by Matthew Marichiba
In an earlier post I asked if you were a proud generalist and made the case that generalists bring specific superpowers to their workplaces. Now let's look at some of the career perils that generalists can face.
As the moniker suggests, we generalists often don't fit into one tidy role. This can feel like a career liability. One-track teams might not understand your value on the surface: "So you're not the best dodger. Or thrower. Why should we pick you for the dodgeball team?" Or, your management doesn't know what direction to promote you: "So you're saying you want your next position to be less senior and in a totally different department?"
For me personally, my generalist tendencies carry an emotional toll. It gets lonely if you consistently feel like an outsider, never 100% matched to any particular role.
In this post I describe some career tar pits that I've gotten stuck in, in the hope that you might recognize them sooner, or better yet, avoid them altogether. Can you identify with any of these scenarios in your career?
Recruiters don't get you
In my experience, recruiters are not too creative in seeing how your diverse background could be a win for the position they're hiring for. They have a square hole, and you have beautiful rounded edges. That's their loss.
Maybe the interviews in your life follow my typical scenario:
Recruiter: "I need a full-stack engineer…"
My insecure brain: "OK, I'm full-ish stack, maybe that counts"
Recruiter: "...with deep knowledge in Greenhouse Gas Inventorying..."
My brain: "Well that narrows the field. How deep is 'deep'?"
Recruiter: "...and 10 years experience with ECMAScript 2017"
My brain: "Is that even possible?"
My advice is to prepare yourself for repeat let-down with recruiters, and psych yourself up to escape feeling inadequate. Look at it this way, if a given position really needs one specific skill, and only that skill, it's probably not a good fit for you anyway. For those opportunities with broad needs, find ways sell your value as a generalist, backed up by evidence of how you saved the day with your generalist superpowers.
Beware the jobs you create for yourself
As a resident generalist, you are a natural fit to be the first person assigned to do that new thing that needs doing. There's a hitch. After you do the job once, there's momentum for you to keep doing it. That's fine, unless you don't actually want that job.
There's no magic here. You just have to stay conscious about the places your work meanders to. Check in with yourself periodically to assess whether the job you have is the job you want.
This one in particular stings for me. My own career took a 5-year detour through the world of technical writing, technical training, and management of those teams. What started as a fun side-project to write up a technical specification turned into years of a career I didn't actually want. You live, you learn.
You don't feel like the best at anything
As a kid, I fantasized about being the world's best at something. I would build the best motorcycle and be famous for (no joke) my ESP mind powers. Later in college, I imagined wielding my engineering degree with ninja-like prowess, being the smartest geek in my field. Fast forward 20 years, and guess what? That never happened. Instead of having one career, I've had four or five. I've never attained blackbelt mastery in any field, not even ESP mind powers. These days, I'm at total peace with never being the smartest guy in the room.
As a proud generalist, you probably won't stay at the bleeding edge of any specialized field. But that doesn't mean that you never speak from a place of expertise. To the contrary, as a resident generalist, you might be expected to speak with authority across a variety of subjects. The more I recognize my talents as a generalist, the more I realize that being smartest doesn't equate to being the most valuable.
Not attaining full technical mastery in your profession can be a letdown, especially if you come from a culture that values being the best. For your sanity and self-worth, I suggest consciously recalibrating your values. Recognize the realms where you are a ninja, such as your generalist superpowers.
You will be pulled toward management
There's a word for people who think across all functions of a team, have good communication skills, manage projects effectively, and can pick up a shovel where needed. It's called a "Manager".
If you are a proud generalist with a can-do attitude, sooner or later someone is going to ask you to be a manager. If that's cool by you, then go with it! But if you don't want to veer toward management, beware! You may have to check-in with your career path and correct course frequently to make sure you stay in an individual-contributor role.
There is hope!
None of these perils is particularly hard to cope with. Knowing is half the battle, as GI Joe would say. Periodic reflection on where your work has taken you can make the difference between feeling empowered as a generalist, or feeling restless and out of place.
Finding the right workplace helps a lot. One thing I love about productOps is our explicit recognition of generalist virtues. Four years in, it's nice to have found a tribe that values me as a generalist and empowers me to bring my full, weird, broad toolkit to the table.
May you never spend five years doing a job you created but didn't want!