All or nothing

All or nothing. It seems to be the way of the world. But it’s no way to manage your career.

In baseball, a home run is the best thing you can do as a hitter. You take a big swing, you feel the satisfying jolt as you hit the ball, and the crowd stands up to cheer as you trot around the bases.

Babe_Ruth_by_Paul_Thompson,_1920

When Babe Ruth retired, he held the record for most home runs — and the record for most strikeouts.

The worst thing you can do is strike out. You don’t hit the ball. You don’t get to run. You just slink back to the bench, defeated and humiliated.

Home run. Strikeout. All or nothing.

25 years ago, major-league hitters had an all-or-nothing outcome — a home run or a strikeout — about one-sixth of the time.

Last year, it was almost a quarter of the time. That’s an increase of nearly 50 percent, trending toward all-or-nothingness. Toward the extremes.

It’s not just baseball, either. Here in the U.S., and in much of the rest of the world, the political middle is melting away. “Moderates” are becoming an endangered species. More and more, you’re either an avid liberal or a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. It’s hip to be extreme.

Or is it? There’s one area where I hope you’re not an all-or-nothing person.

When I started my career in technical writing, it wasn’t long before I became a specialist: a technical writer for software. In that role I was familiar with the principles of UX (user experience), but there were other professionals who specialized in that.

In my professional network were other technical writers who specialized in writing about pharmaceuticals, policies and procedures, and grant proposals.

I view specialization as a form of all-or-nothingness. You can do one specific thing. You can become really good at it. With some effort I might’ve become the best software technical writer in the world, hitting a home run every time. But would that have given me the skills and experience to step into a different role?

What about you? Are you trying to become the best in the world in one specialized thing? Or are you broadening your skill set so that you can move from one role to another? Are you learning new skills and making sure that you’re at least conversant, if not expert, in a variety of fields related to your core skills?

If that’s you, then good for you. You’ve found the key to staying current and remaining employable.

Good for you, because you’ll have a much easier time adapting to changing job markets and requirements than someone with a narrow area of specialization.

A baseballGood for you, because even though some hiring managers take the all-or-nothing approach — you have to have exactly this experience and these skills before I’ll consider you — the smart ones understand that your breadth of experience will enable you to fit easily into the job — and grow with the job as it evolves over time.

So, even if the rest of the world is trending toward all-or-nothingness, I hope you’ll overcome the temptation to let your career trend that way.

You can hit lots of home runs but strike out whenever you’re confronted with something unfamiliar or new. Or you can develop diverse skills that enable you to succeed in diverse ways — hitting singles, doubles, and triples, along with the occasional home run, and only rarely striking out.

How have you been able to learn and evolve, avoiding the trap of all-or-nothingness? Share your story in the comments section.

Image by Paul Thompson, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons 

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5 thoughts on “All or nothing

  1. Ray

    Larry – as they say, you “hit a home run” with this one 😉

    Specialization, today, is death in our profession. More and more, the world will belong to generalists, or, as I like to say, Jack of all trades, master of some.

    Someone else once said, and forgive me, I no longer remember who, but I’ve been quoting this for over 40 years – you need to know everything about something, and something about everything. I’d actually say, you need to know everything about some thingS – plural. But the advice still holds.

    Oh, and just to end on a positive note, here in Europe, the populist far right parties have recently been in retreat, and in France, we have both a government and a legislative majority that claims to be both left and right at the same time. Don’t know what that means yet, but we’re all holding our collective breath, and hoping. I just might make my own blog post on this subject, if I can stop my head from spinning.

    Reply
  2. Mark Baker

    Echoing what Ray said, it does seem that you need to be what we might characterize as T-shaped. Without depth we are trivial. Without breadth we are blinkered and doctrinaire. And since we lack the resource to be both fully broad and fully deep, T-shaped it about as well as we can do.

    This raised questions about the portability of a T shaped skill set. Being T shaped means you can probably get a basic job in a variety of fields if you need one, but you are probably not going to excel or be be happy until you get back to working with the deep part of your T. Being merely broad seems to mean bering merely mediocre in many fields, and it is hard to see the fun or the profit in that.

    So I am not sure that the world will belong to the generalists. I think it belongs, and has always belonged, to the T shaped, because it is the T shaped who know enough about what they don’t know to appreciate its importance, and to communicate effectively with those other T shaped individuals whose depth is in those areas.

    So, the future, perhaps, may belong to loose and perhaps shifting agglomerations of T shaped people. Loose and shifting, I say, because I think that tightly bound teams tend to gather together birds of a feather, and this is not what you want. You want the diversity of voices exchanged between people with enough breadth to understand what each other is talking about, and you only get that with a diverse collection of T-shaped people.

    The political polarization of this age seems to bear this out. Politically most of us are I-shaped.

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Mark. The “T-shaped” metaphor makes a huge amount of sense. Being a pure generalist isn’t fun or profitable, as you said. It’ isn’t easy, either, I should think, because our experiences and our preferences naturally tend to make us experts in a few areas. In other words, we tend naturally toward being “I-shaped.”

      Nice insight about seeking diversity rather than flocking together with birds of a feather. I hadn’t considered that, but I agree that it’s important if we want to avoid all-or-nothingness.

      Reply
  3. Pingback: All or nothing | Leading Technical Communication | TechCommGeekMom

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