This week my friend and I did a vulnerable thing – we swapped recordings of one another’s singing voices. It was both fun and scary, because our voices were so different – she has a beautiful, sweet and clear pop/folk voice, and I have a voice that in the pop-range sounds like an over-earnest bespectacled twelve-year old choir girl. However, when I sing opera it’s transformed into a beautiful, pure spinning thing.
I was in a critical mood, though, and I was frustrated with my singing voice for being neither soprano nor alto, neither high nor low. I’m a mezzo-soprano, mezzo meaning ‘middle’ and sounding like ‘messy’, both of which I feel.
In our culture, we are accustomed to disdaining the middle. The words ‘average’ and ‘mediocre’ sound insulting – we like the top, and even the bottom; we like the extremes, the specialisms. In this world, we believe we have to be the ‘expert’ to succeed – which means that we have to know a lot about one thing.
I am feeling this tension already with my boy. Whenever he takes up a hobby, there is a temptation to attribute that hobby to his future career. He takes up ballet: ‘Hey, you could be that local boy who won a place to the royal ballet!’ If he later takes up an instrument, ‘Hey, you could be a concert pianist!’ It’s good for him to have role models, but there’s a temptation as a parent to attach too much importance or identity to transitory hobbies. (Did I mention that he’s four years’ old?).
The likelihood is that he will be neither a concert pianist nor a professional ballet dancer, but, like most people, he will be good at a number of things and then choose a career, or a number of careers, that surprise us both.
Today I want to celebrate the generalists, those who feel torn because they are good at a number of things. People will tell you that you need to specialise, pick an area and become an expert in that one area. I want to challenge that assertion.
- Why not be a semi-expert in lots of different areas?
- Why not be the person who knows a fair amount about many different things?
- Why not be the person who stitches together a quilt of varying talents and skills?
This world needs experts, but it also needs generalists, those people in the middle who have a little of this, a little of that. There is a very good argument that our present medical system is flawed because the doctors are nearly all specialists. If you have something wrong with your heart, you see a cardiologist; if you have cancer, you see an oncologist; if there’s something wrong with your nervous system you see a neurologist. So far, so good.
But what if you have a multi-system disorder, like M.E.? What if a disease is autoimmune, and neurological, and possibly viral in nature? What if you have more than two or three illnesses, which may or may not connected? Everyone in the M.E. community knows the importance of someone who can see the patient as a whole, and not just focus on the body part they have a special interest in. We badly need a few more excellent generalists.
So if you also feel torn in different directions, or if you’re good at a few things but not outstanding in one, be heartened.
This is a call to mediocre generalists everywhere: the world needs you.
So often I get frustrated with myself for not knowing what to concentrate on, and feeling like I’m not doing any one thing as well as others in the field. I get tempted to be critical on myself for being semi-good at opera singing, semi-good at writing, semi-good at editing, semi-good at coaching, semi-good at Bible teaching, semi-good at public speaking, semi-good at parenting, semi-good at counselling, semi-good at campaigning.
But when I asked my friend what she thought about my singing voice, she said this: “You have an amazing range.” While I had been berating myself for being neither high nor low, she had seen my strength: I am both.
Today I want to celebrate being ‘mezzo’:
- Let’s reframe ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ as ‘multitalented.’
- Let’s reframe ‘can’t settle on one thing’ as ‘eclectic interests’.
- Let’s reframe ‘not an expert’ as ‘sees the whole picture’.
- Let’s reframe ‘neither one nor the other’ as ‘both’.
I’m owning who I am: mezzo, and proud of it.
Over to you:
Are a specialist or a generalist? How do you feel about it?
To what extent do you think society values the generalists and the middle-of-the-road?