Specializing in One Thing is Pretty Unfulfilling

As I get closer to thirty years old, sometimes I wonder: “What is my true calling, or purpose in life?”

No matter your age, you’ve probably wondered the same thing before, asking yourself if you’re “where you’re supposed to be” at any given moment in time.

On a personal level, I’d wager that most of us are probably deeply invested in the success, security, and happiness of our family and friends.

On a career level, though, I’m not sure these questions are quite as easy to answer – for any of us.

Conventional wisdom says you should pick one thing and do it very well.

Conventional wisdom teaches us to think about “what we want to be when we grow up” from a young age, implying that we’re limited to choosing just one vocation or field of study to pursue.

Then as our careers progress, we are reminded of this implication on a regular basis as we’re told to pay our dues and work our way up.

We’re also reminded that to become an expert in something, we need specific degrees (the cost of which are high, and the ROI questionable in many cases) and must invest 10,000 hours in that one area to succeed.

Robert Greene’s book entitled Mastery goes yet a step farther by explaining how it takes 20,000 hours to achieve true mastery.

No doubt there is truth in all of this.

Staying committed to one’s employer often does lead to advancement and promotion, while specialized degrees and consistent daily learning move us closer to becoming experts in our fields.

In my own case, having played the guitar now for over 15 years, I probably crossed the 10,000-hour mark sometime within the past few years – and I’ll be honest… it’s like second nature now. By contrast, in the beginning it seemed nearly impossible. The change is interesting to feel and observe.

But despite my long-standing commitment to music, I don’t feel it’s my “one true calling,” nor has it ever been my career. Rather, I know it’s simply one of many true callings for me.

So, is there truly one clear path for everyone?

As stated above, there is certainly plenty of logic to support the notion that someone can benefit from remaining specialized in one area for most of their career or life.

However, not everyone has such a clear path…

  • Some of us have switched careers one or more times due to misunderstanding our core passions.
  • Others of us have identified our passions, but haven’t yet found a way to build a fulfilling career around them.
  • Then there are some of who have worked in a field corresponding to our passion, but something wasn’t right with the overall situation (pay, culture, boss, etc.) and we left because it wasn’t a good fit.

…nor does everyone want such a clear path:

  • Yet others of us thrive on constant learning, getting bored with routine work and needing new projects on a regular basis to stay engaged (I’d be willing to bet quite a few entrepreneurs, inventors, musicians, authors, professors, and other creative types fall into this category).
  • Then there are some of us who have had the fortune of knowing our passion and building a career around it, but found that our passions changed as we grew older – causing us to seek out new things.

The truth is that it’s becoming increasingly rare to run into people who have worked at one company their entire life, and perhaps yet more rare to run into people who have built life-long careers around their passions.

80% of us aren’t happy with our jobs.

As it would turn out, my current full-time business has led me to research and study employment satisfaction rates in depth, along with specific methods for improving engagement and work satisfaction – and the numbers are alarming.

The sad truth is that most of us (about 80%) aren’t satisfied with our careers, and it’s not only costing people their happiness, but it’s also costing their employers a lot of money (believe it or not, average turnover costs are about 1-3X someone’s annual salary).

This is part of the reason why I was so motivated to get into management consulting – this is a real problem, and I’m interested in helping both individuals and companies solve it.

What’s a (frustrated) person to do?

On an individual level, if you’re struggling with identifying your passions or “true calling,” you deserve to give yourself a break.

As this article points out, too many of us constantly fret and worry that something is wrong with us because we haven’t “discovered our passion” or aligned our lives with our “true calling,” when in reality there’s nothing wrong with us at all.

Moreover, if following our hearts means taking a few turns throughout our lives – so be it. Why stay tied down to a particular career or field if you knew in your heart it was no longer bringing you fulfillment? Life is simply too short.

You should also realize that you’re not alone – a large majority of your fellow peers feel the same way.

Consider the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ study entitled “Number of Jobs Held in a Lifetime,” which was published in March 2015. This study found (for baby boomers, mind you) that the average person held over eleven jobs – just between the ages of 18-48! Here’s a graph from the full report:

bureau of labor statistic - number of jobs held by age

Source: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/nlsoy.pdf

This graph seems to make it clear that the average person doesn’t just settle in and start plugging away for the rest of their life (there probably isn’t one magical, clear path for the majority of us).  The study, by the way, was conducted from a sample size of 9,964 men and women from 1979 – 2013.

Focus on your diversity and multi-faceted skills as a strength.

Another article I particularly enjoyed reading recently was this one, entitled “Specialization is Overrated: On Being Good at Many Things.”

The author points out how so many skills from her past were invaluable when building her business, from legal knowledge picked up during law school (even though she chose not to become a lawyer) to random bits of website design and coding skills.

I couldn’t possibly feel more on the same page with her message, as I built much of my company’s website myself during the startup phase (using my web design knowledge) and wrote/reviewed many of our contracts (employing my paralegal background).

Even if you aren’t an entrepreneur (but especially if you are), being able to integrate knowledge across many areas to accomplish specific goals is an important life skill. It provides a basis for relation and understanding of the different spheres of our lives, and empowers us to move forward.

Honestly, I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like trying to start my business without some of these handy skills from my past.

How much would we have paid for legal help? Accounting help? Web design and coding? These are all high-ticket items, and it would’ve cost us a small fortune if we had to rely on others for these things.

My business partner’s graphic design skills and startup experience were a huge help, too, saving us additional time and money. Last but not least, I’m grateful for having recently spent a few years in sales as a career, as that part of running our business is much more clear now than it otherwise would have been.

Moving on and forward with your life.

We still live in an era where we’re conditioned to believe there’s something wrong with us if we make abrupt career changes, and where we’re expected to be able to explain such changes on our resume when applying for a job.

While it’s true that frequent job-hopping might be less than ideal, what’s much more important is what we bring to the table and whether or not we’re happy with our current choice of work.

It’s also perfectly okay to pursue multiple ambitions or passions, inside and outside of work, if your time and resources allow. In my case, even though I’ve gone full-time into management consulting, I’ll still be playing my guitar and writing in my free time – and so should you, if that’s what you like.

Once again – life is simply too short not to.

The answer: embrace your many passions and callings.

If you have many passions, then it makes sense to follow them as far as you can. To abandon them because of fear of what someone else might think would be a travesty. Part of the gift of life is in the experience, after all!

Realize also that there will always be someone out there ready to give you advice or explain why you should do something differently. At times, this advice can be valuable and help in guiding oneself towards a meaningful goal. Other times though, it simply introduces noise into the equation and creates confusion where there needn’t be any.

In my own life, I’ve had a bit of both – and especially on the embarkation of starting my own company full-time, I’ve even introduced some of my own noise into the equation by asking myself if this is what I should be doing right now. But at the same time, this is what my heart is telling me to do and I’m totally immersed in the process – so here I am, and I trust that this is where I’m meant to be.

In your case, remember to embrace your passions and position your diversity as a strength – whatever your pursuits may be – and to trust that the dots will connect for you. Whether or not you know what your “calling” isn’t nearly as important as tuning into your innate abilities and applying them to your work, and life.

For additional inspiration, I leave you with a speech by Steve Jobs during which he explains how dropping out of college and dropping in on a calligraphy class ultimately led to the beautiful typography we now have on mac computers. Beyond this, the entire speech is a great testament to integrating past knowledge into current endeavors and following one’s heart. Enjoy.

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