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IS BEING MULTI-INTERESTED AND MULT-TALENTED HURTING YOUR CAREER?

It surely can feel like it, right?

Negative experiences with being “the odd one out” may have led you to holding aspects of yourself back that don't fully fit in with your (work) environment.

Why share things about yourself that may only confuse others?

Or worse, lead them to not taking you seriously as an expert because you have worn many different hats before (and may have a few more coming)?

I know these considerations so well from myself, and I hear them a lot from clients as well.

So I can tell you that you are not alone if you feel at a disadvantage for having worn a ton of different hats instead of pursuing a very straightforward career in one particular field. Or for being a generalist in an environment that cherishes specialists above all.

It really breaks my heart to hear people – and especially badass women – talk down the width and breadth of their interests, their talents, their passions, their experiences as if it were something to apologize for.

You may think I am naive, but I really believe that being multi-interested and a generalist actually is a superpower. And I don't say that lightly.

I grew up in Germany, and if there's a country that cherishes specialists and people with straightforward career paths above all, Germany is it. I am very used to people wondering how “such a smart person” like me could “waste her talents” by going broad instead of deep.

I am used to hearing diminishing things about my ("soft") skill sets, but it still frustrates the hell out of me – and on bad days, it makes me feel defensive. That really sucks.

Maybe that's how you  feel too if, let's say, you came to tech from another industry or with a non-engineering background or if you are part of an underrepresented group in your work environment.

I am not asking you to get out there and become an obnoxious oversharer. Not at all.

But I am offering that the different experiences and perspectives you can bring to the table because you have worn many hats are added value.

True, they set you apart (further) and that's uncomfortable.

But what if it's not a problem but a good thing?

Let me know what you think!

I feel this so hard. I'm a mom looking to return to work after 5 years and am I having the hardest time finding work because I can and want to do everything. I had a full time role in a nonprofit which was the only full-time job I've ever had and I know I don't want to do that. But everything seems amazing and definitely like something I can and want to do. I just want someone to say "oh you can do this, let me hire you", because applying to jobs with no clear direction has left me stunted.
I feel you, Tamara! If I can support you with a half hour of brainstorming or coaching to help get you unstuck, feel free to get yourself on my calendar: https://micha-goebig-availability.as.me/coachingexperience No strings attached! It's my way of supporting the community. (So if someone else wants to grab a time too, go ahead!)
I came to tech after bank management and sales - soft skills central! Part of my journey was creating a program to teach others to code, it was a side project and totally volunteer. In an interview for a coding position, I was told that I should be teaching, not coding, but they'd (low-ball) give me a chance as a junior dev anyway. Nope, no thanks. I'll find a place that celebrates my multi facets instead of expecting me to be a robot.
Resonated! Being multi-talented and multi-faceted has led me to taking multiple (4) roles with two of these full time, ending up in a scenario quite similar to the hyena in this fable (https://afriprov.org/two-roads-overcame-the-hyena/) . Something an observer pointed out is that while this is great , then with pursuing these things in this (unstructured) way leads to loss of trust. I also noticed that because of the rapid context switching , I was unable to fully exploit any of these interests , which led to this hurting of my career idea. How are/did you or any other Elpha(-ite?) work with this ?
This I agree to - it’s idealistic and sounds nice, but lack of structure can be really damaging to a company in my personal experience. It also makes it unenjoyable as you’re not hitting targets - not talking sales here, just after 2 years you realize you’re just sand boxing and didn’t develop any transferable skills. I stuck it out for a good time for experience but I ultimately knew I could not long term succeed in a place that was more “celebrate your whole self” - there’s just too little aim and focus. I also didn’t see that much good come from any of it. I was able to build a cool project that gained some popularity, but not really like it did that much or helped me change my day to day job function or give me other opportunities.
I have experienced this type of difficulty as well. One thing I have found to be helpful in identifying jobs that work for someone like me that has many interests and gets bored after "perfecting" tasks. So far, some of these industries are journalism, venture capital, consulting, entrepreneurship. While I still have a hard time getting a job (such a hard time I'm convinced I'm going to have to start my own VC just to get started in it), I have to trust myself and that my skills are incredibly beneficial. Also that I belong there even though I didn't take the "straight forward path" in the finance world - which is the industry I"m in.
I agree, @alexcoxcuzzi! My experience is similar. There are a few fields that are suited extremely well for "master generalists" – for me it's mostly been corporate communications, writing, becoming my own boss.And many of these skill sets translate well into more traditional industries, even though it takes more effort and better storytelling to get the job. (Claiming otherwise would indeed be naive.)
Well I don’t think it necessarily is about whether it’s a good or bad thing, just that companies that are up to a lot of growth (or just doing well in general) need to have that focus defined - each role has to be doing something really clear to keep the cogwheels turning. It’s a business, not a explore your interests playground. I used to be the kind of person who really lamented the fact that no one celebrated the fact that I am very multi talented but I realized that was me coming from a perspective of a job should do all these things for me, when really a job is just a job - yes you spend a lot of your life there, but the functional aspect of it (which requires a focused and clearly defined job description that fits into the whole) is still ultimately what allows it to exist. The “bring out whole self to work” aspect is a bonus if they have the luxury of extra time and resources. I think it’s a healthy perspective to adopt - go to give to a job, not to look at what it can give you. It’s changed a lot over the years and most of my close friends I’ve met through my jobs. But I consider that me getting lucky, and while sure it’s nice it’s headed in that direction with more bring your whole self to work kind of idea, I ultimately would not want my work to lose the perspective of produce something of value to the world is the main focus. I want work for a company that is doing this as a priority, because I believe it will help it grow, and if it has other aspects and has ways to include my other talents, bonus. But it’s not their job to fit my whole self, and it’s also not a detriment.
After twenty years as a 'graphic designer' I finally realized I'm a polymath/generalist/etc, and it has helped me tremendously. I now realize if I'm not constantly challenged, I'm going to be bored. And I don't really care what I am doing. I'm not in tech directly - I work for a consulting firm and work on different types of engagements in the digital space, and it helps keep me engaged. But I will admit I still suffer from wanting to do more all the time, and it's a constant battle!
I am exactly this! I spent the last 9 years being diminished because of my different experiences and interests. (I posted months ago about feeling stuck.) I finally have a new role that requires ALL of my skills, expertises, and experiences! It can happen. We have to believe in our strengths and find people who value us!Onward and upward to everyone reading this in 2022!
Thanks so much for sharing this! I am so happy for you and I am rooting for all the multi-interested generalists to be respected for the immense value they bring to companies and communities.
I've found being a generalist is helpful once you have the job but getting the job? Not so much. My career is built on someone else having a whacky idea and needing someone to make it reality. That means picking up tools as needed and learning languages on the fly. Do I know assembly, VBA, C++, R, SAS, Python, SQL, even a bit of DAX? Sure! Pass a coding interview? I burst out laughing the last time someone thought I would code on the spot in an interview. Are you kidding? I always start with a Hello World from a Google search to remind my brain how a language is structured. Too many languages living up there for me to just sit down and bang out lines of code. Getting past HR or into an actual interview is nearly impossible in my field. It's getting worse now that I'm pursing a doctorate in business administration. A data scientist doing research on how to run a business and can't pass a 'leet code test? I've been considering removing that part of my education from my resume so I can make it past HR screening.
So much of this resonates! I agree I have had exposure to a number of languages but I lock up in a coding interview. That's not how my brain works - nor how I work on problems. I finally found a role in a company that seeks out generalists - because we have to wear so many hats! I also recognize that while I'm not a monster coder, I sure can spot bad design from 30K feet - so many devs are down in the minutiae - my superpower is crosslinking and finding synergies across domains, keeping people from reinventing wheels (soooo many wheels), and my generalist-jumping career makes me uniquely positioned to do just that. It's taken me decades to figure that out though!
Wow! That resonates with my life experiences so well! I have a side note though. Life (or myself?) through me from being a coder, a scientist, a project manager, to health care - which I have my own practice now btw! I'm a member of a professional association where I noticed similar trend, so I'm voicing more than my own opinion. People do that because being burnt by being bored is hurting. As soon as you perfect your current metier, you become a robot and it is not well stimulating for your mind. You become mildly bored, then bored beyond recognition and clinically depressed falling into a rabbit hole. Looking for an exit you take in something else and you are happy until you perfect it. Then, the cycle continues... One of the pre-determining conditions for this pattern is mental health. As a wellness professional, I am strongly suggesting that is a part of clinical depression landscape (yea, I know I shouldn't be diagnosing myself, but this observation is now confirmed by an official diagnosis). Mental challenge helps to deal with mental health symptoms, and when situation is not challenging anymore, depression starts hurting over again. That worked for me for so many years. In my opinion, this is not a bad exit strategy, it is actually better than being hooked on drugs or anti-depressants. But taxing it is, for sure.
Thanks for this addition, @Nutricrazy! Considering boredom/challenge and depression in this context is huge.For myself, one way I add excitement and always-keep-learning to my life on a regular basis is that I allow myself to change gym/exercise routine as often as I like. This way I may not become a master at anything I do for a year or two, but it offers a great challenge to get into something new, it makes me feel good about myself that I can do that (I exercise a lot, so I usually pick up new things quickly), and it never gets boring. Sometimes I am jealous of the people who devote a lot of time to one discipline, but I've just learned that it wouldn't serve me.Being inconsistent with interests and hobbies allows me to stay a lot more consistent with my work.
I appreciate you sharing this! I totally agree it is a good thing, but it has to be directed into industries or business types conducive to it. I still struggle with my resume "being all over the place" and generalist. Even when people in the startup and finance world (the industries I'm in) know that I'm an ideal candidate for early startups and am clearly a high performer. Unfortunately I don't have any solutions to this problem, but I know I'll be continuing to pursue what I think is best for me and my career. Even if it means starting my own business so I can have a job I love.
I definitely have felt this and it’s tough! Now that I have a couple of job experience within the same job function, I have removed everything on my resume & LinkedIn that does not related directly to my “main” profession / day job. I decided to do this because during interviews because people were focusing on experience that wasn’t relevant to the job I was interviewing for. They would ask why I switched careers / fields like 4 years back and I felt it was irrelevant now that I have 3-4 years experience in this one field.I have separate social personas for my other passions (Instagram and a blog). I’m interested to see if others have tips about this.
I hear you on that one, and I feel it can be helpful to separate. I did it for a while – writing under a pen name, for instance – just because I felt I would have to explain too much if I did it under my name. Nowadays, I feel more comfortable saying "this is all part of me", but getting there was a journey for sure – including me becoming my own boss, which is not the right decision for everybody, of course.
I found in interviews around security and privacy, risk, and functions like pm, pgm, privacy and security engineer, and quant ux where being saying I wear many hats has been a huge asset to the team. Hth!
There's a phenomenal book out there that specifically talks about this issue - Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein. If you haven't read it, I strongly recommend doing so.I've always been more of a generalist than a specialist because I have uncontrollable curiosity about too many things to stay deep down focused on any one thing for long. I still dive deep into things that really catch my fancy (AWS Cloud, Chaos Engineering, Change Management, etc), which makes me more of a caterpillar-shaped person than a T, I, M, or X-shaped person as is talked about in project management and agile processes.This does pose challenges at times, because people don't always understand or believe that you can have both breadth and depth, and that the breadth plays well and builds up the depth. But I have found with my current employer at least that they appreciate my range and are allowing me to shape new opportunities based upon it. Which is brilliant!That said, I fully expect I will face challenges during the interview process if I ever decide to change companies, because I will want opportunities like what I currently have at my company, and if I am asked to do a leetcode exercise I will just laugh (as someone else mentioned doing). What has worked in my current company to establish the value I bring as a generalist is to help others see the connections that I see, and to help mentor others in expanding their perspectives as a result. Once you've helped people see that as a superpower, the sky really is the limit!
I LOVE LOVE LOVE this book! I recommend it quite often and I've send copies of it to clients who are struggling with their self-worth as a generalist. It's so worth the read.Thanks for sharing your experiences too! <3
I appreciate this so much! A couple of years back when I was in between careers, trying to figure out if all was lost for me because I'd followed a non-traditional path in my career (trained pastry cook studying social sciences and working in finance) I stumbled on this video which made me feel like it was okay to switch industries and for passions/interests to change. It's a TED Talk by Emilie Wapnick on being a "multipotentialite". Sharing it here since I think it might resonate! https://www.ted.com/talks/emilie_wapnick_why_some_of_us_don_t_have_one_true_calling?language=en
Thanks for sharing this! I'll check it out asap.Another person who has talked a lot about this is Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat Prey Love. She's a one-passion person and used to give a lot of "find your one thing" talks until she got feedback from a listener who felt devastated after the talk because she was in her mid-30s and hadn't the one passion. Elizabeth Gilbert took this to heart and changed gears. This is her new approach: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWPRGIIWrxg
Thank you so much, Micha! I'll look into it. Also happy New Year!
Happy New Year to you too!
This TED talk made me feel seen and understood and not alone! It may have just changed my life. Thank you, Josefina!
This made me so happy to hear! I felt the same way after I watched it.
Could not relate to this more! Did you write this about me? I spent many years trying to morph my multi-talented, multi-interested brain into a box someone else made for me. I never could fit into the box and it resulted in nothing but unhappiness. I am insatiably curious, always looking for a challenge, and feel deeply committed to understanding and elevating the best of humanity for the good of all.I'm always asking questions like "why?" and "how?" When job descriptions say "we're a machine learning company..." I think fine–but tell me why that's the solution? "Or we help businesses thrive..." ok, but for whom? How are you making things better for the people who need the most help, and how is that narrative reflected in your business model? These all seem like obvious and important questions to me, but most of my questions get met with blank stares. I'm so tired of feeling like my superpowers are misunderstood or actively ignored.
So frustrating!! I am glad that you nevertheless KNOW that your way of thinking is a superpower. If you ever feel like talking through this, let me know and we'll set up a time.
Being a generalist is a very good thing, just not in traditional ("") work environments. It brings multiple perspectives that in theory should be valued.
I also totally empathize. I think my issues are (1) I like taking the initiative and will jump in on any issues -- have a hard time saying no (2) I'm able to figure things out and (3) I have a pretty wide range of interests & it's hard for me to narrow down. As a result, I've tended to stay in this generalist role. I agree with @tamaramitchell that when I look at roles, everything seems amazing and something I can do! I do feel like sometimes people CAN make a career out of being a generalist -- perhaps at earlier stages where you need people who are scrappy and can figure it out. It's harder to be a generalist once a company gets larger, b/c naturally they will hire more specialists to focus on narrow things.
In a world that is becoming increasingly complex and changing faster than we can comprehend, I believe that generalists and transferrable skills will become more valued than they've been in the past. But we also need people who can pivot - who can hop from one project to another, bringing skills, experiences, and passion along with a deep understanding of an organization's culture and context to the table. If we have to fire and hire specialists all the time because priorities and needs are constantly changing, I worry we'll find ourselves in a never-ending state of collective anxiety.
So much yes. I am naturally curious and also like to understand how everything fits together, so while I have a ton of project management and ops experience, I also have broad experience and a solid understanding of development, design, UX, etc. I'm genuinely interested and often take courses and feel like this makes me much more versatile.I've been trying to break into an innovation or product management role... but I don't have the specialized, linear career path that it seems hiring managers are looking for.
If you are up for it, I'd love to gift you a half-hour session to workshop your narrative and let's see what we can come up with that may attract more interest from hiring managers: https://micha-goebig-availability.as.me/coachingexperience
Thank you for sharing this! I have struggled with the fact that I'm interested in so many things and I don't necessarily want to specialize, both in life and in career. I like the variety this approach brings, but in the age of experts, it feels like there's nowhere that I "fit in". I actually find that I admire people with a diverse work history and life experience. I think it's what makes us interesting and there's so much value in that diversity.
The issue is when people have a lot of varied experience it can cause a lot of noise in the hiring process. If it's not clear you have the experience to do the job- because the hiring team has to weed out what's not directly relevant, you'll get rejected. Diverse experience and interests are amazing, but how you tell the story about it needs to be focused and direct.
You are spot on with this topic! Maybe it’s because it’s me you’re talking to and I definitely feel disappointed by those what seem to be facts and being underrepresented doesn’t help. Thanks for the encouragement as I go from banking to wellness to Ed tech to recruitment and now UX Design 😉 But I am more valuable, wise, and eager than ever! I would want someone like me on their team any day!
I can totally relate. I studied physiology, worked in the bank for a while, came into data analysis and trying to find my way in financial analysis. But there’s so much more I can do. Sometimes it feels like with everything I have to offer, no one is interested. But then I pick myself and encourage myself
*I* couldn't agree more that having a range of knowledge & skills is a great asset as an employer. I think teams are often better if the employees have diverse backgrounds and experiences. The ability to be flexible and wear many hats is very advantageous. *I* agree. But we need more employers to agree too. If you are reading this post and are in a position of hiring power at your company, I hope you will choose to be open to prospective employees who have broad knowledge, skills, and experiences.
Wow, this resonated with me so much. I spent three years at a company where I was super lucky to grow my career BECAUSE I was able to wear a lot of hats and try out different projects/roles. Sadly when I'm applying to new roles, it does feel difficult to narrow down my experience.. or explain to recruiters that it's not that I'm undecided (which, I am, in a way), it's that I'm truly a passionate person and I can succeed in a variety of roles! Right now, I am trying to be more precise, but when I land a role, I'm determined to help others explore and be flexible like I got to be.