Take Pride in Being a Generalist

This post was originally featured in my regular contributions to Grammar. Style. Life.

When I graduated from Michigan State University (was it REALLY two and a half years ago?!), my resume felt like a jumble of skills. I can build you a website AND write your tweets AND write instructions for using software AND build you an elaborate stage set. I have the skills to design a basic logo AND create communications strategies.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers suggests it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert (though a recent study disagrees). So how can one call themselves a specialist in something or an expert if they focus on so many different things? How do you communicate your expertise?

Take pride in being a generalist.

There’s a huge benefit to having a list of skills that are related. Particularly when going into a non-profit or a smaller company which may not have segmented out certain responsibilities, being able to say, “I can help you with your web communications AND your print” is hugely beneficial. Being “the best” can be nice, but tout your other skills as an added bonus.

Sure, the fact I can build a set is probably not relevant to most of the jobs I’ll apply to, but it can be spun as teamwork! Remind me to tell you the story of the time I built The Forge set at TechSmith.

Check out that awesome brick wall.

Check out that awesome brick wall. I knew that my minor in theater would somehow be useful.

As a generalist, you can roll with the flow and make changes easily. You can adapt to changes in company culture and structure, as well as more easily move up in the work force. Project managers have to have innate knowledge not only of how to lead a team, but also of the various skills of their team members. Being able to dynamically adjust is something all companies look for in a future employee.

The era of the specialist is over.

In 2012, Harvard Business Review published a blog about the end of the era of specialists, and the beginning of the era of the generalist.

Expertise means being closer to the bark, and less likely to see ways in which your perspective may warrant adjustment. In today’s uncertain environment, breadth of perspective trumps depth of knowledge.
—Vikram Mansharamani at HBR

Being single-minded and adept to one thing, no matter how great the knowledge is, means there is a lack of perspective and possibly an inability to come up with new solutions. Having a wealth of knowledge and various skill sets makes your chances of coming up with solutions for change much greater. Not all employers may know this off hand, but being able to communicate your value in this regard can be extraordinarily beneficial in future interviews and cover letters. You can sell yourself as a professional who draws from different backgrounds and experiences to bring fresh insight to a company or team.

One example of generalists companies are currently seeking is a “full stack developer.” It used to be commonplace that developers were great at one, two, or maybe three languages. They were segmented into front-end and back-end, knowing how to develop strictly for desktop or mobile. Now that line is blurring and companies expect their employees to be able to do it all. This may often mean the team is smaller and more focused on seeing a web product through from start to finish.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek expertise.

Just because you’ve got a large set of skills doesn’t mean you should constantly be seeking out small bits of knowledge about every last thing. Instead of being good at 100 things, try to be great at 10. Furthermore, try to be excellent at three.

When figuring out “what is it that I actually enjoy doing,” you can try out various different projects. Though this may seem counter intuitive to the idea of being a “generalist,” it doesn’t mean you should give up on having greater depths of knowledge in certain areas. You can be excellent at email campaigns, but still great at knowing how to write a press release. Don’t stop seeking knowledge in specific interest areas, as long as you maintain your other skill sets, too.

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