How To Survive as a Generalist

9 May 2024

This article is a collection of tips and experiences that might help you, or to which you might relate as a fellow generalist.

Quick introduction — skippable

I’ve been struggling with being a generalist most of my adult life. During my deepest identity and career crisis, I decided to talk to a psychologist. During our 2nd session he says, “Adam, you are most likely what we call a ‘multipotentiality’.” I go, “What? Does that mean I am like… smart or something?” “Not necessarily,” he replies, “it’s more about curiosity. People like you are more common nowadays. You should embrace it." It was the first time I became conscious of this fact. Before it was like “There is too many things. I am lost. I don’t know what to pursue. I want to pursue all at the same time.”, and it suddenly flipped to “Oh, this is who I am. This is how it’s supposed to be. I hate labeling things but,.. this label helps.”

How to tell if you are a generalist?

  • You focus on the bigger picture
  • You like learning
  • You are drawn to things you don’t know
  • As soon as you learn something, you consider it obvious, as if not even worth mentioning
  • You experience burnout quite often
  • You struggle with defining yourself

If you managed to identify yourself, congratulations! I guess.. :/ It’s not something you can opt out of. Your head is just wired weird, unfortunately. Here are a few things you will probably need to live with:

Prepare to sacrifice time

Imagine mining gold. Imagine you knew exactly where the gold is. Now despite the fact that you know this, since you are a generalist, you will start digging in 27 other directions. Why? Well, exploration! Right? Something might be there, we never know. Going straight for the gold sounds too easy and boring.

After excavating 27 tunnels that lead absolutely nowhere, you, naturally, start digging the 28th tunnel. You eventually end up burnout and decide to pick up the gold. That’s what I mean when I say prepare for a time sacrifice. As a generalist you need to get ready for this. It might take you longer to reach your goals, because your natural curiosity will often lead you astray. Maybe the 29th tunnel would hide something extraordinary?

The urge to creativity

As a generalist, you might often feel the urge to do things differently. Doing things the same as before feels mundane. But reinventing the wheel comes with a cost. Wheel is too powerful. Tested by centuries of time. Even vehicles that fly need wheels. Yet you might feel like trying and reimagining it.

Here is my advice —just know when. Just know when you can afford to be innovative, and when it’s a death sentence (wheel). Anytime you feel the urge, just ask yourself “Is this a good time, or should I just force myself to do it as everyone expects me to?”. Trust me, you will get better at answering this question over time.

Potential employers don’t trust you

After I finished studying design, I was looking for a job either as a UX/UI designer or a frontend developer. I ended up working as a B2B marketing expert. Yeah.. Even though I can code — just launched an app — and have been practicing UX/UI design for more than 8 years, employers generally don’t trust me when they see all these skills in my CV. This is something us generalists simply have to reckon with.

I recommend making multiple CVs — one for each of your skills. Also, we will have a much harder time building a strong portfolio in multiple areas, compared to a specialist, who is laser focused on a single skill. Again, it will just take more time for us..

Thrive on chaos

Trying to get your life perfectly sorted out might be great for most people. Not for most generalists. But don’t worry about it. Or try not to. Continue exploring. I know it’s hard with all the looks and pressure from your family and peers who try hard to follow linear trajectories.

Startups. Your perfect environment?

Startups are companies that are just starting out. While their resources might not be scarce, they need to spend them wisely. If they can hire a lawyer and a data scientist in one person (I met this guy!), they will gladly do it, while a serious law firm might be like “What?!”. Also, there are not as many rules at a startup. The company is new, responsibilities are not strictly divided, rigorous processes are not yet in place. As a generalist, you probably enjoy wearing multiple hats, and startups reward you for wearing them!

Don’t be afraid

As a generalist, fear is your greatest enemy. People fear the unknown, but the unknown and the generalist are the very best friends. Don’t be afraid to accept tasks or jump into things you have zero experience with. This is where your adaptability shines. Jump in, adapt, figure out. You will likely have a much easier time doing this than other people would.

Being broke

If you are broke, the natural tendency is to find a job. With too many skills, this might prove surprisingly difficult. If you struggle, use your creativity. Try to come up with a business idea. Chances are your ideas will be above average. Use your wide range of skills to offer a unique service. I know this advice is not much. You will probably have to find the job eventually. Just know that thinking outside the box is okay even when it comes to money.

Get ready to burn out

I don’t know. I still struggle with this one. I guess just get ready for it. You juggle 10 balls cause you have to. Juggling 3 doesn’t quite stimulate you, you will end up bored and you will procrastinate. Too much = burnout, too little = boredom and procrastination. If anyone has tips on how to find a balance here, please let me know.

To sum it up:

Your strengths:

  • Extremely adaptable

  • Quickly acquire new skills

  • Eat challenges

Your weaknesses:

  • Huge time sacrifice

  • Identity struggles

  • Burnout

Key takeaways:

  • Don’t resist, embrace
  • Prepare for the long run
  • Know when to be innovative
  • Don’t fear the challenge
  • Try balance burnout and boredom