pleasure to interview Morgan Snyder on the Men in the Arena Podcast. Morgan works on the executive leadership team of John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart and is the author of Becoming a King: The Path to Restoring the Heart of Man. Interviewing many authors every year, I have learned how to read a book quickly, but Morgan’s chapter on becoming a Generalist stopped me in my tracks. I read it slowly, methodically, taking notes all the way. 

Spiritually speaking, I’m still not clear about Morgan’s point, but I was deeply convicted about one thing: I need to improve myself. 

Just a Carpenter?

We recently purchased a small home with three outbuildings on an acre in an unincorporated town near Nowhere, Oregon. Built for loggers circa 1930, then moved to town when the logging camp shut down, there is always a project at our quaint home-away-from-home.

Confession. I am ill-equipped for the job, and it is my own fault. Being your typical American college graduate, educated in a specific field and dwelling in suburbia, I have very few useful skills that don’t include a computer or cell phone. Lately, I have been praying that God would give me the gift of fixing things. Truth.

Mark 6:3 records Jesus’ adversaries saying something vital for the Generalist: “They scoffed, ‘He’s just a carpenter!’”

Yes, Jesus had earthly skills beyond being Savior of the World.

Iroquois Tribe School of Generalism

We’re not so unlike Colonial American leaders who wanted to “help” the Iroquois Indians by educating their young men in college. The appointed Indian representative for the Confederation for the Iroquois tribe responded: 

“Our ideas of this kind of education are not the same as yours. Several of our young people were formerly brought up at the colleges of the northern provinces; they were instructed in all your sciences; but, when they came back to us, they were bad runners, ignorant of every means of living in the woods, unable to bear either cold or hunger, knew neither how to build a cabin, take a deer, or kill an enemy, spoke our language imperfectly, were, therefore, neither fit for hunters, warriors, not counselors; they were totally good for nothing. To show our grateful sense of it, if the gentlemen of Virginia will send us a dozen of their sons, we will take great care of their education, instruct them in all we know, and make men of them.”


Conquer Frontiers

Things haven’t changed much since then. Universities educate our children in the way of books and computers but neglect training them in the art of everything else. Thus, they are soft, weak, and powerless to survive without technology. A Generalist is a jack of all trades, and we must train ourselves (and those we love) to be the same—men and women who are skilled in many frontiers.

Snyder writes, “Men were made to come through. To rise to the occasion. They were made to engage, to act…To become a generalist is to cultivate the craft of pursuing intimate, tactile knowing of a little bit about a lot of things.”

Every man I know is good at several things and not so good at others. We all have a frontier to conquer. I can study the Bible, write, talk, and relate well to others. I can hunt, kill, process games, and cook. I can lift things, do yard work, and use a two-stroke engine. 

But do not expect me to fix a car, work with wood, or metal, or fix almost anything. These are frontiers I have yet to cross. But have begun my Generalist journey. 

What frontiers do you need to cross on your way to Generalism? 

Eat Fast, Talk Fast, Work Fast and…DO THIS!

My grandpa Ramos was one of my heroes. Not educated past 8th-grade, he provided for his Portuguese-speaking parents who were in too poor-in-health to work. He taught himself Calculus, owned a successful construction business, was a leader in his church, knew the ins and outs of his dairy farm, and was good at almost anything.

He was a Generalist.

Grandpa emphatically encouraged me that “real” men, “Eat fast, talk fast, work fast, and carry a pocketknife.” I took his advice but have since sifted the truths of his statement from untruths.

The pocketknife, however, is one truth I have carried with me for decades. Here is why. It has become symbolic of a man’s journey toward Generalism, and, in a way, becoming more like Jesus.

I love how Snyder put it, “A knife can become a physical expression of this spiritual reality. It’s not as much about the knife as it is about what comes through the knife when it is wielded as strength in love. When you pull it out, it’s as if you were saying, ‘I may not have the answer to the question at hand, but I am here. I choose to show up, to risk, to engage for a greater good.’”

Grow as a Generalist

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Conquering My Lost Frontier (with God’s Help),