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6. Being a Policy Generalist
Dr. Jameson Taylor, Director of Research, South Carolina Policy Council
If you are wrestling over whether to specialize in any one field, as opposed to being a policy generalist, chances are you have already answered this question for yourself and just don’t realize it. Upon reflection, the answer will likely become clear as you consider the classes you have taken, the papers you have written, and the professional and life experiences you have obtained. Some of these choices, however, might also be just as much a result of circumstance as of preference. For instance, you took that class on Advanced Medicaid Policy, as opposed to Machiavelli, because your ex-girlfriend also had a penchant for Italian political philosophers. Thus, the more important question you should be asking is why you have already chosen the path you are on.
In my own case, it has never been necessary to ask whether I wanted to be a generalist. This certitude, however, may be unique to generalists. It seems natural to us to be interested in everything, to want to know the truth about everything, and to understand how it’ s all connected. Perhaps the more difficult challenge for the generalist is to harness this innate curiosity and turn it into a career. And that leads me to my first insight.
Insight 1: I didn’t plan any of this.
In all honesty, I never quite planned to become a policy analyst. As a true generalist, I’m not sure I could have. That being said, I knew I was interested in politics. It wasn’t as if I possessed more than a passing interest (most generalists have a passing interest in everything) in neurobiology or mechanical engineering. Although I wasn’t sure how my political interests would translate into a career, I did know what I didn’t want to do. I did not want to become an attorney. I did not want to go into politics. I did not want to teach political science.
I had figured out at least this much upon graduating from college. As an undergraduate at a small liberal arts school, I had majored in government, but taken courses in everything from philosophy to Vietnamese to playwriting. In the end, I gravitated toward the study of Middle Eastern politics. This was not, as I realized later, because I wanted to specialize in the Middle East. Rather, I was interested in how Islam had responded to the challenges of modernity, or more broadly speaking, answered for itself what philosophers call the “religion-political question.” Thus, even my attempt to focus on one geopolitical region had led to much more general, and far-reaching, interests.
Still, I was only dimly aware of these impulses upon graduation from college. After a year of doing volunteer work that had nothing to do with politics or public policy, I enrolled in the Ph.D. program in politics at the University of Dallas. My intention was not to become an expert in politics, or even to obtain a Ph.D., but simply to learn—about politics, but also philosophy, religion, literature—as much as I possibly could so as to begin to answer life’s deepest questions.
As Socrates’ example shows us, standing around asking questions all day doesn’t pay the bills. Since I was unable to market myself as a full-time philosopher and still not really interested in teaching, my job search after obtaining my “ABD” (all-but-dissertation) led me to consider working for a public policy think tank. I soon obtained a part-time position as an assistant editor; a post supplemented with a temporary job teaching history and government to junior high students.
Once the school year ended, I confirmed for myself that I didn’t really want to teach. As the summer came to a close, I obtained a full-time policy position with a small publishing house specializing in political news and analysis. While there, I wrote on a wide variety of topics, ranging from U.S.-Vietnamese trade relations to French defense spending to domestic budgetary policy.
And there I might have stayed, had it not been that this particular company suffered from the worst “corporate culture” I have ever toiled under. Thus, after less than a year, I moved to Northern Virginia to accept a position as a writer and researcher with a nonprofit focused on life and family issues.
Although my sphere of research had narrowed somewhat—I was no longer working on all things political— I was still responsible for covering a wide variety of subjects, most of which had broad ethical, religious, and cultural implications. In other words, I was still learning and writing on new and interesting topics every day.
If providence played a role in determining exactly where I was working, a common theme had begun to emerge. I excelled at quickly mastering a topic, writing a concise analysis, and then articulating how this issue was related to more basic social and political phenomena. This realization leads me to my second insight.
Insight 2: I love to learn.
I would wager most policy analysts or researchers love to learn. At bottom, a policy analyst is a problem-solver, and solving new and ever-evolving problems requires a new and ever-evolving knowledge base. The question, then, may not be so much whether you love to learn, but what kind of learning comes naturally. As a generalist, I love to learn something new every day. That is to say, there must be an element of novelty in what I am learning. This may be the result of a certain confidence, or perhaps arrogance, that the essential points of many issues can be grasped rather quickly. I intuit it is also related to a creative streak that becomes somewhat restless at the thought of settling down too long upon any one theme. In any event, this insight is very much related to another.
Insight 3: It’s all connected.
In my view, everything is connected—and connectable. This may be the chief intuition that distinguishes the generalist from the specialist. Given that everything is connected, every subject is ultimately related to every other, and, more importantly, related to someone first principle. Even if the generalist cannot articulate this principle, I would argue it is the organizing impulse in all that he does.
To understand what I mean, let’s imagine a generalist and a specialist are asked to undertake a specific research project—say, on transportation spending. Initially, both the generalist and the specialist may approach the project with the same question: what is the best way to build good roads? The specialist answers this query by digging deeper, building layer upon layer of knowledge. But the primary question—how to build good roads—remains at the center of his work. By contrast, the generalist approaches the question, and its accompanying answer, as another layer, or rather, perspective, that reflects a deeper question. This question will differ somewhat, depending upon the analyst. Does this policy further good government? Does this policy further human rights? Does this policy respect and cultivate the integrity of the person? For all practical purposes, the answer to this deeper question may also recede into the background—say, owing to time and space considerations. But even if unstated, this primary question will remain as an organizing principle.
This, of course, is not to say the specialist does not also consider these more basic questions. The difference is one of approach. The specialist brackets such questions so as to better concentrate on the subject at hand. For the generalist, these fundamental questions remain front and center, demanding at least an acknowledgement.
Above, we wondered if the generalist suffers from intellectual arrogance. The counter to this hubris is a keen awareness that no matter how much specialized knowledge he acquires, the generalist still has not answered the more basic questions underlying these other inquiries. In the face of such unanswered questions, the generalist cannot help but be distracted from the acquisition of whatever specialized knowledge may be required to finish the project at hand—say, that policy report on transportation. If given proper direction, however, such distractions can be used to great benefit. And this leads to my final insight.
Insight 4: Generalists make better leaders.
It goes without saying that every leader must possess a broad vision that inspires and captivates others. In short, every leader must be a generalist in some fashion or another. The opposite—that every generalist is a leader—is not true. In my own case, I am a reluctant leader. (But this may not be unusual for the policy analyst, as such, who prefers study and research over other pursuits.) Nevertheless, it is precisely my ability to see the big picture, to approach things as a generalist that qualifies me for the leadership positions I have taken on. As director of research for the South Carolina Policy Council, for instance, one of my primary responsibilities is ensuring that our organization provides a timely response on a wide variety of topics, all of which must ultimately be informed by our core mission. As such, the position directly draws upon my strengths as a generalist: knowledge of a wide array of issues; the ability to quickly refocus on new challenges and ideas; and a clear understanding of what projects are essential to our primary goals. This is not to say that a specialist cannot also be a good leader. But the specialist qua specialist is not equipped to lead. Rather, it is only insofar as the specialist is able to communicate—or generalize—his unique knowledge that he is able to lead and educate others.
This latter point, though, speaks to the fact that maintaining a rigid distinction between the generalist and the specialist is somewhat misleading. Especially in small organizations, you will find the same analyst acting in both capacities—perhaps specializing in one policy area but also weighing in more generally on others. Again, the difference is one of approach. Yet reflecting on why you are naturally inclined to one approach over another is vital to attaining that most specialized knowledge of all—finding what will make you happy, not only as a policy analyst, but as a person.
Jameson Taylor is director of research for the South Carolina Policy Council, where his work focuses on constitutional restructuring and free-market reform. Prior to joining the Policy Council, Taylor was director of policy and research at the J.W.P. Civitas Institute. Taylor’s work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals, including Citizen, Clements’ International Report, Faith & Reason, and The Review of Metaphysics. Taylor holds an A.B. in government from Bowdoin College and a Ph.D. in politics from the University of Dallas, where he wrote his dissertation on Karol Wojtyla’s The Acting Person. Being an astute observer of political affairs, he has taken up writing a novel on the end times. Contact him at jamesontaylor.com.
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