Why I am raising my kids to be generalists

jack of all trades

This article is contributed by David Leonhardt.

The stage performance of Billy Elliot (the musical) we took in recently was more than just a dazzling display of first-rate entertainment and a hyper-politicized ode to coal and labour unions. It was also a poignant reminder of one of the reasons I am raising my girls to be generalists.

Both my daughters, who hope one day to be entertainers themselves were mesmerized by the singing and dancing. Both of them saw themselves on the stage.

billy elliot the musical

And both of them realized what it would take to get there.

  • Everyone on that stage had to be able to act.
  • Everyone on that stage had to be able to sing.
  • Everyone on that stage had to be able to dance, in general.
  • Almost everyone on that stage had to be able to tap.
  • Many of the roles required being able to dance ballet.

To put it in perspective, if you sing and act and dance ballet, but don’t tap, this performance would most likely not be accessible for you as an actor.

Generalists get more opportunities

So the first reason to raise your children – and yourself – to be generalists is that many jobs require a wide array of skills. And no, it’s not just in the performing arts.

Consider the engineer who really, really knows his engineering. How many more positions in firms open up if he also develops the sales skills to sell engineering services – and how many positions, how many higher-paying positions, are closed to him without sales skills.

Consider further how many opportunities open up to that same engineer when he learns to speak Spanish or Arabic – and how many opportunities pass him by, because someone else can better sell to and liaise with Spanish-speaking or Arabic-speaking buyers. Or German. Or Chinese. You get the idea.

Yes, the more diverse your skill sets, the more chances you have for advancement in a company or in a private career.

But there are several other reasons why it pays to be a generalist.

What is your back-up plan?

My eldest daughter is most likely to make it as a singer. By “make it”, I don’t mean that she’s the next Katy Perry or Lady Gaga. That could happen, of course, but more likely she will have a variety of opportunities to use her voice at a more local level. But what if her voice goes? What if she has not developed any other skills? The same goes for dance, if that would be her chosen path – what if she permanently injures her leg?

Once again, this is not just a performing arts issue. Consider the truck or bus driver whose eyesight weakens. Or the surgeon whose eyesight weakens. There are so many things to go wrong; does it make sense to put all your eggs in one basket?

Variety is the spice of life

Another good reason to be a generalist – and this one might be a bit less definitive for everyone – is for personal fulfillment. The more a person can do – the more a person does – the more complete she feels. This does not apply to everybody; some people really do feel more fulfilled with a laser focus on a single skill. Some people want to do nothing but balance numbers. Or nothing but styling hair. Or nothing but sorting test specimens.

However, most people enjoy variety, and often that means variety on the job. Variety can also be achieved through extra-curricular activities, such as the accountant who does ballroom dancing and rock-climbing on the weekends, but that is not enough for everybody, and not everyone has the time or energy to devote to a full-time job and rigorous hobbies.

Either way, it pays to at least encourage your children to develop a wide variety of skills, even if one set will predominate in their career. The skills they learn at an early age will pay off in options for them in both career and in personal life later on.

For this reason, it is ideal if you can steer them toward participating in activities that help them develop a variety of physical, mental and social capabilities, such as…

  • Sports or some form of physical activity
  • Something competitive
  • Something non-competitive
  • Something to do in teams, whether it is sports or dance or martial arts
  • Something to do solo, such as painting or singing
  • Community work, such as charity or environmental work
  • Reading
  • Puzzles of various kinds, visual, mathematics, etc.
  • Second or third languages

Not every child will warm up to every type of activity, but the more variety you can steer them towards, the larger their personal universe will be when they are adults.

Technology changes

There is another reason that it is important to learn more than just one skill – a lesson that moat diggers and blacksmiths and switchboard operators have all learned. New technology can very quickly make any skill obsolete.

I know, you’re snickering. Moat diggers became obsolete because technology replaced them. Technology workers can’t be replaced by technology because – how would you say it? – “du-uh”. But just ask any technology worker who has taken an extended maternity leave how hard it is to get back into the swing of things.

Today’s computing technology could become totally obsolete in a matter of five years if a sudden break-through in organic computing happened. Or if solar energy could suddenly be harnessed to power cars. The more skills you have, the more you can adapt to a changing job landscape.

Government regulations change

Government regulations can change things quickly, too. You might figure there will always be plenty of jobs for accountants. But consider the scenario where the government finally does something intelligent and wipes all the complexity out of the income tax system. All of a sudden, the reams of forms are replaced by a single postcard for each household:

  1. Report total household income here
  2. Subtract $##,### standard deductible
  3. Multiply by ## percent
  4. Pay this amount.

OK, OK. There would still be accountants needed. Fixing the income tax system won’t eliminate accountants altogether. But it would reduce the total number of accounting jobs by, what? Twenty percent? Fifty percent? Seventy percent? So a lot of accountants would lose their jobs, and the first to go would be mostly those who have no additional skills.

Just imagine the career carnage if governments decided to make love, not war!

Let’s face it, there are a lot of jobs that exist by the will of government largesse, some for better, some for worse. But government has been known to end useless programs (believe it or not) and also unfortunately to end useful programs. And if government does something really big, a lot of people need to think career change quickly.

Working conditions change

slaving away at the job

And sometimes working conditions make a job much less attractive than it used to be. Suppose you are a teacher and you realize that over the years the job starts to become too administrative. Or that you can no longer handle the kids as you get older.

Image you are a psychologist, and at some point other people’s problems start to drive you crazy. Suppose you are a painter and you become allergic to paint. Or you run a winery and become an alcoholic.

There are so many ways in which you can no longer stand a career that you might have loved for a couple decades. Sometimes taste or preferences or motivations simply change. Something you loved doing because it was fun, might no longer have the same appeal when you start to realize that it is not really making the world a better place. A career helping people might lose its appeal when you get tired of the ingratitude. So many reasons you might want to fall back on a different set of skills.

Six good reasons to raise your child to be a generalist

So these are the six reasons (and there might be more) that it is worth raising your child to be a generalist

  1. Many opportunities are open only to people with multiple skills, and the most coveted few opportunities often are among those.
  2. Injuries can render one skill useless; what’s your back-up plan?
  3. Variety is the spice of life. A career, and life itself, is usually much more pleasant with a variety of activities – especially important to have both mental and physical skills.
  4. Technology can render a person’s skills obsolete.
  5. Government regulations can render a person’s skills obsolete.
  6. A career path that once entranced you might lose its appeal, either because working conditions change or because you change.

Author Bio: David Leonhardt is a blog writer and a song lyrics writer, an occasional iconoclast , but most of all he is a parent trying to help his kids chart the most advantageous and fulfilling path in life for themselves. You can follow David on Twitter at @Amabaie.

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