Life & Work Skills

Why You Don’t Need a Clear-Cut Career Path in 2019


When I got my current job as a copywriter, I was almost in disbelief at my good fortune. Me, a professional writer? This was the stuff of dreams. And I wasn’t making cringe-worthy puns (for the most part). I was actually doing a pretty good job!  But I also felt some shame. I had spent seven years trying to be a professor, then two as a high school teacher, only to be starting over in something completely new. Maybe I hadn’t been “gritty” enough, or – horror of horrors – had fallen into the dreaded millennial stereotype of flightiness.  But a new book has me thinking differently. If you’re worried that your career path is looking a little too windy, or that you have too many side hustles, think again. According to David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (2019), you’re probably just doing the hard work of finding the right match – and becoming a better problem solver in the process.  Interested in a lot of different things? Turns out, all those detours we take before happening upon a passion-filled career are actually equipping us with the skills we need to succeed in a workplace constantly upended by technology. It’s time to switch up the stories we tell ourselves – and consider the perks of being a generalist.  

1. You’ll adapt better as technology continues to change everything

I loved the idea of security that academic life promised. Every milestone was carefully predetermined and defined by set criteria – publish in the right journal, get good student evaluations, decorate your office with these succulents. The reality, of course, was totally different. A giant pool of specialized PhDs now competes for a grand total of, oh, I don’t know, about five jobs. But the future may not belong to the specialist anyway. Across technology stacks, automation has taken over, and we non-robots have had to redefine our value outside of efficiency. Eventually, we may not even be driving our own cars. But before you give the middle finger to Alexa and Siri for dashing your dreams, consider the underlying opportunity.  The ability to see parallels in unfamiliar situations in the face of uncertainty matters, because machines aren’t very good at that. “Great rewards will accrue for those who can take conceptual knowledge from one problem or domain and apply it in an entirely new one,” Epstein wrote. So how do you get there? One word: range.  

2. You’ll become a more effective problem-solver – and increase your chances of a true breakthrough

Ready to make your mark on the world? Breakthroughs and game-changing products rarely come from applying the same thinking to the same situations. If you’re narrowly steeped in one knowledge or skill area, you’re likely to apply the same frame to every situation, putting you – and your team – at risk of misunderstanding new challenges. You’re also more likely to cling to the same tools, even when they’re not serving you. Instead, Epstein recommended “outside-in” thinking, commonly referred to as thinking outside the box. Outside-in thinking requires a deep understanding of how to think, as well as a diverse knowledge base from which to draw.   “Successful problem solvers,” Epstein explained in the book, “are more able to determine the deep structure of a problem before they proceed to match a strategy to it.” Taking your time to cultivate conceptual thinking and strategic reasoning and apply both to new situations takes, well, time, along with a lot of trial, error, and reflection. It also means that experimenting with different tasks, knowledge areas, and ways of thinking is actually desirable. For example, Epstein cited a 2015 study of tech patents revealing that when individual team members had experience with multiple technologies, they made a more significant impact  

3. You might just start to know yourself

It’s pretty much built into the DNA of our educational system to identify a certain interest or talent and then pick a career – shutting off the options of developing range or exploring all the true facets of ourselves. What if you barely know yourself?  We rush past those doubts in a race for dominance and success, and then we’re no closer to discovering the full extent of our potential. People constantly evolve and change over the course of a life, and yet we expect an early start to yield maximum results. The common wisdom goes something like this: the earlier you can start honing specific skills, the more masterful and successful you will be in life. And that can be true in the short term. However, a 2014 study of child prodigies suggests that early mastery of a subject has little connection to adult genius. “The skill of being a gifted child involves mastery of a domain, while the skill involved in being a genius involves transformation of a domain,” Psychologist Ellen Winner explained in the article summary. I was hardly any kind of prodigy, but I did believe a head start would help. And it might have – if life were a controlled, certain experience. For the three years I was on the academic job market searching for that perfect tenure-track job, I couldn’t escape the increasing feeling that I didn’t actually want it anymore, that I had other interests and talents that I had closed off by trying to fit myself into such a narrow path. At 28, I was simply a different person than the bright-eyed 20-year-old who had chosen it. Self-knowledge is necessarily a slow, difficult journey (just ask any pop ballad). Being open to different experiences and willing to change course might just direct you to what you’re truly passionate about and especially well-suited for.   

4. You can change the story you tell yourself

Our culture’s obsession with “grit” has some disadvantages. You might spend too much time holding on to a predetermined goal, instead of reflecting on the self-knowledge you’ve gained and redirecting yourself to a better match. And it’s not just a matter of embracing lessons learned. It’s the very story we tell ourselves. I literally have a paperweight that says, “Never give up.” It’s filled with glitter. But did I give up… or just find a better fit? Creative solutions to new problems can’t come from more of the same. But taking time to explore, fail, observe and learn, truly investing in lifelong curiosity, also doesn’t fit neatly into the fast-track, valedictorian version of traditional success. That’s why we need a new story. And some new language when it comes to career narratives. I propose the following IG announcements: “I understand myself better!” “I didn’t marry the wrong career!”   “I’m not a quitter, I’m a switcher.”