When I was in school, I was always preached to about how I needed to make myself as marketable as possible. I was forced to take a variety of courses, gain experience on all kinds of projects, and spend time in ways that I may not have necessarily considered ideal. I was told that this would put my work in demand; it would keep me competitive in the workforce and give me the edge over my peers. And, “with the poor economy,” I needed to do everything I could to make sure my resume was at the top of the pile.
It all made sense to me, so I took the advice. Every few weeks, I was doing something different: coding a website, designing a postcard, editing a video, recording music. My resume began to fill itself to the point where I had trouble choosing what to fit on that one page. I became the guy that everyone would come to with questions. And for a while, it felt pretty good.
The problem with this is that staying on top of multiple industries can be taxing. I always had to learn how to use the latest software and become familiar with the most efficient techniques. My brain had to switch directions every few weeks with every new project and reset into the correct frame of mind. I never got enough practice with one thing to become truly great at it. I started feeling unclear about what I did and did not like doing, and became increasingly frustrated with myself to the point where I was no longer feeling motivated or inspired. My social life was affected because I was always thinking about work. I noticed I had trouble holding conversations or listening to others talk. And, ultimately, the boundaries of a healthy live/work lifestyle became fuzzy.
The one nice thing about being knocked down is that it is a perfect time to ask questions and evaluate what went wrong and how you got there. What if I didn’t need to know everything?
This isn’t to say that having multiple skillsets doesn’t have value, but it does require a lot of determination and effort on your part. To be be considered a professional generalist, you really do need to be good at everything and understand the challenges that you’ll face along the way.
I think what I’ve found that works best for me is that it is okay to only do what you are into. Right now, web and plugin development has been a really interesting experience for me, so it doesn’t feel like work to dive right in and learn everything I can, because I want to do it. The idea of doing what you love will inherently keep you competitive, since you’ll be learning at a pace that matches your interest in the subject.
If I ever do come back to video production or motion graphics, I may not be right on top of the game, but you can bet that I’ll learn at a rapid pace driven by excitement.
I’ve been reeling over this feeling that you experience as a beginner. Everything is new and intimidating. You don’t know what notes to take because you don’t know what the important parts to remember are. You feel pressure to ask the right questions and are afraid to even ask a question because you’re not sure if it is stupid or relevant. You don’t want to sound dumb, but you can’t help it; you don’t even know how to express the concepts that you are trying to learn. You don’t know who is willing to help you get to that next level, and you find out the hard way when someone shoots you down.
It’s a very vulnerable and sensitive experience, and it is the reason that most beginners suddenly halt their pursuit before they even have the chance to get to that next level.
You’d think that the skilled folks would help. After all, they were once a beginner, right? Strangely, it seems the opposite.* Many of these people save their knowledge for their own benefit, and I can’t figure out why.
Frankly, inadvertently or not, they make beginners feel stupid for being wrong and for even trying to get to the next level, while in the mean time they are happy to talk about it with other advanced people over a beer or dinner.
What’s going on in this middle ground? Are you afraid to talk because you don’t want to be wrong? Are you intimidated by those who might know more than you? Do you feel like there is no good platform or non-pressure outlet to share? There are people who would do anything to know some of the things that you do and to have someone willing to help them out.
Beginners: Be wrong. There IS such a thing as a dumb question. Ask it anyway. That’s how you learn.
Intermediates: Be as helpful as you can be to those who want it. Giving a beginner a jump start is way better than doing nothing about it.
Advancers: Share what you know. Foster an environment where learning is encouraged. Show others the right way.
To read: “Mastery” by Robert Greene
*If you are thinking, “Not me!”, or “Not her!”, then good. We need more people like you and her.
I’ve made the presentation and code examples available below. Enjoy!