Have you ever felt bad because you still haven't quite decided what your career is? Do you get really interested in learning or doing something new for a while, then get bored with it and move on? Are you reluctant to commit to a degree program because you might change your mind halfway through? Or are you half a million dollars in debt from your 2 Ph.D.s and 5 Master's degrees?
Well, if you've ever picked up any kind of self-help book, you know what I'm going to say next: Don't be so hard on yourself. You're not flawed, you're just smarter and more creative than everyone else!
See, don't you feel better now?
Sorry about that, give me a minute to suppress my inner snarkasaurus rex.
OK. As it turns out, talent coaches like Barbara Sher might not just be blowing sunshine when they tout the benefits of being a "Scanner," as Sher calls it. She's careful to point out that being a Scanner, a person interested in a wide, constantly shifting variety of things, is not the same as having ADD (being unable to focus on anything) or depression (being unable to get excited about anything). Scanners do very well in K-12 because they have the opportunity to learn all kinds of things. But they feel unduly pressured in college and beyond to choose a specialty and stick with it. After all, that is what the workplace demands.
Or is it?
The definitions of "job," "career," and "skillset," have become much more fluid in today's job market than, say, 20 years ago or even 10 years ago. Employers these days may be impressed by your deep knowledge of a particular specialty, but with an eye on the competition, they give the edge to workers who can be tapped, when needed, to help out in other areas. You may be a brilliant engineer, but can you write a proposal? Talk to a potential customer about the product you're developing? Suggest new ways to automate office functions? Tap into social media to gather intelligence and inform your audience?
Specialists may shudder at the thought of engaging in anything that stinks of marketing, but you don't have to become Don Draper to imagine and suggest ways to get people interested in the work you do.
And you don't necessarily have to branch out into business development or kiss up to "corporate" to gain an attractive and useful set of skills. For example, a business owner recently posted about skillsets to a writing/editing discussion board I subscribe to. She pointed out that it's not good enough to be a knowledgable copy editor anymore if you are only willing to work in pencil on hard copy. Even knowing how to edit documents in Word is not enough. If you can edit text in Word, you can learn how to edit text in InDesign or DreamWeaver. And by doing so, you'll save valuable time.
In a guest blog post for Fast Company, Marcia Conner talks about a new set of skills that are increasingly important to have. Citing MIT's New Media Literacy Center, she lists 11 "new media" skills, but points out that they are fundamentally collaborative and analytical skills, applicable beyond a tech or communication job. For example:
Simulation: the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes.
Collective intelligence: the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal.
Judgment: the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources.
Good news, then, for Scanners: You probably possess a lot of these skills just by virtue of being intellectually curious. If you come to the job already knowing something about all the steps of the process your job is part of—simply because you were interested and wanted to know more—you'll be far more valuable than someone who remains ignorant of the things that happen before and after they do their bit.
Being a scanner, polymath, renaissance man, Jill of all trades, or whatever you call it, is an asset in today's workplace, especially if you exhibit a knack for collaboration and teamwork and an enthusiasm for learning new things. So don't feel bad if you're done with business administration and want to teach music for a while. That M.B.A. wasn't necessarily a waste of time, and that M.F.A. won't be, either. You are adding to your knowledge and skill, and that can't be bad.
And hey, if you're a specialist who thinks people like that are unfocused and loony, consider this an invitation to try branching out. You just might get that raise, and enjoy yourself in the process!
Photo of multitalented stick people by sal de mar on Flickr.