Who said you had to be one thing?
You’re at a party and get introduced to someone. A conversation begins. Pretty soon, they ask “So, what do you do?”*
What do you say? And why do people ask that question?
From a very young age, we’re taught to believe we must define ourselves into a single title. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
We’re led to believe we must narrow ourselves until our profession, work or even life becomes one thing. Lawyer, builder, doctor, teacher, artist, consultant.
And so on.
And we’re also taught that we’re defined by that one thing — which is why people ask that question at parties and social events.
Sure, you do other things. You play golf, you cycle, go camping with the kids, skydive, paint, write poetry but you’re a Dentist right? That’s the box people want to put you in.
What if you don’t fit this paradigm of being defined by the way you spend your working hours? What if that’s not how you define yourself? Maybe you do several things? Maybe you are several things?
You might be a freelance copywriter a couple of days a week, spend a day running your eBay business, and do both of these to fund your passion for scuba diving for the rest of the week. So how would you describe yourself?
Here’s a thing. How would people we recognise as great achievers respond if you asked them “What do you do?”
What would Elon Musk say? Barack Obama? Stephen Fry? Maybe they’d respond with their mission instead if their job title. “I’m building technologies to save the planet” for example.
What you ‘do’ isn’t fixed either. As you change (and we all do), so will what you do and what you are**.
And you can do whatever you want — there’s never been so much choice, so much access to knowledge and so much freedom put into our hands. Which is why picking one thing that we ‘do’ is unimaginative, silly and high risk: the world needs generalists.
The world is changing faster than we can comprehend. In the US, approximately 25% of all jobs are at risk of being replaced or severely disrupted by automation.
Being a specialist or good at one thing (with some obvious exceptions) will become a risk. The people who will thrive in the world 30 years from now, will be generalists. People who can do many things, knit together an array of disciplines and are skilled in systems thinking.
The world needs problem solvers and creators, not process executors. Plumbers will be ok though, it’ll take a while to automate what they do.
Who said you had to be one thing? That’s the question worth asking.
We can all explore more. We’re born as explorers. More than ever, we should recapture our ability to explore.
*The best conversation starter I’ve ever heard is “What’s your story?”
** David Epstein’s new work on the triumph of generalists is one to explore