How might we better integrate and communicate our “extracurricular” interests and side projects into our creative practices and professional? How do we present our full selves when we are looking for new jobs or clients?
You may already know about the T-shaped professional, but for quick review, here’s Wikipedia:
The concept of T-shaped skills, or T-shaped persons is a metaphor used in job recruitment to describe the abilities of persons in the workforce. The vertical bar on the T represents the depth of related skills and expertise in a single field, whereas the horizontal bar is the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than one’s own.
The earliest reference is by David Guest in 1991. Tim Brown, CEO of the IDEO design consultancy defended this approach to résumé assessment as a method to build interdisciplinary work teams for creative processes.
Jessica Wong also talked about variations like the pi-shaped (π) professional, who has two fields of deep expertise, and the comb-shaped (TTTT) professional, who is usually a more senior and may have multiple careers and fields of expertise.
While I find the T, pi, and comb shapes helpful as starting points for thinking about and communicating our professional expertise, I also find them limiting.
Firstly, they are two-dimensional abstractions of our complex, three-dimensional selves. The horizontal part of the T is meant to visualize a broad general knowledge about the world. Having a wide T, allow me to mix visual metaphors here, means that you are “well-rounded.” But the T shape flattens and squares off this well-roundedness.
Secondly, the T-shape doesn’t always fully represent the different facets of our identities. We are more than polished personal brands and professional personas. What makes us unique? What makes us stand out? What makes us weird? What’s the X-factor to our standardized T-shapes?
To help think through and evolve the T-shaped model, I decided to create a 3D paper prototype which what I had on hand in class, a cardboard coffee cup holder. Here’s what I came up with:
I put an X on another plane to intersect with the T. The T continues to represent a professional profile with broad general knowledge and some deep expertise. The X is meant to be represent our extracurricular activities and our creative cross-training that complement our professional skills and that set us apart from the crowd.
Here’s how it works using myself as an example. For sake of brevity and to spare you the self-promotion, I won’t go into the elements of my T right now. If you want, you can check my LinkedIn or my professional bio for that. Here are some of the wings of my X:
- I train and teach capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art disguised as a dance. I started six years ago after I grad school, when I had some more free time again. More than just fitness or a hobby, the capoeira has helped me understand how to incorporate my whole body, and not just my eyes, brain, and finger tips into my “knowledge work.” It has helped me to be more assertive and to be more mindful of my context.
- I used to be a musician. Making music and playing gigs taught me how to tell a story, engage a crowd, and build a community around shared interest. I tap into those experiences and skills today as an whenever I’m getting in front of a classroom of students, a boardroom full of clients, or an auditorium full of conference goers.
- I am an avid home cook and have a culinary side project called Griot Good with my good friend Sophia Chang. We cook, have fun, make videos, and share recipes. I have gotten into fermentation lately, and started making my own sourdough bread and fermented drinks. My culinary interests also help me hone my skills in storytelling, hosting, and a more holistic understanding of collaboration and harmony with my environment. After all, fermentation is a collaboration between me, the weather, and millions of microbes.
- My first job out of college was teaching English as a second to Japanese kids in a semi-rural area through the JET Programme. Over the course of three years, I learned to speak fairly fluent Japanese, and how to adapt to a culture different from my own. I use these skills today whenever I am conducting design research with people from diverse communities and cultural backgrounds. Also, having taught elementary school and junior high school students, teaching masters students and coaching business executives is relatively easy.
Those are just some snapshots of my X, the elements of my life that sustain, complement, and enrich my current professional practice as a designer and educator.
What’s in your X? And how does it support your T?