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!