You are more than your job: a toast to the generalist

This is the season of inaugurations and internships, with the class of 2014 college grads starting a new chapter in life in a recovering yet still challenging job market, and with students beginning a summer of exploring what to do beyond school lives. Whether it’s a full-time job or an internship, the experience is as much about learning the knowledge and skills as it is about self discovery.

I recently met a white, middle-aged American, who is highly fluent in Mandarin and successful running a center whose work requires fluency in East Asian cultures and languages. With an impressive list of life experiences under his belt, he was obviously happy with his life and career. When asked how he got to this point in life, he insisted it was pure “dumb luck” because he couldn’t have foreseen the many opportunities related to his interests when he was a young man. I can relate to that. I am more confident and content with my work life than ever before, having finally found my ways of relating and contributing to the world around me. I wish I could say this was all by design, when in fact for the first decade in this country my life was defined by heartbreaks and headaches. As a liberal arts major and a generalist with broad interests, I was not as readily employable as those with technical background such as IT and engineering, so I struggled for a long time to find my footing.

From a practical perspective, it seems unwise for an immigrant, who already faces many challenges to insist on finding one’s niche without caving in to pragmatic concerns, but I am glad I didn’t follow a linear career path, nor did I try to be anything but myself. And I am grateful to have a supportive spouse. This is not to say that those who are specialists are not following their passion. Plenty do. But I personally know many highly-educated immigrants, who chose to settle for a living rather than pursuing their dreams. Our society is organized around highly specialized professions and values people with “hard skills” far more than generalists because specialists can hit the ground running quickly and we understand their value much better. With the soaring costs of higher education, liberal arts colleges that do not offer specialized career training or good job connections can be a tough sell to pragmatic parents.

Generalists, on the other hand, are routinely misunderstood by families and under-valued by society. We tend to struggle early in career because we are trained for life, not jobs or careers. Our broad interests do not fit neatly into the prescribed professional boxes, and many jobs and careers that suit us have not been invented yet or are at the top of the food chain that may take a couple of decades to reach. But once we reach that point, our broad skill sets and life experiences become tremendous assets that allow us to really take off and soar. Not only will our success come sweeter, but what we have learned along the way from seemingly unrelated and unexpected digressions add up to a rich experience and an interesting life. Of course, being a generalist or a specialist is not set for life.

Generally speaking, the higher up you go in any organizations, the more of a generalist you need to be, and the more soft skills you will need. It helps to have unwavering faith in yourself and a belief that everything you do has its purpose in the large scheme of things in preparing or revealing the fabulous person you are.

Technological advances and globalization make what we are trained for at schools obsolete at a faster pace than ever before. As we live longer, more people are starting new careers beyond mid-life just as the Millennials are taking longer to settle down in life or career. Ironically, as the professional fields become ever more specialized these days, people with interdisciplinary skills are in growing demand as they make better leaders, innovators, and problem solvers in a complex and fast-changing world. Our antiquated hiring practice just hasn’t caught up with this new norm yet.

Allowing young people the time to explore is one of the best graduation gifts we can give them because they should invent the jobs that suit them, not merely filling what’s out there. To the interns and graduates—happy exploring!

Lily Qi can be reached at qulturematters@gmail.com or via her blog site at www.qulturematters.com.

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