In this more lighthearted post, we consider the ways in which we as professionals tend to approach our careers, based on our development conversations with our proteges over the years. One lens with which to view how we take action is as a range/spectrum from spontaneous and emergent at one extreme, to structured and deliberate on the other. While where we sit on the continuum is influenced by our personalities and natural preferences, the environment we find ourselves in might cause us to shift too. We will also naturally be a blend of both, rather than exclusively at one extreme or the other.
To illustrate the extremes, consider these two characters:
Norah is the extreme character who believes enthusiastically in serendipity and possibilities. She loves arriving in new situations, assessing the lay of the land and crafting her approach as she goes. She’s the one who rushes in head-first, jumps off the cliff and assembles her plane on the way down (as the startup world likes to describe their work). Exploring and determining the best approach in the moment are Norah’s natural preferences, so she reacts well to the unexpected, seeing it as an exciting challenge to solve.
Most discoveries even today are a combination of serendipity and of searching.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Anna has meticulously planned her path. She’s done her research, got the maps and structured her itinerary. For her the joy is in advance-thinking, scenario planning, and risk mitigation – she’s thought through different possibilities in advance, and built her plan to accommodate these unknowns. She does particularly well when there is a clear path ahead that she can work her way through methodically, such as a series of professional exams she needs to pass to progress in her career.
Poor planning on your part does not necessitate an emergency on mine.”
In between these two extremes, is a multitude of blends. Indeed, you probably recognise elements of both Norah and Anna in yourself, when considering your approach to your career e.g. Noranna the Explanner or Annorah the Plannorer! Seriously though, people towards the centre of the continuum would both know what they enjoy (because they’ve reflected on what drives them and past situations they’ve excelled in) and be open to capitalising on fortunate events that arise i.e. they’d have a broad brush picture of the environment without clarity on the details (yet).
Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities.
If the circumstances require you to shift rapidly from one end to the other, that can induce extreme stress. For example, Anna landing in a startup without any hope of a job description because she’s wearing multiple hats at the same time, and changing them regularly… Or Nora being required to document the step-by-step process to completing specific tasks for new joiners in her team, while herself following the predefined path to qualification required by her profession.
And, to conclude, a simple quiz to help you think about which side you might lean towards. Do also let us know your thoughts on the explorer-planner continuum and how you shift along it in different environments. The quiz covers three situations at work:
At work, your diary is full as you have major deadlines on a project you have been collaborating with other teams on for a few months. The launch is depending on you getting everything done in time, and there are significant interdependencies between your and other teams.
At the last minute, your boss invites you along to a meeting with a connection of his who has offered to share his insights on the evolving nature of your industry. He tells you to send a delegate from your team to the project progress meeting that’s about to start. The heads of each function working on the launch are attending the progress meeting and are expecting you to attend too.
How do you react?
A: Seething inside at the latest unexpected interruption and the casual ‘drop what you’re doing’ approach of your boss, you remind him (not quite masking your irritation) of the importance of the launch and your attendance at the progress meeting to it. You decline his offer.
B: You excitedly jump at the chance to join your boss, seeing it as an opportunity to learn new things about your industry, and meet a contact that could be helpful to your future career.
C: You calmly explain to your boss the importance of your attendance at your pre-scheduled progress meeting, and ask him to invite you to future sessions on your industry as you are keen to learn more about it. You offer to send one of your team to his meeting instead.
You become aware that another business unit in your organisation urgently needs someone to spend a month in South America to help a local team with a project, starting on Monday. Your skills are a great match and they are keen for you to take on that project. What do you do?
A: Suggest alternative people across the business who may be able to help them, as your workschedule is already defined for the next three months and people are counting on you.
B: Say yes, book the flight, and rent out your apartment, rushing to get everything done at home before leaving over the weekend.
C: Given the timezone difference, offer to help them remotely on a part-time basis in addition to your existing work you’ve committed to. At the same time, see if you can defer some of your commitments to free up a week towards the end of the month to meet with them in person.
You’re new into a role, learning a lot and enjoying it. You’re riding the learning curve. Do you know what your next role will be?
A: Yes, you’ve mapped out the range of next steps typically taken after a role like yours, and you have a strong preference. You also know which division of the company you want to work in, what skills you require, and who you need to build relationships with to ease the future transition. You’ve discussed your thinking with your boss too, so she knows what expectations you have of her in 2-3 years’ time.
B: Not at all. You’re having so much fun now, and you know that something amazing will come onto your radar at the right time if you do this job well. Something always does.
C: You have a sense of what you might enjoy next, and what skills you’re currently learning that are transferable to other environments, but no map of where to go i.e. general direction but no specifics yet.
The more A’s you have, the more you’re like Anna. The more B’s you have, Norah. And, if you’re all C’s you’re balancing both approaches on the spectrum.
Good fortune is what happens when opportunity meets with planning.”
One of the aspects we help our proteges keep track of on the Protagion platform is their career fulfilment. We ask about it initially as part of their self-directed Journey of Self-Discovery (designed to support them to think about their goals and desired future, and their route so far), and then also remind them in their Protagion diary to update their career fulfilment score over time. It ranges from zero to ten, with zero being the extreme of “completely not fulfilled, dreading work every day” and ten being the other extreme of “ecstatic, dreaming of bounding & skipping to work”.
Based on discussion with one of our mentors, we’ve done further thinking on the dimensions of career fulfilment i.e. what contributes to our fulfilment at work. There are three key elements:
While these are naturally affected by the working environment we’re in (including our boss and colleagues), we also have an influence over them personally, both through our attitude as well as our willingness to put ourselves forward for new challenges. In addition, great mentors or coaches can help us to improve how supported, accomplished and/or satisfied we feel, independent of our current workplace, by helping us develop, pushing us forward, or giving us different perspectives.
Do you agree with these dimensions of career fulfilment: satisfaction, achievement/challenge, and support? And, are there any additional dimensions that form part of career fulfilment for you? We’d love to hear your thoughts.
In this article, we return to the topic of specialising versus generalising as a career strategy, and expand on Protagion’s previous writing to share the views of Scott Adams, Tim Ferriss, and Erik Torenberg with our readers.
Scott Adams is most famous as the creator of Dilbert*, the renowned cartoon starring an engineer in a business setting. Scott’s own career includes majoring in economics, picking up an MBA, and working at a bank and a phone company before becoming a cartoonist. He’s naturally a fan of MBAs, advising: “...Get a degree in business on top of your engineering degree, law degree, medical degree, science degree, or whatever. Suddenly you’re in charge, or maybe you’re starting your own company using your combined knowledge.”
Tim Ferriss is also likely to need little introduction. He’s a multiple-bestselling author and popular podcast host of The Tim Ferriss Show. His books include: The 4-Hour Workweek*, The 4-Hour Body*, The 4-Hour Chef*, Tools of Titans* and Tribe of Mentors*. He’s been referred as a polymath and believes “it is possible to become world-class in almost any skill within one year”.
Erik Torenberg is a venture capitalist and co-founder of Village Global and On Deck, “where top tech talent goes to explore what’s next”.
Read more to dive into the worlds of specialists, generalists and specialised generalists, including Scott, Tim and Erik’s thoughts on the advantages and dangers, and tips for combining skills. We briefly revisit our previous article (In Pursuit of Knowledge: Specialising vs Generalising as a Career Strategy) and conclude with a 6-minute video of Tim.