The Case For Generalization
I tend to go against the grain. If everyone, or the majority, is moving one way...I tend to go in the opposite direction. Seeing everyone moving in one direction makes me wonder what we are missing in the other. Does this always work to my advantage...maybe.
Here is a little background on me. I grew up playing sports, basketball primarily, and I can be a little competitive. This has served me well in many respects and I can see how this has led me to where I am now when I look back. If I did not win, it drove me to look for answers, for things that would give me an advantage and then I would work hard. Jumping is obviously important for basketball and I wanted to jump higher to increase my odds of victory. This led to me discovering plyometrics while in Middle School/Junior High. It also led to me learning about the body and Hans Selye's General Adaptation Syndrome. As an adult, I was even able to ask a few questions to Dr. Verkhoshansky who is the father of plyometrics.
Learning about the human body and how it functions is what inspired me to pursue Physical Therapy and later, Functional Medicine. I learned invaluable lessons while in Physical Therapy School. The specifics of Manual Therapy, the nervous system, etc. were important. However, two of the best lessons I learned were to try to disprove my hypothesis on what the problem is that the patient is dealing with and reassess after each treatment.
In science, medicine and all of healthcare, it is easy to come up with a hypothesis or an idea what the problem is. It is easier still to only look for or include information that supports that notion. This is human nature. After all, we all want to be right. But, what we should be doing is looking for information that goes against that hypothesis/notion. Then we have more information and can make a better decision on what to do. Then we can test our idea. We perform a treatment and assess what effect it has. Did the person get better? Yes, then we must be on to something at least for now. Did they get worse? Yes, then we are going in the wrong direction and we have to ask ourselves some questions. We need to know why they did not improve. Did we get all the information we needed? Did we overlook something? Do we have another idea or direction to move? We also need to ask if we need outside help.
While in Physical Therapy School, I learned about pain and the nervous system's involvement. This was fascinating to me. So much so, that I was asking professor's for more information and reading research papers, books, etc. in addition to the normal coursework. I cannot thank Dave Morrisette and Stuart Canavan enough for giving me this information. Over time, I realized that a lot of the health issues people are facing is related to the nervous system, especially the autonomic nervous system, and I needed to learn how to address those issues.
During this time of searching, I continued to research physical preparation and training like I did while growing up. I have been able to have many conversations with many smart people. They were not only talking about how to build muscle but how to improve overall performance for sports. They were looking at things from a global perspective. One of the people I talked with was Mark McLaughlin who is now with Omegawave. We have exchanged emails for years and I have learned valuable information on heart rate variability, mitochondria, muscle fiber hypertrophy and hyperplasia, etc.
Those specific topics were specialized but the overall information was generalized. During this whole process, I was not just looking at joints. I was looking at joints, muscles and nerves. Then I was looking at the nervous system and its different branches. I was also looking into the cardiac system, the involvement of heart rate variability and the different adaptations that occurred from training in different heart rate ranges. I was also looking into how to produce more mitochondria and the effect that has on health, performance and cognition. There is a great breadth of information versus focusing/specializing in only one area. This great breadth of information gave me a chance to see how all of these different areas could be integrated together.
Avoiding specialization or specializing too early, helps you to think outside the box and to look for answers in seemingly unrelated areas. This led me to becoming a Functional Medicine Practitioner. I am still going against the grain. The standard advice in Functional Medicine is to find a niche and specialize. However, i want to be a generalist. After all, our bodies do not work in a specialized way where each system functions independently of the others. Instead, it functions in a general way as a whole where each system can have an impact on the others.
I highly recommend reading the book Range by David Epstein. In the book, he gives a ton of examples of people who have excelled in sports, business, science and other areas who did not specialize or at least specialized much later than most people in their field. They were generalists. They were able to excel because of their wide ranging experiences. They were able to use skills gained from other sports to excel in a new sport. They were able to use situations from other businesses to solve problems in a new and different business.
How does this apply to Functional Medicine and improving your health? Functional Medicine is a partnership between the client and the practitioner. This gives us a chance to learn from each other. You as the client may not have the specialized information regarding biochemistry, anatomy or physiology, but you do have valuable information regarding you and your body. Also, since you do not have the above mentioned specialized information, you may have the solution or be a valuable part of finding the solution for that very reason! How can that be? The more specialized we get, the harder it is to see things from a different perspective. Often when we can't find the answer to a question it is because we cannot look at it from a different point of view. If we do happen to come to a place where we need more specialization, we can hone in on that area and/or enlist the help of a specialist.
Do we only need generalists? No. We need specialists too. Specializing does have its benefits. It helps to increase knowledge in specific and sometimes new areas. We just have to remember to integrate that new knowledge with everything else.
Earlier I asked the question does this always work to my advantage and answered maybe. I want to change that answer. That answer should be yes. It is not yes because each tangent or area I pursued was correct and helpful. It is yes because I learned valuable lessons and those experiences have shaped who I am today. One of the valuable lessons I learned was to change course when needed despite having put time, money and effort into an area. Over time I have learned to recognize this sooner rather than later. Another valuable lesson I have learned is how to think and think outside the box.