My thoughts on being a multi-disciplinary generalist.
You’ve heard the expression. “Jack-of-all-trades, master of none.” Countless online experts and traditional career advice tells us to specialize. To find our niche. I always struggled when developing my business, because the truth is that isn’t me. It’s not how my mind works.
I’m curious. I want to know a little bit about everything. I dive into anything that piques my interest and try to learn as much as I can. While this sounds great, it’s not how most of society expects me to function. My brain compartmentalizes differently. I seek connections and parallels between things. I seek the constant challenge and stimulation of new tasks. This is how I’m wired.
On a more positive note, I’ve heard people like myself described as unicorns. The most desired, but rare, breed of employee. So do unicorns exist? Is this difference a good thing?
It took years for me to embrace my weird brain and see the positives. And there are positives. A few I’ve discovered:
- Collaboration. When working on teams, having a basic knowledge of what others do improves communication and understanding
- Job security. The world is changing, and having multiple skill sets makes you an asset to organizations. Sadly, layoffs happen. Team members that can cover other roles during a major shift are often retained longer.
- Flexibility. The ability to pivot is a gift. When my kids were young, I made the decision to be a work-from-home parent. Part-time hours as a business owner can be rough. Being able to do many things for just a few clients meant I didn’t need to spend hours marketing myself.
- Innovation. Experience in many disciplines can provide insight into how the methods of one can work well for another. Some of the world’s most famous creators and inventors worked in multiple disciplines: Leonardo Da Vinci, Nikola Tesla, Benjamin Franklin, Maya Angelou, Galileo Galilei, Hedy Lamarr, and Jim Henson to name a few.
- You have to know when to say “when.” This is where that Jack-of-all-trades figure of speech comes into play. I’ve always been fairly good at this, but not everyone is. It’s important to recognize when you need to do more research or consult a specialist.
- It can be bad for your profession. This is the one that makes me feel guilty. Increasingly, there is an expectation that all marketers be graphic designers and vice-versa. Even worse are the job postings looking for someone with graphic design, public relations, and marketing experience — must know some PHP, C/C++ and be willing to act as a receptionist. For under $40K a year.
- The lure of multitasking. This one gets me every time. It’s tempting to want to do two things at once. Research shows it’s a productivity killer, and it’s something I’m slowly learning to avoid. I’m finding a better approach is to automate what I can. This is why my new best bud is my robot vacuum.
Other terms for generalists exist. We’ve been called Jack-of-all-trades, polymaths, and multi-disciplinarians. I’m partial to the word coined by Emily Wapnick in her book How to Be Everything. She calls us “multipotentialites,” something I feel far more drawn to than polymath (it makes me think of arithmetic, which is one topic that is not my jam).
The labels don’t really matter, but they do illustrate the different ways our society has viewed generalists over time. During the Renaissance, studying multiple disciplines was embraced. Now, in an era where the internet means we face international competition, we are advised to show the world how we are different. We’re told to find the one thing we are really good at and become the best in our field.
Side note: I’ll admit, I haven’t finished Wapnick’s book. Or another book on the topic, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein. I have started both… I’m far too busy learning web design, crocheting cat toys, and attempting yoga. Finishing a non-fiction book (especially on a single topic) before the library wants it back is tough for me. If you have the time, Wapnick’s TED Talk is well worth watching.
Generalists in Public Relations
In my newfound industry, generalist isn’t a dirty word. I’ve been warned by some not to be pigeon-holed into one role early on. The nature of PR means knowledge of multiple disciplines is required for the work we do. Sociology, psychology, communications, graphic design, UX, political science, and business can all play a role. Many practitioners I’ve met do have ADHD, and do well in spite of (and some might argue because of) it.
While specialists do exist in PR, many professionals practice more broadly. The industry itself has so many different aspects. Media relations, crisis and issues management, integrated marketing communications and communications research can all exist in one job title. It’s also a discipline that can be used in many different industries, from politics to 3D printing.
Side note #2: if you are reading this and just realized you have a brain like mine, consider PR as a career. This is where I found my people and really felt like I fit. The Public Relations Diploma at MacEwan University was a fantastic way to get practical knowledge and experience. It’s an eight-month program that transfers previous post-secondary credits to make up the first year of programming. Why? Because in PR knowledge of other disciplines is valuable — making it perfect for multipotentialites.
I’m not sure if unicorns exist, or if I’m one of them. There are ups and downs to both ways of doing things. I’m hopeful that for small businesses and nonprofits, having a one-person one-stop shop is something that helps them meet their goals. Maybe even in ways that may not have been possible for them without me. For now, I’ve decided to embrace my role as a generalist, and hope that my clients continue to as well. I appreciate the trust they place in me. It’s certainly improved my confidence as someone with a brain that is just a tiny bit different.