Like a lot of people I know, I would like to become an expert and be seen as an expert regardless of the field. But, it has become increasingly clear to me that “to become an expert” is not a productive or useful goal to follow.
I spent the majority of my life exploring and learning about interesting topics. If I wasn’t interested, I couldn’t force myself to dive deep into the subject. Now, this was all fun and games when I was a high school kid who was completely supported by my parents, as the things I learned about were considered hobbies. However, when it came time for me to start choosing a career in university, I couldn’t decide on anything.
- “Do I want to become a designer or programmer?”
- “Do I want to work in movie production or web development”
Luckily for me, I didn’t have to depend on my university to find jobs and decide on a career. My process of mainly learning things that are interesting to me helped narrow down my focus naturally. And the breadth of the subjects I was interested was gradually transformed into the depth of my knowledge in a few selected fields. Some of the “hobbies” I pursued actually ended up paying for my expenses (laptops, tools, even student loans) before I had to give my university a clear answer on my career.
Fast forward a couple years, problems arose when I had to find a job instead of doing only freelance work.
When I apply for jobs, companies usually look for someone who are very good at doing one thing. So the job postings were targeting designers who are very good at creating graphics, software engineers who are very good at writing code, and marketing people who are very good at developing strategies. I’m not an expert in any of those fields!
In my freelance work, I had to do all of those things myself: taking the requirements from a client, creating sketches and mockups for the end product, code out the end product and creating marketing strategies to connect the product to the company’s value and outreach messages (the order of these tasks may vary). I’m pretty good at what I do, but I know full well that there are many people out there spending the majority of their lives sharpening their skills in specific areas — they can outcompete me in their sleep.
What’s the worse (or the best) is that everything I do for a freelance client depends on the understanding of their customers/users. Without that understanding, I wouldn’t know the best features to include in the product, the most comprehensive copy (texts) to put on the page, the most genuine and magnetic marketing messages to put in the ad, etc. As it turns out, working as an employee for a company often shields you from all that information about the end users.
So, I did the most sensible thing anyone would do when they couldn’t find a job: I panicked and started doubting myself.
Did I waste all my time learning too many things and not becoming an expert in one?
Should I settle on one subject and study for a couple more years before I apply again?
Am I just not employable?
Disappointed in myself, I started beating myself up and believing that I wasn’t good enough.
That’s when my client-oriented thinking kicked in: I shouldn’t have been so caught up on whether I could meet the criteria for a job, I should instead focus on providing value.
Thinking about companies I applied to as clients, I started gradually shifting my mindset.
Instead of thinking I wasn’t good enough, I started focusing on what I could do to help the company (providing value).
Instead of thinking I wasn’t specialized enough in any field, I started focusing on the benefits my interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving can bring to the company (again, providing value).
So what did I learn at the end of that?
- Try to naturally narrow your interests and skill on a particular subject, but there is no need to force it;
- You don’t have to be an expert to add value. And sometimes having the experience and familiarity in multiple disciplines can help you think outside the box and solve problems with more creative ways.