Miyamoto Musashi on being a generalist

Miyamoto Musashi (12 March 1584 – 13 June 1645) was a swordsman, writer and philosopher. He is considered by the Japanese as one of the most admired and also feared rōnin of all time. It is said that he fought in 61 duels and never lost.

“I have trained in the way of strategy since my youth, and at the age of thirteen I fought a duel for the first time. My opponent was called Arima Kihei, a sword adept of the Shinto ryū, and I defeated him. At the age of sixteen I defeated a powerful adept who came from Tajima Province. At the age of twenty-one I went up to Kyōtō and fought duels with several adepts of the sword from famous schools, but I never lost.” — Miyamoto Musashi, Go Rin No Sho

What did Miyamoto Musashi do differently compared with his opponents that allowed him to survive?

In the final years of his life he wrote two books: The Book of Five Rings (五輪の書, Go Rin No Sho) and The Path of being on your own (獨行道, Dokkōdō). By reading these books we can find some clues on some of his secrets to surviving as a rōnin in a time when a lot of people wanted him dead.

The first section of The Book of Five Rings gives us some insight on what Miyamoto Musashi considered to be the “ground” or the fundamentals on which every samurai must rely at all times. He defines the nine fundamental principles as (Bold is mine to highlight the principles relating to not specializing):

  1. Do not think dishonestly.
  2. The Way is in training.
  3. Become acquainted with every art.
  4. Know the Ways of all professions.
  5. Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters.
  6. Develop an intuitive judgement and understanding for everything.
  7. Perceive those things which cannot be seen.
  8. Pay attention even to trifles.
  9. Do nothing which is of no use.

He makes a huge emphasis on the importance of being educated and learning, not only on what you are a specialist in (In his case sword-fighting) but in all professions and arts.

I like the story of the duel of Miyamoto Musashi against Sasaki Kojiro. In the picture below you can see the statue representing the moment before the final blow. Sasaki Kojiro is kneeling down holding his katana with a backhand grip. In front of him, Miyamoto Musashi is raising a bokken (wooden sword) above his head. According to the legend, Miyamoto crafted the wooden bokken using an oar as the raw material because he did not have a katana with him that day.

Statue of Sasaki Kojiro and Miyamoto Musashi duel at Ganryu-jima

Miyamoto Musashi was resourceful, he knew the art of woodworking well enough to allow him to craft a bokken to defeat his opponent.

Knowing how to craft wood saved his life.

Of course, he was also so good at sword-fighting that he was able to handle the bokken and beat his opponent holding a real katana. You could say that he knew a lot (More than anyone else) about sword-fighting and a little bit of many other things (Woodworking, writing, people skills and politics…)

Miyamoto Musashi is a good model that can also be applied in our modern lives:

Be extremely good at one or two things (Aim to be the best, or at least one of the best in your field), but at the same time keep an interest in learning broadly about the world.

Knowing things outside of your field of expertise will make you more creative than your peers. Ideas usually come when you mix things from different arts, sciences or disciplines.

I find people who are extremely specialized boring. They are only able to talk with you about one topic (the one they specialized in). I don’t blame them, society is forcing us to specialization, that is why we must put a conscious effort to balance against it.

Here are some ideas to fight against specialization and being a generalist:

  • Read broadly.
  • Meet people with different interests from yours.
  • Travel and hang out with people from other cultures and world-views.
  • Listen to music that you would not usually listen to.
  • Get a hobby totally unrelated to your line of work.
  • Read wikipedia following links randomly.
  • Learn languages.
  • Follow people on social networks that you would not normally do.
  • If you only exercise doing cardio, try lifting weights, if you only lift weights try running, swimming, or yoga…

Have deep knowledge of a few things that interest you deeply. Follow your curiosity to learn about as many things as possible. Find the balance between going deep into something or not that best fits you.

Specialization is for machines. To be human is to be curious about all the mysteries that we encounter in this world that we live in.

” Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.
Accept everything just the way it is.”

— Miyamoto Musashi