Best Practices

Mastering your narrative as a generalist

July 19, 2021

Esmé is our new Community Operations Manager here at Propel. Prior to joining us, she managed event and course programming at a professional development startup and comes from an entrepreneurial background. She is a three-time founder with x1 exit.

I decided from an early age that specialisation was not for me. When I was 15 I sought out schools where I could complete 5-6 A Levels (a British qualification similar to AP courses) rather than the customary 3-4. In the process of my search I discovered the International Baccalaureate Diploma. A shiny new thing that involved 6 subjects, an epistemology class, a mini dissertation, and a community service element. That much variety was the kind of spice I wanted in my life. At my existing school I belonged to a strong network that had elected me to the School Council year after year, and expected me to step up as Head Girl. But I was prepared to leave it all behind and commute 38 miles daily to attend one of the few schools that offered the IB Diploma in South East England. 

When it came to choosing an undergraduate degree, I chose to study Languages as a cheat code of sorts. Through that path of study I could continue enjoying language, history, literature, and avoiding specialisation.

Since leaving university my incurable curiosity has made me a wellbeing blogger and entrepreneur, a bespoke womenswear designer, a fashion-tech cofounder, and more recently a community builder. All that to say, I am a generalist proper.

I didn’t put much thought into my professional brand until I wanted to pivot from entrepreneur to operator. At this point I came up against two uncomfortable realities. The first: when you can do many things, it is difficult to convince most hiring managers you can do one thing well. The second: generalists are often undervalued. Sound familiar?

Here’s what you can do about it: 

Do less*

Image credit: Jack Butcher, Visualize Value

*and live with the lack of fulfilment.

Master your narrative

Image: Esmé, inspired by Jack Butcher

As a generalist, mastering your narrative is the game-changer that helps even the squarest perspectives see your true value. To illustrate this point, consider this real scenario I experienced.

Interviewer: looking at your CV, you’ve got your fingers in all the pies haven’t you?
Me: That is one way to put it! I have depth in the area of x and broader knowledge in the areas of y and z, making me valuable to cross-functional communication and collaboration. I view being T-shaped as a strength in this sort of role. What is your perspective?

Although this interviewer seemed to have already made a value judgement before meeting me, I was able to reframe their perspective and secure a job offer (that I politely declined).

How to master your narrative

So how do you as a generalist master your narrative? I’m still thinking this through, and would love to hear your thoughts. What I’ve figured out so far is:

Point forward

So you’ve done a lot of things? Great! What is the next step? Definitely make it clear how the things you have done lend themselves to your next step, but don’t make them the focus. Demonstrate what you are doing to take that step. Demonstrate development and directionality. Point forward.

Share strategically

Not everything you’ve done or can do needs to be so readily shared. When you lay all of your cards out, you would think it makes you easy to read. In actuality, most people find it just overwhelming. By being strategic in what you share, how, and when, you are better able to influence others in their understanding of you. 

As mentioned, I’m still thinking through this challenge. As I learn about your experiences and research further I look forward to updating this with more granular tips and tools. Until then, enjoy my recommended reads on the topic. 

DM me on Slack to share your thoughts or just say hello!

Recommended reads

Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World - David Epstein

The Multi-Hyphen Method - Emma Gannon

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