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Should We Aim to Be “Wide Achievers” in Our Careers?

For the last century everyone from career advisers to nagging parents have been telling us that the best way to use our talents is to become a high achiever — an expert in a narrow field. But one of the surprising discoveries I made while writing my latest book, How to Find Fulfilling Work, is that there is mounting evidence that this is neither a likely route to job satisfaction nor smart thinking in our current era of job insecurity.

Is being a specialist really the most effective way to use our talents? Of course the world needs skilled surgeons, and we can gain personal satisfaction and a feeling of pride from exercising our expertise. Yet the cost of being a top specialist or high achiever may be that we forgo the benefits of being a generalist or "wide achiever," which are to nurture the many sides of who we are and to use our multiplicity of talents.

Few career counselors today would advise you to be a wide achiever: they remain obsessed by the ideal of the specialist. But if you had gone to a careers fair during the Renaissance, you would have been told that becoming a specialist is an unlikely way to fulfill your human potential. Instead you would have been advised to find inspiration in wide achievers like Leonardo da Vinci, who in any one week might be painting a portrait for an artistic patron, designing some clever engineering device for a Milanese duke, and then doing some anatomy experiments on the weekend.

Leonardo was working part-time in several careers simultaneously — what today is called being a "portfolio worker." So you might be an economist three days a week, then spend the rest of your time as a freelance wedding photographer. Management thinker Charles Handy says this is not just a good way of spreading risk in an uncertain job market but an extraordinary opportunity made possible by the rise of more flexible working options like home-working: "For the first time in the human experience, we have a chance to shape our work to suit the way we live instead of our lives to fit our work. We would be mad to miss the chance."

We need to recognize that our culture of specialization conflicts with something most of us intuitively know but which career advisers are only beginning to understand: we each have multiple selves. According to career change expert Herminia Ibarra, "our working identity is not a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered at the core of our being — rather, it is made up of many possibilities, we are many selves."

So it is time to challenge the reverence for the specialist that has become the workplace normit is time to challenge the reverence for the specialist that has become the workplace norm. We all know that disparaging phrase "jack-of-all-trades and master of none." But the original Jack was probably a fantastically interesting and creative person who was far happier doing multiple jobs than his friends who were stuck in narrow careers. We need a more positive term to celebrate the Jacks (and Jills) of the world: welcome to the age of the wide achiever.

More from Roman Krznaric:

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Roman Krznaric is an Australian cultural thinker and cofounder of The School of Life in London. This post is based on his new book, How Should We Live? Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. How Should We Live?: Great Ideas... Used Hardcover $15.95
  2. How to Find Fulfilling Work (School... Used Trade Paper $10.95

Roman Krznaric is the author of How to Find Fulfilling Work (School of Life)

One Response to "Should We Aim to Be “Wide Achievers” in Our Careers?"

    Fred McCaig May 2nd, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    Roman, I look forward to reading more of the school of life series. I came across this blog on the Escape the City website, although I have never had to escape the City myself.
    A generalist or portfolio career is not for every one, the same is for the specialist. By recognising that alone sets one apart from the prescribed belief ones career is a singular path rather than a journey to satisfaction and understanding the value of life. This is the basis of self actualization.

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