The Curse of the Generalist

the curse of the generalist

When I was younger, I was interested in everything and did well in all my subjects. In fact, school favours those of us who can perform well academically across both humanities and mathematics and science. I was also quite musical and played lots of instruments. I was sporty, and played lots of different sports. I was what you might call a ‘well-rounded individual’. But as I left the comfort of the education system, I soon discovered the curse of the generalist.

As someone with many interests and no clear area of focus, I struggled to know “what I want to be when I grow up”. I was okay at lots of different sports and musical instruments but not especially good at any of them. I experienced what the Germans insightfully call Torschlusspanik, the fear of closing doors, and chose a broad degree (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) for my studies. I did a masters to postpone the decision of which career to pursue. I tried to keep my options open for as long as possible.

Of course, I’m not alone. People who have broad interests and talents are labelled generalists, a ‘jack of all trades’ (and therefore a master of none). Millennials are chastised for ‘job hopping’. There is an assumption that those who don’t stick to one single career track lack focus and are scatterbrained or even lazy. But is it really better to be a specialist than a generalist?

Specialists versus generalists

From a career perspective, the advantages of being a specialist are clear. Investing those 10,000 hours to achieve mastery and develop advanced domain expertise allows you to become “so good they can’t ignore you“. And yet, today’s interconnected world and evolving job market make a generalist profile with more transferrable skills much more likely to be future-proof. And more forward-thinking companies like Google and Amazon encourage employees to move from one team or role to another, favouring a ‘smart creative‘ profile that combines technical knowledge, business expertise, and creativity.

In business, we’re constantly being told to choose our niche, do one thing really well, and become the go-to expert. On the other hand, running your own business also requires you by definition to wear a lot of different hats, have a bit of an understanding of everything, and above all be very adaptable.

Maybe ‘generalist’ isn’t even the right term. Certainly, there are many others to choose from! Barbara Sher calls us scanners, Marci Alboher slashies, and Emilie Wapnick multipotentialites. I think my personal favourite is the Renaissance man/woman that was embodied by Leonardo da Vinci – painter, sculptor, inventor, botanist, mathematician…

The curse of the generalist

So what’s the problem? What’s so bad about being good at lots of things? What is this curse of the generalist?

Well, the first obvious difficulty arises when someone asks you the dreaded question, “And what do you do?” We live in a world where we are defined by our career choices and society wants to put us in a neat box based on our job title. Not having a clearly defined scope and title makes that a very difficult question to answer. There is a lot of pressure to conform and a lot of social recognition that comes with being seen as The Expert.

More tangibly, there are implications for your job search. Recruiters and hiring managers are looking for the right person for a specific job. As one generalist I spoke to put it, job descriptions are crafted to fill a functional gap in the team. The frustration for the generalist is being met with, “You’re over-qualified,” and “We don’t know what to do with you.”

If you are lucky enough to get past the gatekeepers and end up in a specific functional role, the challenges don’t end there. As a generalist with a broad set of skills and experiences, you’re never going to be the best at any one specific thing. As a result, you’ll always feel like a bit of an imposter. And, over time, you’re likely to feel frustrated and bored as your talents and interests are not being fully utilised.

So what can you do about it?

  1. First up, let’s accept – and celebrate! – that you are what you are.
    Stop fighting it and see it as the gift it is. In her popular Tedx talk, Emilie Wapnick outlines the three superpowers of the multipotentialite: idea synthesis – your multidimensional experience allows you to find new insights at the intersection of different fields; rapid learning – you’re used to being a beginner but you’re also more likely to have a range of transferrable skills; and adaptability – you can wear many hats, pivot where needed, and respond effectively to change.
  2. Second, you need to get clear on your value proposition.
    If you aren’t clear and confident about the value that you bring, how can you ever expect to present yourself in a compelling way to a prospective employer or client? Spend some time mapping your hard and soft skills and your personality strengths, and the particular perspective that you can bring to a role. As a generalist, you’re not so much offering a specific skill set but rather yourself as a whole package, with all the experience and insight that comes with your unique background.
  3. Find the common thread.
    You may feel like you have a disparate set of experiences and expertise that you can’t possibly unite into a clear proposition. You need to elevate above the specific roles and job descriptions to find an umbrella theme. What is it that drives you? What’s your bigger purpose? What is the value and perspective that you have brought into each of your roles, however different they appeared on the surface? What is the red thread, or the golden thread, through your experiences?
  4. Never stop learning.
    One of your unique strengths as a generalist is that you have an insatiable curiosity and love of learning. This is why you’ve sought different challenges over the course of your career, and why it’s important to continue to do so. To give yourself even more of an edge, consider going deeper into one or two areas so that you become a ‘t-shaped’ professional, or what you might also call a ‘versatilist‘ or a generalising specialist.
  5. Nurture your network.
    Securing a job via the conventional process of uploading a CV and cover letter – where hundreds of applications will be filtered via an automated tracking system – is tricky at the best of times. When your profile doesn’t fit that perfect functional box, it’s even harder. This is why building your personal brand and network is so important when you have an atypical profile. Have conversations, add value where you can, and be open to unexpected and serendipitous opportunities.

Have you experienced the curse of the generalist? Are you clear on how to present yourself in a clear and compelling way? What golden thread runs through your experiences?

I look forward to hearing your perspective.

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