I attended a talk the other day about the dangers of being a generalist. We were told, in no uncertain terms, that:
- the most successful CEOs focus on just a handful - 2 or 3 things at most - that they can achieve mastery in
- we should aim in life to do something that made us happy, that we were good at AND that got us paid
The speaker was persuasive, clear and entertaining - we were drawn in. But as I mulled things over in my mind afterwards I couldn't help wondering whether the advice might not be entirely helpful to those of us who earn a living as school teachers.
Take the notion that you should find something in life that makes you happy. This sounds suspiciously like the Steve Job's injuction to 'love what you do', with which the internet is awash. Excellent common-sense advice, you might think.
But pursuit of happiness in this way - to follow your 'passion', to 'not settle' until you do so - is a well-trodden route to disappointment. As Cal Newport has pointed out, after extensive research into the issue:
“Follow your passion" assumes: a) you have preexisting passion, and b) if you match this passion to your job, then you’ll enjoy that job. When I studied the issue, it was more complex. Most people don’t have preexisting passions. And research on workplace satisfaction tells that people like their jobs for more nuanced reasons than simply they match some innate interests.
People waste years - or decades sometimes - searching for an elusive passion when in fact they should just be endeavouring to become very good at what they are already doing. As Newport explains:
Here’s the key: there is no special passion waiting for you to discover. Passion is something that is cultivated. It can be cultivated in many, many different fields. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to say, “I don’t know what my passion is." What does make sense is to say, “I haven’t yet cultivated a passion, I should really focus down on a small number of things and start this process."
I take from this that constantly pursuing 'happiness', or 'passion' - call it what you will - as something over the horizon, to be chased will result in a lingering sense of unfulfillment. Far better to find something that suits your talents and then pursue mastery in the here-and-now.
The idea that people should cultivate a narrow set of skills for themselves - 2 or 3 at the most - sounds sensible. After all it doesn't do to spread yourself too thin, surely? But this flies in the face of the latest hiring advice. 'Full-stack' employees - those who can turn their hand to anything and
everything - are the talk of the town in San Francisco and other leading-edge cities because they know:
And this article on the Harvard Business Review blog makes a persuasive case that having a diverse range of talents, rather than a select few is something that is valued in the job market. Nor does the advantage of being a generalist tail off as you progress up the ladder. As the researchers explain:
Leaders tend to be generalists. They can shift course and manage multiple areas. They’re more flexible.
But it is in schools where being a generalist is a real advantage. Like it or not, the best teachers are a whole lot more that just subject specialists. I came across this the other day on the Buckswood School website; it illustrates the point perfectly:
The message? Become good at what you do, don't go chasing rainbows. Value being a generalist. The Germans have a name generalists - Eierlegende Wollmilchsau, literally an egg-laying-wool-milk-sow (see picture at the top of the post). Such an animal is a metaphor for the ultimate employee - someone who, in the English idiom, is a 'Jack of all trades'. Keep that in mind the next time you find yourself doing something that's not in your job description...!