Are Your Defects Actually Virtues? (and Birds with Fat Thighs)

April 13, 2016

I was on the phone asking for advice from my former boss, when he told me I was “unemployable.” Them’s fightin’ words?

It can’t be entirely true, since I do have a job. I suppose his recommendation would be for me to hold on for dear life to the job I’ve got, because ain’t no chance in hell some other place would hire me. When this former boss of mine looks at my resume, he sees a person twice as useless as the next guy/gal, a person nobody should want to touch with a ten twenty foot pole. There is not enough coherence to my career. Too much variation in there. Too many detours.

Too many interests.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard this. I’ve even said it myself. Somewhere along the way, I began believing it right down to my very core. Looking at myself, I saw a “jack of all trades, master of none.” And there is little value in that these days. In modern times, you’re told to pick an area and go deep so you can be really good. Specialization is king. The Renaissance person is dead on arrival.

My generalist tendencies are a recipe for being mediocre. Worse than that, they might even be a serious career liability.

Now here is something I find strange.

Anyone who has applied to college probably knows that a lot of good schools want to see that you’re involved in a ton of stuff. GPA is important, but did you play sports? Did you make time for community service? Were you involved in clubs or other things at school? Did you have some other interests like music?

Universities see it as a virtue to be well-rounded and have lots of skills. The competitive nature of getting into college has even contributed to this trend of parents ludicrously overscheduling their children to ensure the “well-rounded” box has been checked.

Somewhere along the way, the tune seems to change. Sometimes it happens within those very same institutions. Pick a major and begin your gradual path to mastery of the gnat’s-ass-level-of-detail in a single area. Especially if you want to “be competitive” in your field. After all, in anything you do, you’ll be competing with people who have chosen to focus exclusively on that and are probably working much harder than you, you lazy asshole. So master one thing. Maybe two. Maybe.

But do you really want to master something? Better get ready to pony up 10,000 hours. Malcolm Gladwell helped popularize this idea of it taking 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. That’s 5-years-worth of full-time job hours, with a piddly 2 weeks of vacation by the way. If it’s a hobby you’re pursuing 10 hours a week, that’s 20-years-worth of hobby time. If you don’t want to spend 5 to 20 years on something, why bother starting?

Here is the problem with all of this. I’ll illustrate with a story.

Up until a few weeks ago, I hadn’t picked up a paintbrush since elementary school. I had always been terrible at the visual arts and it was never going to be “my thing,” so what was the point? If it weren’t for going out to a painting event with friends, I still wouldn’t have picked one up and the world might never have been graced with my most recent masterpiece, Bird With Fat Thighs Sitting In a Tree.


Okay, I might never become a good painter. But if I continued to carry that “why bother if I’ll never be good” attitude with me, I never would’ve realized how relaxing and fun painting could be. It’s as though I had forgotten about the enjoyment of doing something for its own sake. Or learning something new just for the sake of learning.

I have come to realize some people are built more for being specialists, whereas others are built more for being generalists. The hard part is when one of these is seen as universally good or desirable by any part of society.

Being too specialized is a deficit when it comes to applying to many top tier colleges. Yet it can catapult you to the top of your field in your professional life.

Being a multipotentialite is viewed as a real virtue by college admissions offices, but these same people who would’ve felt very at-home in the Renaissance period basically need support groups when they become working adults. (If you think you may be afflicted with this horrible disease, talk to your doctor or visit this blog.)

The reality for me is I am built to do many things. I’ll never play Carnegie Hall, but I’m a pretty good piano player. I’ll never be a trainer on the Biggest Loser, but personal training was definitely a good thing for me to take up. The downside of not going really deep in one-and-only-one area, for me, is offset by the enjoyment and benefits of having a diverse set of skills and interests.

So when you look at something supposedly negative about yourself, you should really ask yourself a question… is this defect actually a virtue in another light?

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