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Generalising specialist or specialising generalist, which are you?

The new age of authentic work, and how it offers you the freedom not to have to choose.

Gone are the days when you were expected to at least appear to have a ‘nuclear family’ — one or more kids, a husband and wife, a steady job for life. In the modern age of fluidity everything is up for grabs; your gender, your occupation, your sexual orientation.

Well, thank goodness for that, right?

If you’ve watched Mad Men or spent anytime researching the culture of the great American dream, then you would know how incredibly restrictive it was for many. Out of that context emerged the complete opposite — the sexual revolution, LSD, 1970s folk music and the highest divorce rates on record in the western world.

What also came out of it was a new breed commonly known as the Baby Boomer, now in their 60s and 70s and living in a world with completely different rules. There’s the internet for one, and their children, Generation X.

Gen X may have done ‘the right thing’ as some squeezed out the last juice of free tertiary education to nourish their dream careers, but very few would still be doing the job they trained to. And even less, are expecting to have one or even two jobs for the entirety of their working life.

I was one of those who deferred payment for university, and took it as a given that if I did well academically at a tertiary level that I would find gainful employment. Not so. I remember having a minor breakdown at exam time in second year — my first relationship ended, I was falling in love with someone else, and was freaking out about psychology statistics.

With an appointment to see the on-campus counsellor, receptive as ever to any advice that might come my way, in the waiting room was an article about how in the future (like, now), there would be specialising generalists and generalising specialists. I never forgot it. No idea what the counsellor said or did, but I remember that article.

Turns out, it was completely accurate. This idea has also saved me from feeling like a complete failure for not having specialised in just one thing.

Since starting work I have had more jobs than I can count on my fingers and toes. I have also trained first as a historian and psychologist, next as a script editor, then house builder, then high school history teacher.

I have worked in public relations, independent filmmaking, arts administration, independent media, legal administration, risk management, residential building, education and most recently as a self employed writer and branding consultant.

Sure, making business cards is difficult. I end up using words like ‘multi-passionate’ and ‘entrepreneur’, much to my dismay. I’m starting to realise I needn’t even try to label what I do but more I need to be clear on what it is I offer, and which specialty I am generalising.

It aligns perfectly with a philosophy I like to call, have AND eat cake. In the past we have been taught that we have to choose, and in order to choose we have to sacrifice. It’s like the science of compromise is a universal law and completely non-negotiable.

Traditional wisdom tells us not to hold out for our best match, but give up on good looks and charisma if we want a stable and reliable spouse. However that just has not been my experience. I’m living proof that you can have both. Just ask my husband. Perhaps I’m biased on that one, but it has been my experience in other areas too. If I stop placing these limits on my thinking, like believing that you cannot have one thing without another miraculously a way forward involving both can evolve.

I’m not challenging the practical things — like you can’t have long and short hair at the same time (obviously) but you can have long hair and put it up in such a way that it appears short when you feel like it, if you think creatively.

Same goes with work. For the moment, I’m fine with being a non-pigeon-hole-able person. Yes, I’m a stay at home mum. Yes, I’m a writer. Yes, I’m still dabbling in project management and property development. Do you have a problem with that?

The digital diaspora opens up opportunities previously untenable to people working at home so that I can literally write this with my ten-month-old babbling at my knee, and five-year-old sitting across the table. It’s exciting and wondrous to consider where you might be reading this — on a train, in bed, at an airport, on the couch, on a balcony overlooking the Sahara, potentially anywhere in the world.

Maybe, just maybe you are a specialising generalist too. Or is it the other way? The beauty of it is you don’t even have to choose.