As far as “jobs” go, I’m lucky to have gained experience in a number of different industries. While there is something to be said for the persistence and grit of maintaining focus on a single career objective, there’s also something very positive to be said about a life lived with a more generalist approach. I’m sure most of the people reading this are familiar with the phrase, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” Unfortunately, in many cases, when I’ve heard people use this phrase it’s been in a less than positive context. Typically it’s used to imply that the person never really took the time or, made the effort to get good at anything. But there is still good news for you, Jack. I’m here to say that there are many times when a diverse record of experience can be highly valuable.
In my humble opinion, the greatest asset a “Jack (or Jill) of all Trades” offers is not related to their knowledge of how to “do” lots of things. It’s related to their experience in dealing with many different types of people. In essence, diversity in their experience with people is their greatest asset and something you will otherwise find incredibly difficult to train for. If you’re wondering more specifically where that experience might be most beneficial, the answer is Leadership.
If you spent some time on personality or behavioural “type” theory (think Myers Briggs or DISC) you’ll start to see a pattern where certainly “types” of people can gravitate into certain careers. I know what you’re probably thinking; this is where we start to stereotype people (*gasp*), that’s correct. While everyone is unique and special (yes, I’m saying that to your inner child in a soft voice while patting them gently on their head) my experience has been that there are definite “types” of people drawn to specific work. Yes, yes… there are outliers, but for the most part it’s safe to say that the group norms and personalities of “programmers” are typically different than the norms and behaviour of nurses. They are also different than those of graphic designers who are in turn different than custodians who are also different than police officers. I’m sure you get the point. For the record, this isn’t bad news. There are clear benefits to a certain level of tribalism and the establishment of group norms. However, most organizations do not (or cannot) function with only one “type” of person under their roof. So, who is this mythical person who can relate to a variety of tribes or groups that are all trying to get stuff done? Who is going to relate to and manage all of those different personalities? Jack.
As mentioned at the beginning of the post, I consider myself “lucky” to have worked in a variety of industries. The real reward for me has not been acquiring a set of physical skills that allow me to do lots of “stuff”. The reward has been working with and building respect/empathy for an array of different personalities. Without turning this into a full retrospective of my personal work history, a few of the things I’ve done for money over the years (that I am willing to disclose in public) include cutting grass, shovelling snow, working as an assistant for an electrician, early edition financial news paperboy, busboy at the world’s longest bar, dishwasher, burger flipper, fry cook, pet hair vacuum attachment salesman, computer tutor, box folder, truck loader, frozen yogurt mixer and more… and all of that was before the end of high school! While the jobs were never glamorous and the pay was always within fifty cents of minimum wage, it was all great experience. Ask me today what I learned during those jobs and you won’t get a list of physical skills (although I’d challenge anyone here to a storage box folding contest.) Instead, I’ll point to something less tangible that still benefits me greatly, a deep respect for all kinds of work and strong sense of empathy for the people who do those jobs.
You might not think about it often, but these experiential connections are something that crop up regularly. I’ve see the way my sister nods to the coat-check girl as she drops a tip in her dish. She’s relating to the thankless work of guarding someone’s coat and personal effects since this is the way my sister made her spending money in high school. On several occasions I’ve seen my father in law go out of his way to meet the eye of the farmer who’s been selling his fresh picked corn at the market since 5:30 am, because he’s also grown up on a farm and can relate to the work and the worker. Personally, I’ll found myself in a restaurant choking down charred bottom toast with my coffee and still handing over a full tip because it’s probably not the waiters’ fault and, I know how many other people will be giving them a hard time that day. (Did I mention I waited tables as well?) As team leader for an organisation that has skilled trades people working closely with master’s degree level engineers, I find myself relating back to the experiences of working in a factory (yes, I did that for a while) and also with those engineers who need to push for timelines and accuracy. (Haven’t we all done some project management? Support group at your house, I’ll bring the cookies.) That kind of empathy and understanding doesn’t come from remembering what I made in the factory or which specific project I managed, but from my ability to relate to the people who work on the factory floor and the people who work in project management or this case, engineering. Can you see where this is going?
Organisational specialists and change agents will wax poetic about breaking down corporate silos to get the most out of people. I suggest that tearing down established organisational structures is less critical than building up internal relationships and improving empathy. We may have come full circle to stereotyping, but I suspect the people who bark the loudest at the barista who’s put an extra quarter of a sweetener in their half caff non-fat mocha-chino latte thingy have probably never had to make 500 unique beverages a day. Shout out to those companies that require new executive hires to spend time on the phone with the customer service departments, but there’s still a limit to the amount of generalist empathy you can teach a specialist. Is it practical (or safe) to send them to the shop to manufacture something? Is it a good use of their time to sweep the office corridors so they can feel the same sense of thankless invisibility as the custodial staff? I’ll speculate that is most cases, the answer is no. But, I will also propose that your generalist may have already been there and done that. As a leader, the generalist can serve as an advocate for many groups per as an influencer for positive change in world filled with many “types” of people. Yes, there will always be a much needed place for the Master of accounting, finance, change management, robotics or programming. Just make sure you recognise when you might be better served by the Master of none. Make sure you dig a little deeper into those past work experiences and personal histories before picking your ideal candidates because otherwise, you just don’t know Jack.