Last month, I had to take an important decision regarding my career path. I’ve been extremely lucky to be at the right place, at the right time, with the right people. So I’ve had the luxury to choose what I wanted to do in most of the critical junctures in my life. I never take risks. I weigh the pros and cons, take calculated steps, have a backup and then take a leap of faith. My mentors have drilled into me the importance of building a profile in the formative years. I know I should be flexible enough to have work in a diverse range of products, and also establish my credentials. It’s all about balance, depth of expertise, and breadth of experience.
I was at a crossroad, where I could choose to get into a specialization of the domain I was working in. The work seemed interesting. Given the amount of domain exposure for the past 2 years, I knew I would be able to make it work. But when I took a step back to evaluate if it would add value to my profile, I couldn’t justify the choice. I wasn’t sure if getting into a specialization so early in my career (at 7.5 years) was worth it. I wanted to utilize the generic potentials of my existing role before diving into a specialization. And that’s what I ended up doing.
Right from my childhood, I’ve always been the jack of all trades. And trust, me that’s exactly how I wanted to be. I find it restrictive to work on just one activity at a time. I like to be flexible and work on a few interests in parallel. This way there is a healthy mix of doing what I want to and if I’m not interested in something, I trade it for something else. It’s as simple as that. Sometimes there are no dots to connect, things are as random as they can be. But I don’t stress about it. Everything comes with an expiry date, even the ones we are passionate about. So I went with the flow – did things I liked and then found closure if I lost interest and moved on.
Despite being happy with what I was doing, I was constantly plagued with thoughts of getting into a specialization. Being a generalist, I could play with my options and explore newer avenues while still doing what I liked. But to be good at something and to be recognized, we have to work towards being a specialist. That’s what everyone works towards – including me. But the timing – using one’s accumulated experience and expertise to become an expert in something – makes all the difference.
I observed a few specialists around me and I admired how they built up their profile. It was inspiring to see them as a powerhouse of information and their attention to details. But one troubling aspect of these specialists, from my point of view, was how their specialization was deeply ingrained in their identities. This might actually suit them well, but considering the kind of person I am – I was sure this wouldn’t suit me.
The problem with associating everything we do with our identity is we narrow down the scope of work. For a 40-year-old, this might not be a point to worry about, but as a 30-year-old still dabbling in her world, it matters a lot! There is a sharp increase in the rapid pace at which the human race is progressing in the last few years – from inventions in food to technology. As we make room for more and more new discoveries, we need to say goodbye to some of our most valued possessions. Companies that have been around for a long time are re-branding themselves to stay relevant. People who have excelled at doing one thing all their lives are now re-skilling themselves to stay relevant. Everyone is trying to stay relevant, but I’m curious to know who finds it easier to adapt – the generalists or the specialist?
I read a quote in Mark Manson’s – The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, A Counter-Intuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. It says, “The more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid doing it.” Trust me, I have never been happier for knowingly or unknowingly choosing a path that allows me to change who I am and what I want to do. For the record, I am not saying that specialists find it difficult to stay relevant. I’m only saying that considering the kind of person I am, and the environment I’m in – being a generalist has helped me stay relevant in my field. There is never one solution that fits all, we know that. I would like to add that there is a slight advantage in not tying your identity strongly to the things that you do. It gives you the freedom to evolve, explore and shift gears without worrying about the impact it may have on your personality. But most importantly, if something threatens your identity, you will probably focus on learning how you can get better, instead of being defensive.
Though I stumbled upon the quote very recently, I could relate to it on so many levels. I’ve always been known for my varied interests and the diverse roles that I’ve taken up. That’s given me an immense sense of satisfaction. Perhaps that’s what I’m good at and that’s what I should be doing. It wasn’t a conscious choice for me to be a generalist. I did what made sense for me at each stage of my life. When I had to take a conscious decision last month, I took inspiration from the precedents I’d set earlier. I decided to go with the flow, as I’ve always done.
It’s funny when I think about it. I felt so powerful thinking that I was taking a huge decision. But it turns out that my subconscious mind was ten steps ahead of me. It had established a trend, whose footsteps my conscious mind was merely following. So much for the illusion of power!
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