Here's to the Generalists

In the midst of a society that needs to label and fit stuff into mental boxes, only over time, I have grown comfortable with my generalist nature. Here is some love and encouragement to all the generalists out there.

The combination of persistence and curiosity is a very good predictor of employee success in a knowledge economy.

—— Eric Schmidt

After more than four years at Ironhack, I have witnessed and assessed a fair amount of students seeking to upgrade their skills or transition their careers into tech.

Far from bootcamp-land, I still keep getting a few requests here and there from aspiring developers seeking career advice.

Along these lines, last week I was chatting with a friend that wanted to break into tech, performing a full 180 degree move at the age of 27. With a solid background in marketing and design, he wanted to become a full-time developer.

It is not an unreasonable decision. I have seen many students succeed in the exact situation.

On top of that, and more often than not, I get overly excited about the prospect’s decision — sometimes even more than the students themselves. Given the right conditions, I certainly encourage them to go for it.

However, for some reason, this time around, I did not. This one turned out to be special. It evoked a profound feeling of empathy and deeply resonated with me.

This guy happens to be a generalist struggling to find a label for himself. In his mind, he is no designer, no marketer, no developer… he is just a little bit of each. He can’t fit himself in a box and unambiguously answer the question of “what do you do for a living” without the hesitant opening of “well, it is complicated…“.

I tried to debug the situation by dropping at him the “theory” of what I believe to be true: that you want to perform at the top quartile in three disciplines, rather than becoming the best in a single one; that you want to “be a fox”, keep an open mind, and cross-pollinate knowledge from seemingly disconnected areas; the list went on and on.

While hearing these words come out of my mouth, I was also realizing this was the story of my life. For many years, I had been struggling with the exact same issue. And however aware, the conversation helped me better frame the situation under a more appropriate lens.

I would define myself as a frustrated generalist by design. One that constantly wants to break out of his own nature and focus, specialize — just to suddenly realize that what he truly wanted was to explore new things.

For some reason, my rationality is not comfortable being a jack of all some trades, but master of none. It craves labels: either a one or a zero, either an engineer or a product manager… We, people, like to fit stuff into pre-defined categories — and this feeling of not fitting in anyone’s box has been chasing me my entire life.

Whether I like it or not, I have inherited — and actively nurtured — two qualities: curiosity and perseverance. Both exceptionally valuable traits by themselves, however, their inner relationships at some point become incompatible.

Roughly, this is how its narrative usually plays out:

  • First, a divergence phase. Curiosity prevails. It keeps me learning from new sources, exposed to a wide range of unrelated fields.
  • Next, the panic phase. Extreme rationality steps in and permeates the scene with the aforementioned feeling of not fitting any box. Ghosts of insecurity, failure, and becoming forever unemployable creep in. Rationality demands labels to support and validate my endeavors.
  • Third, a convergence phase. Perseverance takes the stage to overcome and take me out of panic mode. It creates a narrative to convince myself that the solution is to narrow down. Pick one discipline from the divergence pool phase and focus obsessively. Go to “a box”.
  • Finally, the release mode. Paradox crystalizes. I realize that I am not comfortable with this self-inflicted single-purpose lifestyle.

As you might have guessed, the list is not a one-off straight arrow, but a never-ending loop. The release mode triggers an emotional reaction that sets me back again at the divergence phase.

The phenomenon also comes in different frequencies — which is interesting. It has developed during longer cycles that manifest themselves, for example, as career changes. But also with shorter wave-lengths that might have led, for instance, into educational programs or new side-projects.

In short, this has been the story of my life — and I knew it beforehand. In just ten years after being “released” from college, I have seen this endless loop play out many times. However, writing these thoughts down, or engaging in lengthy, deep conversations around certain topics, sometimes help “debug” your inner mechanics.

I keep complaining that life is always detouring me from becoming the developer I wanted to be when I was in my early twenties. That for some reason life wants me also involved in the product, business, marketing, design, or sales side of things.

However, I have come to terms that it is not “an invisible hand” pulling the strings and getting me off-track. It is just me, and this curious nature, actively seeking it out.

I used to grumble about this made-up curse. I felt like I needed an external agent to justify my actions. Only over time, I have learned to be comfortable with my generalist signature.

Because despite this never-ending discomfort caused by this disdain, looking back, best things have always occurred at the intersection of this multidisciplinary learning.

Here’s to all the generalists out there. For those who believe that would never meet any LinkedIn job offer criteria. Keep exposing yourselves to many things. As diverse as possible. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t belong inside any particular box. These are just social constructs brought to you by the ones that will also tell you to think outside of it. Embrace your generalist nature.

First published on March 11, 2020