Monday, November 10, 2008

A victory for generalists

Change at a fast pace can be disconcerting. 2 years ago, I was in the middle of my second (and last) year of graduate school. I knew I'd be doing an off-grounds job search, and my only criteria for my next employer was that I be treated with respect and be in New York City. Beyond that, the options were endless. I was grateful for a (seemingly) strong economy that allowed me to take my time to find the right match.

I was exploring a myriad of options, networking with alum in all stages of their careers and in different industries. I was explaining to one of my career counselors that I really enjoyed having a job where I wore a number of different hats. He looked at me quizzically. He is one of those people who really prefers to file people into neat little boxes. Needless-to-say, I cannot be confined to a neat little box of any kind when it comes to my career. (Mind you, this career counselor convinced the majority of my classmates to become investment bankers and management consultants and we see how that story's gone in the last few months...) After I explained my varied work experience to him and employment possibilities I was considering he said to me, "Well, Christa, eventually we all have to decide what we want to be when we grow up. We can't stay generalists forever." Little did he, or I, know that being a generalist is just about the best thing I could be in the job market that would exist 2 years later. 

I walked away feeling a little badly about myself and my life. Maybe I was aimless; maybe I was like one of those little kids raiding her mother's closet and wearing grown-up clothes that are 5 sizes too big. I was masquerading as a grown-up, with no intention of actually ever growing up. I am happy with my own special brand of optimistic realism. Fittingly, I went to work for a toy company right after graduation whose motto is, "I don't want a grow up. I'm a ...." You get the idea. I found my place in the world being exactly who I am.

Surprisingly to that career counselor of mine, though no to me, being a generalist is what is savings me (furiously knocking on wood) right now in this economy. My broad-based experience is allowing me to play many different roles on one stage - I can do whatever task needs to be done at the time it needs to be done. And that's true of many people I work with. It also happens to be true of President-elect Obama - his broad-based experience allowed him to speak genuinely to people from many different walks of life. His honesty, humility, and ability to emotionally connect with so many people and bring them together played a large part in his victory. It also helps that he's brilliant, confident, and capable. He is a generalist at heart. 

This week, my Penn alumni magazine ran an article by President Amy Guttman entitled "A Pitch for the Uncharted Path" that described her speech at this year's convocation. Like me, she meandered across a whole host of disciplines as an undergraduate, stopping to inspect anything and everything that interested her. And now she is Penn's President, a job that could only be filled by a infinitely-curious generalist. She encouraged the newly matriculated class to be open to the possibilities that will be set before them in the coming four years. Being a person who has wanted to be everything from a champion dog breeder to an astronaut, I whole-heartedly agree. 

Our world is complex, and to get into the thick of it and make a positive impact, we have to appreciate every shred of that complexity. The best way to gain that appreciation is to live our lives in many different directions, on many different planes. Yes, this is a time that "a genius wants to live." And it wouldn't hurt if that genius also moonlighted as a generalist. 

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