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Embracing Being a Jack of all Trades, Master of Some (or none!)Featured

What do you want to be when you grow up?

A seemingly innocent question when you’re in elementary school, and the possibilities are endless. I remember having a different answer whenever anyone asked - a nurse, a veterinarian, a football player! At that age, it was expected - and normal - to change your mind like the wind. But what happens when you are asked that question in high school? Or college? And you don’t have a ‘final’ answer?

I spent twenty years working as a designer for the same company (something nearly unheard of anymore). When I finally decided to move on, I looked at job descriptions and wanted to do everything. Project management. UX research. Marketing. Client Management. Customer Success. I applied to jobs across the spectrum, even though I didn’t have experience in most of those roles. I just knew I could do them and had the desire to do so.

Sooo…midlife crisis? Or something else? It took working with a career coach, and a few very involved Google searches to realize I’m a generalist. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

What is a generalist? Well, I’m sure we’ve all heard the phrase “jack of all trades is a master of none”, which has always carried a bit of a negative bias. Oxford’s English defines it as “a person competent in several different fields or activities”. I like to define it as the thread that ties things together across multiple verticals and workstreams. As David Epstein wrote in his book Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, “our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly”.

The traditional career path has normalized and emphasized specialization. I struggled with this for years - while I loved design, I often felt unsatisfied. I couldn’t put my finger on why until I realized I was not a specialist. Specialists are important, but they do not exist in a vacuum. There are many opportunities for generalists to not only co-exist but to thrive. How do you navigate this journey? How do you facilitate broad integration?

A great first step is identifying the areas where you excel and are interested. Is there a common theme? My career coach assigned this exercise to me, and it was very helpful in determining what I enjoyed more as a hobby (gardening, as I probably would not last long as a nursery owner) and what I’d love to do as part of my next job (solve complex problems). Once you narrow your career list down, look for patterns - for me, it was all about strategic thinking and ‘fixing’ things.

Once I determined what direction I wanted to focus on, it opened the door to looking for opportunities that fit what I wanted. What kind of organization or role can support the value you provide? How do you sell yourself as a solution to more than one need? How can you avoid a job where you are pigeon-holed into a very narrow scope of work and become miserable?

Startups and entrepreneurship are a great place for generalists to soar, as there is usually a need for ‘all hands on deck’. There are many opportunities for learning and doing a bit of everything while growing and developing both their skill sets and their teams.

In larger enterprise organizations, generalists can bridge the silos created by specialists. Consider the work happening separately by different departments - lack of cooperation, or even worse, communication, can result in disjointed efforts and inefficiencies. Generalists can unite those efforts through program management or operations roles while providing a valuable outside perspective.

Many generalists like diving deep - but only for a short period before pivoting to something else. Historically, constantly switching career paths was considered ‘wrong’ - you were flighty, couldn’t make up your mind, and were unreliable. Thankfully, these narratives have started to shift, and it is not only acceptable but also considered beneficial to have this type of broad - and deep - experience.

As for me, while it took a while to get there, I’ve found success as a consultant in a firm where clients' needs require constant learning and pivoting, which is both challenging and fun.

If you’re not sure if you’re a generalist or if you’d like to dig in a bit more, here are a few great resources to help you on your way:

  • Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein. This book was a life-changer for me, as it made me realize that not only was it okay to be a generalist but that I could find success in being one
  • Emilie Wapnick’s TED talk about being a multipotentialite
  • Elpha’s very own Milly Tamati started Generalist World, a community where all of us can come together for job opportunities, support, and fun

Ultimately, there is no wrong path to success as a generalist. Accept that it’s okay to be interested in many things, to pivot multiple times in your career, or not to dive deep into one subject matter. Focus on what excites you now and how your skills and breadth can help organizations succeed. Embrace your superpower as a generalist, and use it for good!

Thank you for this!
I relate to this so much. For the longest time I have felt like a failure or undirected because I don’t stick with jobs or industries for long periods of time. After many painful years of berating myself, I’ve come to learn that it’s because I am a generalist and curious about so many things. I want to learn invest in different asset classes like SMB and real estate, I want to delve into sustainability and waste reduction, I love food and events, I have a background in emergency management/disaster response but also in finance, events, and tech startup marketing. I haven’t.When looking for new opportunities, everything seems so specialized and I am still working on how to tell the story of my path so it makes sense to a recruiter. I feel as though I should be running my own company where I get to touch on all the different elements but let focused dedicated people excel in their specialization, but of course I can’t pick just one idea - I have journal filled with business ideas. I will definitely join the Generalist sub group and check out the Ted Talk! Thanks for those resources, as it would be great to meet more Janes of all Trades who are so incredibly valuable but don’t fit in the tidy box.
It is definitely hard to prioritize, especially if you have so many great ideas! Is there something you can start on right now and then roadmap the rest of your opportunities?
I love this, thank you!! I feel like I can relate! Anytime I get to specialized in anything, I almost subconsciously fight it - I believe. As if I am reluctant to give up other things entirely, have FOMO, I also like to constantly be learning. I think that I feel vulnerable if I go to deep and specialized into any one area. I dont want to be seen too niched. Because the moment that the niche is out of style, out of touch, or outdated - I will feel the same. Thanks for that book recco - I am going to check that out too!
Yes I totally relate to those feelings as well!!!
I've been off work for 8 months, and I am just finding my confidence in being strong in strategic operations / or being a "generalist". It's an incredible skillset, and the idea that we have to "know what we want to do in 5 years" or "what project we want to take on next" is a fallacy. My biggest strength is stepping into a situation of need, and figuring out a solution. I totally agree that the saying "jack of all trades and a master of none" has a negative connotation. I would even go further as to say that is a way to oppress people who don't have a specific specialty, or maybe we didn't get a specific degree or certification, so we must hold those folks (ie: generalists) back to keep the specialty degrees and certifications desirable. There is a ted-talk that I love by Emilie Wapnick, in which she coins the term multi-potentialite, where she highlights that some of the most successful business came at the intersection of different business ideas (vs. just 1) or intersection people's skillsets (vs. just 1), it can be found here: https://www.ted.com/talks/emilie_wapnick_why_some_of_us_don_t_have_one_true_calling?language=en
"My biggest strength is stepping into a situation of need, and figuring out a solution." That's a huge superpower for sure!Have you heard of generalist.world? It's a whole community of proud generalists that I just joined and love!
Yes! Emilie's talk is one I linked above! It's one of the first resources I found that helped me accept my fate lol!
That's amazing. Thank you for sharing your inspirational story.
Lucy, you are the greatest. Thank you for shining a light on generalists and for being SUCH a wonderful part of our community. I appreciate you very much.
RIght back at ya Milly!
Thanks for sharing your story Lucy."In larger enterprise organizations, generalists can bridge the silos created by specialists."This is so needed!My affirmation this week will be: "embrace your superpower as a generalist" 😎😎
Yay I love it @Catherin3!
I recently heard an excellent addition to the quote: "a jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one".I couldn't verify the origins of this last part "but oftentimes better than a master of one". Apparently, the first part of the phrase originates back to the 16th(!) century: writer Robert Greene used it in 1592 to dismiss William Shakespeare who was an actor turned playwright.
Good call out - I recall seeing this once or twice before too, we should normalize the full quote!!!
Thank you so much for this! It makes me feel seen! I was at the same company for almost 14 years and pivoted interests/roles a few times. I always worried that it caused me to seem fickle and unpredictable. However, I later heard from an executive that it wasn't seen that way at all - that he (and others) thought it was impressive how I navigated my way through the company by being vocal, opening myself up to new challenges, learning new skills, and even creating a need for a new role that hadn't existed before. But in doing that, I felt I became a "Jack-of-all-Trades, Master of None." haha! Now that I'm leaving the company, I worry that this isn't a strong selling point for all the specialized roles I see online. But it's where I'm happiest (especially as a Type 7 Enneagram!). The excitement of handling various creative tasks and figuring things out as I go helps keep work interesting! And it's just the nature of my personality - I like spontaneity, a challenge, and new adventures - at work and at home! This makes me realize I should look at my broad skillset and variety of experience as a strength and not a detriment.
@katiehogan that is awesome that your previous company saw, and appreciated, your immense value! I know that generalists can struggle with having their strengths recognized in certain situations - keep that in mind as you look for your new role and play up your strengths!
Thank you for this! I am realising more and more that I am a generalist with a number of skills that can be applied to a number of job titles. I'll be sure to check out Epstein's book.
I agree 100%. I am one of those. All the years that I worked in Corporate Tech companies, I always felt fascinated about what my next-door-cubicle neighbor was doing, and wanted to do that myself. It was product management, project management, pre-sales, sales, marketing, consulting : you name it! Even before, in school, I liked every subject I studied.Several years later, I believe that I am a successful consultant and entrepreneur primarily because of this mindset filled with curiosity and an intense desire to do something not done before. As a business owner, I do everything from lead generation to delivery. I enjoy every part of it, and I want to avoid going into a job role that only forces me to focus on a small portion of it.Therefore, my advice to the elphas: if you are a generalist, then that would mean that you would be an excellent consultant or business owner. If it's not something you are considering then you should!
I love this, I watched the TED talk by Emilie Wapnick years ago and it made me cry. I've always related heavily to the idea of being a "renaissance man" or polymath and usually introduce myself as such to people since my interests have always been varied. It's good to see more advice on being a generalist and how I can use my varied interests and skills to help the world and my career further.
Love that you introduce yourself as a polymath! That is awesome!!!
Love this! As someone who works with nonlinear paths (I'm co-founder at OwnTrail.com), it's so valuable for us to challenge this myth of a single right career path!
"the myth of a single right career path" - YES!
lol I could talk for days about this! But it's really a thing, and so many of us stress about it in silence...thanks for sharing your journey with us to spur this convo!
I feel very validated for sharing - the more I speak about it, the more I realize how many of us are out there and how unfortunate it is that we've all been pigeonholed into thinking 'one way' is the right way. And clearly you have created a whole business around it, so thank YOU!
OMG!! You get me. I love everything you wrote because I feel the exact same way!! Presently trying to pivot to something I have little experience in but KNOW I can do and be successful. Will read, watch and join all your resources. Thanks again for this enlightment!! 🙏🥰
Yay so glad to hear this @JacquelineAcuna!!!
It has taken me years to embrace that I'm a generalist and I love it! You may want to read Emilie's book "How to be everything". It digs deeper into the concept of multi-potentiality and the different types.
ohhhhh I will check it out for sure, thank you @PatriciaGestoso!
I only just recently learned that that quote is only a partial quote! It was never meant to be negative 🙂
So if anyone ever quotes it to you — just respond with the rest of the quote!
I'm so happy that the truth is finally coming out on this quote lol!!! Thank you @rebeccasnyder!
I relate to this so much! Thank you for this. I got really tired of my manager telling me I am “not good at any one thing” or “don’t have a niche” and to him, I’m like screw you, I can literally do everything. I don’t need to be an expert at a single thing. My expertise is in being able to learn many things and to do all of them.
Yes!!!!! Love that mindset!!!
This is so good. Thank you for sharing. Emilie’s Ted talk was so moving and this has inspired me on how I can present myself in interviews — why multiple topics are interesting to me.
Oh that's so great to hear!! It's a really powerful talk!