Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

A Terrible Modern Man – Tom Rossi

Those of you who know me or at least know some of my writings are probably wondering who I could mean when I say, “A terrible modern man.” Could it be George Bush? Dick Cheney? Newt Gingrich? No, no, no. Those are examples of terrible government officials… and maybe even terrible human beings.

No, I’m talking about myself. I don’t seem to be well adapted to life in this period. I think I would have done better in the paleolithic.

Modern life demands certain things, like that you make money. For most of us, this isn’t so easy because we have to make enough to pay rent or a mortgage, buy decent food, pay for transportation, pay for health insurance (or save up for the inevitable leg amputation after a Tiger attack), buy clothing, take care of the kids in various ways, pay for electricity and phones, etc., etc., etc.

Life in the modern world demands that a person find some niche in which to earn a living and then concentrate on that one thing to the exclusion of all else. Most Americans (like so much of the world) have an incredibly narrow, monotonous job, doing the same task, over and over. Whether it’s welding together an endless series of pieces of metal of the same shape and size, or it’s checking over insurance applications for errors, it’s SSDD – Same S***, Different Day.

There are, of course, jobs that have lots of variety, but those represent a tiny fraction of the jobs in America and they require either a lot of specific training, a special talent, or both. This in itself means developing some ability to the exclusion of other interests.

This is what I just can’t seem to do. There are jobs out there that I would love. But I’d have to pick an area to study and train – a much more narrow area than the broad studies I’ve done so far. I have this terrible fear that, once I’ve chosen and spent much effort, I’ll find out that there’s no demand for that specialty, but if I’d just chosen something a little different, I’d be fine.

This indecision is somewhat new to me since my brain got cut open by Dr. Spetzler a few years ago. He did a miraculous job, but something like that is bound to have some lasting effects.

These days, Oprah and others are always talking about “finding your true vocation,” or something like that. But I always feel like they’re talking to people who have worked for years at a very successful career and have $250,000 in the bank.

But the thing that bothers me about the modern world is that there seems to be no room for the generalist. Plenty of scientists, economists, and policy wonks have said that generalists – broadly trained in several different disciplines and capable of synthesis between and across many areas – are exactly what’s needed, now. But I see no job announcements for these (my) types. The jobs are always for someone who has drilled down in some super-specific discipline and is a stone-cold expert in something like the effects of soil calcium concentration on the growth of orange-skinned casaba melons in northwestern Zimbabwe.

That’s what you do in graduate school – drill down. Drill down because you need to do a study that can be completed in two years, all by yourself, and then write a dissertation all by yourself too.

But real life is all about teamwork. And this isn’t just my own brand of idealism… it’s a fact. I’m a great team-player, but I find it very difficult to do the solo work that might lead to the opportunity to be on a team, someday. I find it too difficult to choose because I want to be that generalist. But generalists in science and policy are only the people at the highest levels – those who have worked their way to the top of some organization like an NGO. And because the way these individuals have been successful was to be really good at something tiny and specific, they often see their new, generalist appointment from a narrow perspective that reflects the specific discipline that they know so well.

Oh well. Maybe my future is as a contestant on Jeopardy. But I just know they’re going to get me with that damn Shakespeare category.

-Tom Rossi


Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.


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One thought on “A Terrible Modern Man – Tom Rossi

  1. I’m not sure I agree with you here, Tom. I think many hirers are looking for such general talents as communication, computer literacy, morals. These are skills that can’t necessarily be taught. Perhaps it is because of the work I do and how I got the job that I feel this way.

    But I also see my students who graduate – there is a ‘type’ that walk into 2nd interviews and jobs, and those who don’t.

    Have a great day,


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