This post should serve as a warning to all the liberal arts students, management majors and weekend warriors of the world. Prepare to question your identity, remove words like ‘versatile’ from your resume, and hastily sign up for as many Learn to Code courses you can find in a single Google search.
Growing up, I was your classic ‘jack of all trades’. It was something I had inherited from my parents. They were sportsmen and women, businesspeople, teachers, performers – lifetime subscribers to the ‘try everything once’ school of thought. As a result, my siblings and I acted, danced, sung, kicked, and played our way through our childhood. As we got older, we added computer programming, filming, editing and musical expression to the mix. We ticked all the boxes. It was all we knew.
It was the same story when I left Australia to attend college in the U.S. I took classes from the majors of biology, nutrition, mathematics, programming and business. I was trying everything once, as I’d always done. Eventually I elected to focus on majoring in business, but half of my time was spent studying history, science, English and the arts. I was becoming a broadly educated B.A. major. The kind of guy who could hold a conversation with anyone about almost anything, unless we went too deep. Depth is where it starts to get a little hairy for any generalist.
When I first joined Not For Sale as an intern, my strategy for earning full-time employment was to be the yes-man. I figured having my fingers in as many pies as possible would make it difficult not to hire me. Need a report written? I’ll do it. Someone needs to speak at an event on a Saturday? Happy to. Can anyone help integrate our new CRM? Pick me. As the organization grew, I found my role becoming increasingly concentrated. I was learning more every day about business development, engaging companies around the world, and building out a greater product for partnerships. I’m glad to have found a niche that works for me, but I’m one of the lucky ones.
The change I experienced at Not For Sale is telling of a greater trend in today’s workplace. An oversupply of new graduates and an undersupply of meaningful employment is creating a classic Darwinian scenario – adapt or die (or in the case of budding employees, specialize or continue living in your parent’s spare bedroom). New graduates that studied targeted and specific degrees are walking into jobs. Those who went for a more well-rounded degree are left clutching at internships to get their foot in the door. It’s not as if there are no jobs available, it’s that the positions available are so specific you begin to wonder who in the world would qualify. I imagine the interview would go something like: “Tell me a little more about how you began to specialize in Analytics & Biddable Marketing? Or how you came to be a thought leader as an Interactive Content Program Manager in Visa Performance Solutions for Global Advanced Solutions.” I mean, what did this guy even study?
All this is not to say the handyman or woman has no place in the workplace. It’s just to say that they are on borrowed time. Generalists play an incredibly important role in the early stages of an organization’s growth, but it doesn’t stay that way forever. The life cycle of an organization looks a little like this:
Organization is born – resources, staff and time are limited. Founder brings in people who can do a little of a lot of things. Organization survives early growth period.
Organization begins to grow – resources and capital flow into the organization. Users, consumers, or whatever fuels revenue, is up. Organization hires more staff.
Organization begins to thrive – capital is no longer an issue. Organization invests in nice things like ergonomic tables, bikes racks, and specialized staff who can tailor aspects of the organization to optimize operations.
Organization gets biiiiiiig – Organization now has roles with ludicrous titles like VP of Happiness. Staff begin to voice frustrations that VP of Happiness is making them attend team building days when they just want to eat free yoghurt and do their work. Staff become less happy. VP of Happiness is fired. Finally, the generalist staff, who built the organization, struggle for belonging. They can do a little about a lot, but the organization needs specialists who can understand products and components inside and out. Generalist staff leave, alongside VP of Happiness.
It’s not just changing conditions within an organization that have the generalists shuffling awkwardly in their seats. Growing automation taking place across all industries is replacing lower skilled jobs. Customer service is largely managed by artificial intelligence, production lines are increasingly automated through robotics, and I recently hit on an executive assistant who turned out to be a computer. NPR’s Planet Money highlighted Ellie, a robot developed by the University of Southern California’s Institute of Creative Studies, who (who? that) is conducting psychological interviews with trauma victims. Using an array of sensors, Ellie draws conclusions from how patients speak and react. Regardless of the industry you’re in, there’s a growing realization that only the most highly skilled employees are likely to survive.
I guess the lesson of this post (less than three years experience and I’m dishing out life lessons to seasoned professionals), is to never stop learning. Always prioritize your professional development when setting goals for yourself at work. Exercise self-awareness as to where you stand within your organization or team, and adjust. Find something that is of interest to you, something you have a natural ability in, and do your research. Learn how it works, why it’s important, and make it a crucial piece of what your organization needs to be successful.
Save your Jack Of All Trades behavior for that all-inclusive wedding photography and cake making business you run on the weekends.