Does being good at everything prevent you from getting hired?
As I interview young folks about their careers, they express to me that they’re interested in everything and can’t commit to a single pursuit. Having a broad and diversified skill set, funnily enough, makes one unemployable. The trend of hirability seems to lean towards specialization, or branding yourself as a master of one specific thing in order to get work.
Branding yourself as a specialist (when you are in truth a generalist) means you are probably writing five different resumes, since you are equipped to do pretty much anything but you don’t want to confuse a potential employer. You are probably updating your Instagram account to be more in line with a singular “professional brand” and denying the fact that you are a multi-faceted human being.
Considering this problem, I spoke with my friend Jon over dinner. Jon is a software engineer at a large tech company, and he had a clear answer to my problem. “People hire for a specific skillset, and you just need to provide that specific skill. That’s what work is, doing a specific thing that a company needs. And this is how people get hired. As you progress up the corporate ladder, you gain responsibilities, and then you need to start to be a generalist.You are already good at the specific thing, and as you add to your work and start making decisions, it becomes important to have a broader skillset.”
I both agree and disagree with Jon. I think that there are clear benefits of having indivisible tangible skills, and that marketing yourself is easier when you have one clear skill (e.g. writing computer code). However! Writing computer code requires a vast skill set and knowledge in various fields. Being a software engineer means beings a researcher, a problem solver, a mathematician, and historian. In sum, the term “software engineer” is just a well-branded term for a specific kind of generalist.
Next, I spoke to my friend Mia, who is also a software engineer, but also a DIY enthusiast in all spheres. Mia sews her own clothing, makes bread from scratch, remodels her home, and does an assortment of other hobby craft pursuits. “My most recent employer told me ‘This company sees you, and all of its employees, as full people,’ and I thought that was really cool, because it is kind of exhausting to have these separate work and home personas. I’m me.” The end goal here seems to lead towards a work culture that sees its employees as complex individuals, full of conflicting interests. As an employee, this makes me feel like less of a cog in the machine and more of a, well, person.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez embraces this, with her imperfect transparency through Instagram. I found myself watching her Story Highlight Pep Talks in which she tells us “What people forget is that if we want everyday working class Americans to run for office and not these, like, robots, that we have to acknowledge and accept imperfection and growth and humanity in our government.” While specialized robot-like humans previously thrived by putting their humanity second to the tasks at hand, increased connectivity gives us a peek behind the curtain to show that we are not perfect. Realizing this gives me tremendous hope, and excites me for revolutions in how we view work and the workplace.
Many of my peers are de-facto generalists. With the wealth of informational resources available, it is very easy to learn anything and many people try to learn everything. The key to not pigeonholing yourself into being a jack-of-all-trades and master of none is to brand yourself well as a generalist. Broaden your self-describing titles to encompass all the kind of work you do so that folks better understand the value you provide. For example, my title as writer allows me to do everything that I already am interested in doing: constantly learning, experimenting, and networking. All of these activities have vague focus, but under the blanket term of writer it all comes into an easily understood context.
Get good at some things. Specialize if you need to. But know that you don’t have to put your interests aside completely in order to build your professional brand. Your passions provide genuine motivation that is irreplaceable, and in the long run the returns on trusting your gut and exploring your options are greater than ignoring your inclination towards diversification.