Specialization is Career Suicide

OneManBand.jpg“You’re a musician? What instrument?”

“Guitar-bass-drums. Mostly.”

I have some version of this conversation every week. If it’s not about music, it’s about my career trajectory. You know, the usual path of the film and art major turned restaurant critic turned NYC subway musician who became a marketing manager for a financial services company and also built websites and is now a consultant. (I’m leaving a bunch out.)

Refusing to specialize was never a conscious decision. At the time it felt more like dabbling until I achieved competence and then moving onto something else. But I now realize that my “failure” to decide what to do with my life has become my biggest asset. Life is a process of constant adaptation and if I’d stuck with some of my earlier interests at the expense of later ones, at best I’d be a mediocre comic-book artist. At worst, a juggler.

You never know what skills will benefit you later in life. The computer science courses I took in college taught me DOS and Lotus 1-2-3 and nothing about the web. But outside of class I guiltily frequented the pre-web Prodigy network which turned out to be time well spent. As a musician I was never in any danger of commercial success but I learned how to collaborate with other creative people, particularly when I worked with directors and actors at Inverse Theater Company. My writing, most of it doggerel,  was published in a few places but more importantly taught me to operate on tight deadlines. And come to think of it, being able to juggle five tennis balls or three machetes is incredibly dorky but requires significant grace under pressure.

Some call me a jack of all trades, which implies, of course, “master of none.” But there’s an older, better word for it: polymath. It’s not such a bad path to take.       

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4 thoughts on “Specialization is Career Suicide

  1. ChrisG says:

    this makes me feel better, i keep thinking my straddling of several different disciplines would be my downfall. i have two interviews coming up for very divergent fields and i’ve been feeling like i should have decided to pursue one or the other a while ago, but maybe it won’t be a handicap. and polymath is good but i do like the implied humility of jack of all trades (and master of none).

  2. Noah Masterson says:

    Chris – just remember the job-interview cliche about turning your weaknesses into strengths. You’re not a dilettante, you’re a renaissance man!

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