Working the Same Job Until You Die Is Old School

How ‘serial specialization’ will revitalize your career

Erica Helander
Sep 15 · 8 min read
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Billion Photos / Shutterstock.com

Some people sprang to life fully formed in the office, like Athena but with a dry erase marker instead of a sword. You know the type. They’re eight coffees into the day, hovering just above their office chair with sheer energy their mortal forms can barely contain, zinging out email replies within seconds. And they’ve been working there for decades.

That ain’t me.

Forty hours a week is a lot of commitment, much less for forty years.

It’s easy to get trapped in the idea that you’ll do one kind of work for the rest of your life. You landed a random job out of school, so now that’s what you have experience doing, so that’ll be your career field until you die.

But that’s not how work has to be.

What I’ve learned, and what I’m hoping you’ll consider, is that working in a single field isn’t your only option.

Storytime

After having to take six months of medical leave in 2015, I restarted my career.

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Photo by Arlington Research on Unsplash

I didn’t go back to work at the soul-sucking call center that snagged me fresh out of college. Instead, I entered the jewelry industry in 2015 as a near-minimum-wage pieceworker.

After half a year, I moved a tad upward to a mediocre apprentice jeweler position. I then leveraged my way into a decent apprentice jeweler job. In 2018, I was finally able to use my prior experience in the field to get an amazing apprentice jeweler job at a well-respected local family business.

At that last position, I was trained and promoted into a jeweler in 2019 (finally dropping the “apprentice” from my title). I set diamonds and fixed broken heirloom necklaces. I engraved calligraphy into wedding rings.

After just four years of hard work, I went from zero experience to an artisan with an in-demand trade.

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Photo by KYLE CUT MEDIA on Unsplash

However, while it’s a satisfying job, I don’t want to do it 40 hours a week for the next 40 years.

Reframe what “a career” should look like

You might be in the same boat.

Perhaps, like me, you’ve always suspected you’d feel that way about any job. Maybe you’re worried something in you is broken. Not made for full-time work. You just can’t handle it.

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Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

But maybe the way our culture thinks about work is broken.

To excel at something, we believe, we have to dedicate our lives to it. The neurosurgeon is an expert because of her single-minded dedication to her career: she doesn’t waste her time studying judo or haute cuisine or carpentry.

What if we’ve got it backwards?

Jim Holt explores generalization in his New York Times review of Jim Epstein’s book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World:

“Becoming a champion, a virtuoso or a Nobel laureate does not require early and narrow specialization. Quite the contrary in many cases. Breadth is the ally of depth, not its enemy. In the most rewarding domains of life, generalists are better positioned than specialists to excel.”

Defining serial specialization

Serial specialization is developing expertise in one field, moving sideways to another field and starting over as a beginner, and repeating the process over and over.

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Photo by Heidi Fin on Unsplash

If you’re not careful with this, you’ll end up a jack of all trades, master of none. Becoming an expert in anything is hard work, and deserves time and focused attention.

It would be foolish and flighty to hop from job to job after just a year or two.

Allow time for expertise to develop before you transition away from a role. You’ll reap the benefits: the job will become more satisfying, and your pay rate will increase along with your expertise. (And if your pay doesn’t increase, your newfound expertise will allow you to move into a similar position that will actually pay you what your time is worth.)

The more skills and experiences I rack up, the more interesting the world becomes, because I have a more informed view of everyday objects or tasks around me.

Build up or shore up?

You can approach your career from two different perspectives: you can either build up your strengths or shore up your weaknesses.

If you build up your strengths, you’ll focus on improving what you’re already good at doing. On the flip side, this means you’ll ignore your weaknesses until they’re critical flaws.

If you shore up your weaknesses, you might miss the opportunity for world-class expertise, but you’ll be well-rounded across the board.

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Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash

Serial specialization is taking a long-term view of shoring up weaknesses. Why not be good at a bunch of things, instead of great at one thing and incompetent at a bunch of things?

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

— Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough For Love

Practically speaking

It’s common to see someone believe they’re trapped in their field of work just because they’ve developed expertise there and moved up the ladder a little bit.

Too often, people saddle themselves with financial commitments that handcuff them to their current paycheck. Starting over as a beginner in a new field requires the ability to take a temporary pay cut.

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Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash

You’ll be starting from the bottom every time you switch, so you need to save up enough money ahead of time or reduce your day-to-day expenses enough to allow you to take an entry-level wage.

Serial specialization is developing expertise in one field, moving sideways to another field and starting over as a beginner, and repeating the process over and over.

Paula Pant, host of the Afford Anything podcast, states that “You can afford anything but not everything.” If what you want is freedom to play with different jobs and interests, the rest of your life has to reflect that.

My car is 12 years old, and my husband’s car is 15 years old. We’ve lived together with friends and family for five years. We’re willing to take jokes about “failure to launch,” because in exchange for our somewhat atypical lifestyle (which we enjoy, but others can have trouble believing that), we’re able to follow new interests when we choose to.

Okay, but what’s the benefit?

Broadening your experience and skills will make you a better-informed person in areas of your life you might not expect.

I’ve seen this benefit in my own life: my experience sealcoating driveways after college has allowed me to quickly grasp related concepts in other jobs.

Picture a hot summer day: the sweltering sun makes tarry, sticky sealcoat dry extra fast. On those brutal days, I had to work efficiently and in lockstep with my partner to avoid letting the sealcoat dry in clumps. This led to some fierce exchanges, but the motivation behind those arguments was always getting the work done faster. It was never a personal issue, and the argument disappeared as soon as the task was complete. I termed this “hot driveway mode.”

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Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

Because I developed a term for it, I was able to see the same concept in every job I’ve had since then, and also in my marriage: when there’s a time-sensitive task, tempers will flare much more easily. But it’s not personal. It’s just hot driveway mode.

Every job I’ve had, and every skill I’ve learned, has contributed to a better understanding of the world around me.

My call center experience has been endlessly helpful in everyday life, because at that job, I had to learn all the ins and outs of 401(k)s. Just recently, my husband was transferring money between two retirement plans. He received the check instead of it being sent to the intended recipient bank. I was able to immediately soothe his concerns that it was taxable by knowing that “G” is the IRS code for a non-taxable direct rollover. That was satisfying.

To be fair, any particular skill might not change your life. For example, my short-lived embroidery hobby didn’t revolutionize my career. But it’s nice to know that if I want to give a friend a cute little embroidered wall hanging, I can make it myself instead of paying through the nose for it.

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Photo by Santoshi Guruju on Unsplash

The more skills and experiences I rack up, the more interesting the world becomes, because I have a more informed view of everyday objects or tasks around me.

Alphabet primers from the 1800’s aren’t boring now that I know the labor of hand-stitching a straight line. I find myself judging driveways and parking lots based on how recently they sealcoated or treated cracks in the asphalt. I eye up acquaintances’ jewelry and know immediately how well they take care of it and how expensive it was.

It’s not always useful information, but it’s definitely entertaining.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

It took me four years to go from minimum wage to expert in my field.

What could you do with the rest of your working years?

Let’s say you’re 30 years old, and expect to work until you’re 70. If you wanted to change not just jobs but career fields every five years, you could get good at eight wildly different trades.

What’s it like to be a baker? What’s it like to be a bartender? An adjunct professor? A carpenter? A financial advisor? A park ranger? A firefighter?

If you want to, you can find out.

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Photo by Brian Mann on Unsplash

What happens next?

After a few years in a new field, you’ll take a step back and realize that you’re not doing grunt work anymore. You’re actually pretty good at this.

You’ll stick around for a while and enjoy the taste of expertise. And after a while, maybe you’ll move on and try something new.

If you’re content to stay where you are, serial specialization isn’t the right plan for you. But if coasting feels more like stagnating, don’t stay where you are. Keep learning. Keep growing. Change directions completely if you get the hankering.

Becoming an expert is hard work, but it’s exhilarating.
Why not do it more than once?

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Erica Helander

Written by

I got in trouble for reading too much as a kid, so now I’m morally obligated to be a writer.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join 120,000+ others making the climb on one of the fastest-growing pubs on Medium.

Erica Helander

Written by

I got in trouble for reading too much as a kid, so now I’m morally obligated to be a writer.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join 120,000+ others making the climb on one of the fastest-growing pubs on Medium.

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