Why Marketing Yourself as a Generalist Will Never Work

I used to love calling myself a jack-of-all-trades. This, I thought, was a badge of honor. In my mind it signaled to others that man was I ever capable of doing EVERYTHING! Maybe it was because I started off my career in non-profits, where everyone is expected to be a bit counselor-office manager-fundraiser all rolled into one.

Or maybe it was because I simply wanted to be the go-to woman who could fix all the problems that popped up (unrealistic, I know, but hear me out).

why you can't be a generalist
why you can't be a generalist

Test and Change

I left my first job after college because it was a cyclical position and after two years in I felt like there wasn't much personal growth in store for me. Because of my competitive spirit, I needed a challenge. The last thing I wanted was to walk into a job on the first day and feel like I could do 99% of what was required. That's fun initially, but those feelings of pride quickly morph into boredom.

Over the next couple of years I picked up experience in public speaking, recruitment, external communications, social service programs, health education, volunteer management, research, teaching, international affairs, data visualization..the list goes on.

That's what your 20s are all about, right? Trying different things. Learning what you like and don't; what you're good at and not so good at.

Unfortunately I never stayed put long enough to become a specialist. I became addicted to the learning and impatient with the doing.

I was a generalist.

Applying for jobs

My resume made sense, but only to me. I can imagine now what it looked like to outsiders - a random mish-mash with no central focus. Yes, I have accomplished a lot and worked for pretty much every sector out there. But rather than streamlining, I chose to pack it all in when applying. If someone didn't have a complete picture of everything I could do, they wouldn't see the value in hiring me, I thought.

I've talked a little bit about the reasons people don't build an effective personal brand and one of those is because we're scared that when we specialize we won't attract every opportunity.

But I learned the hard way that to stand out in a crowded job market you have to define your specialty. Don't confuse specialty with expertise. For me, being specialized simply meant figuring out what I did well - better than others - and tying that to what I wanted next in my career. It also required me to narrow in on what I wanted my day-to-day job functions to look like, not just what organization I wanted to work for.

And then I got this email

As I was in the depths of writing all about why we live in a world where specialists succeed, I got a newsletter from an entrepreneur I really admire - Paul Jarvis. Won't you guess what the title of the email was? From a specifician to a generalist.

Admittedly I freaked out a little. But Paul is speaking from him position as a freelancer. In the freelance world you have to know how to do a little of a lot. (Heart rate now returning to normal...)

In the middle of his email, one paragraph stood out like gold:

"However, being a generalist only makes sense when the set of skills you’ve got work together in some way to help solve a problem..." - Paul Jarvis

Meaning = it doesn't make sense to be good at something or spend time doing it just because it's interesting to you. In your personal life, go right ahead and try it on for fit, but at work your main skills should help you do your job better. This is what makes us valuable as employees and entrepreneurs.

So what?

This gets us back to branding yourself for the position you want. You're in charge of weaving together the experiences that support the job at hand. That might (and probably won't) mean listing out everything you've done. It means speaking about how you can support a larger goal (your specialty) and why you've achieved success because of your various abilities (your skills). It takes focus and patience. It might even mean sticking around long enough to develop skills that you need in a job that otherwise isn't serving you.

Whatever you do, just keep doing! Don't get stuck thinking that a specialist means you can't specialize in more than one thing. You just need to be keenly aware of which specialist hat you want to wear right now, and wear that shit proudly.