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This, a typical week

I have been talking recently (more in person than anywhere) about being a generalist and what that means to me. I am, in every sense of the word, a generalist, a mash-up artist, comfortable between groups than deep within them.

Personally, I find this generalist position to be a bit uncomfortable. I can learn anything but I’m a master of nothing. Once I pick something up and it’s clear to me that I could learn it to much greater extent, the skill becomes logged and I feel the urge to move onto something else. I don’t abandon the things I learn, rather I build libraries of resources, try to stay remotely informed on the topic, and exercise what I know when I can.

I see this behavior over and over and over and it’s becoming clear to me that I belong on the edges, not in the middle. I work much better straddling two (or ten) different disciplines and skill sets than I do dedicating myself to one in particular. I’m beginning to understand this more as an advantage I have then a disadvantage. The reason I’m having a problem figuring this out is because…

There are JOBS out there

Jobs are titles, hence the term “job title.” Jobs have descriptions and requirements and recommendations and qualifications. Jobs are neatly listed on sites like Jobing and Hotjobs, and, to a lesser extent, Craigslist and Elance. You are qualified or not qualified for a job. Your resume has or does not have what a hiring manager wants. You meet or do not meet the requirements of a position.

I built a pipe the other day (it sorts information from a number of different sources and filters out what you don’t want to see… incredible online application) to find work in my area (just quick, one-off temporary gigs). This process required me to, by way of blocking and allowing certain pieces of information, craft a series of information filters that ended up in a stream of information from 8 different sources coming from 3 different sites. This Pipes application looks at the information that is being fed to it, sees all the different fields (like the title of the ad, the description, the posting date, etc), and decides what to do with it based on what I told it to do.

I found it very difficult to use the fields I was given and the descriptions being provided to create a stream of information that matched want I wanted to see. Don’t want .NET jobs, no engineering positions, yes for HTML but no for Flash, yes for teaching but not for certificates, no for photography but I can take pictures so maybe yes. I find it easy to describe to people what I do (I help small businesses and individuals get the most out of the technology they’re using and find other cheap, simple tools to help them move their ideas forward) but I can’t seem to tell a computer how to find clients for me.

It’s not ALL bad… in fact it’s not bad at all

I learned two important things from the pipe exercise yesterday:

  1. I don’t WANT to fit some job descriptions. There are things that I like to do (writing, HTML/CSS, design, chemistry, teaching, talking to people, helping people, messing around with gadgets, learning things) and there are things that I don’t like to do (spamming, busy work, lying, wasting time under false pretenses, talking to people who don’t listen, data entry). On top of that, there are specific things that I want to learn (PHP, Javascript, general computer science, design standards, art) and there are specific things I don’t really want to learn (this list is actually pretty short but includes C#, thermodynamics, electrical engineering, anything more about calculus than I already know). Combine these two things together and you have a good idea of the type of jobs that I don’t want to take. It’s ok to not be qualified for something and expect to never be qualified for it. This goes for everything from programming to auto repair to internal medicine. Not everyone can do everything but some of us can and, frankly, choose not to!
  2. There is enough work to go around. There is also enough work to be picky (see above). Between the 8 sources I looked at, there was enough work for a team of people. I see this list and the whole thing looks like lost opportunity. Instead, I should be seeing job security. I don’t do everything at the company I’m contracted with and I’m not expected to. Same goes with this list of gigs: I’m not qualified for many of them but, for the ones that I am, I should not be expected to answer everything. Maybe if I was unemployed and not in school I could justify applying for everything but, right now, that’s not the case.

What I did in the last week (including today)…

  1. Learned Yahoo Pipes
  2. Wrote two solid blogs posts
  3. Started learning Microsoft’s Expression Blend
  4. Had a fantastic conversation about the philosophy of application planning
  5. Started planning an application
  6. Started building a new website
  7. Took a test about op amps, RC circuits, voltammetry, and coulometry
  8. Studied many hours for the test above
  9. Learned about path selections in Photoshop
  10. Finished designing a print ad in Illustrator
  11. Designed a print ad for something totally different in Photoshop
  12. Uploaded all my current passwords to Keepass, a password database
  13. Wrote a Craigslist ad for someone; referred someone who got hired for it
  14. Created 7 different spreadsheets in Excel with complicated equations
  15. Build a media PC virtually
  16. Found out about connecting a computer to a TV; avoided buying a whole new computer with one cord
  17. Figured out DVD ripping and burning with an easy application
  18. Possibly wooed a client away from another webmaster
  19. Learned out CSS sprites and how to use them
  20. Put together an HTML email for conference marketing
  21. Learned about molecular symmetry and how to find it

“Ok you’re busy… and?” That’s not the point. There’s no real thread running through that list of things (besides needing a computer for most of it). There are several different goals involved there, many different skill sets, and quite a few different careers. I’m not an expert in anything up there but I did it all proficiently and enjoyed a good portion of it.

Bridging gaps, connecting ideas, breaking molds

getting back to the idea of jobs… the “great job” we all hope for, in mind mind, comes from one particular skill that you’ve honed for years, possibly mastered in a way, and hope to expand from. This “great job” comes from a PhD in chemistry, 8 years of experience in a lab, 4 or 5 different published papers in your field, a pile of recommendation letters, a good connection with someone, and some good old positive energy. A “great job” comes from 10 years of screwing around with a computer and painting in your teens, another ten years of a boring job while doing digital art during every spare minute, a line of T-shirts, a string of album covers, an innate talent for colors and layout, an abilty to stare at a monitor for 12 hours in a row, the “knack,” and a fortunate meeting with the owner of a creative firm.

What I’m saying is that I don’t have 15 years of doing anything but working in many different industries, fields, jobs, skill sets, and locations. Even now, I work with scientists, artists, programmers, trainers, and executives and live with someone in the Health industry. My mind and my hands cover a lot of ground and it’s my ability to talk to each one, to understand what they’re saying without knowing what they know, that makes those edges just a little bit closer.

I understand why people call code poetry. I understand why pharmaceutical companies are seen as immoral but why they are not innately that way. I’ve seen chemistry look like painting, I’ve seen marketing reflect pure creativity, and I’ve seen business be as passionate as anything I’ve experienced. I know why finance is like Tetris, I understand why someone would become a professional auto mechanic, and it makes sense to me why a person would leave their “great job” for something scary and amazing.

I’m a generalist, I love it all and I like loving it. I want to know about what you do and why you do it. I want to know where you want to go and how you’re going to get there. I want to know what drives you, what makes your heart jump into your throat, what pushes you to complete exhaustion. And when I know about it, I want to show you what’s out there to make it easier, better, faster. I want to help you do what you love and make money doing it. I fit in everywhere, I can talk to anyone, and, if it’ll help someone around me, I’ll learn how to do it.

Josh Can Help

Wow, what a time for Brother Ali’s song, forest Whitaker, to come on:

My wardrobe is jeans and faded shirts
A mixture of what I like, and what I wear to work
I’m not mean and got a neck full of razor bumps
I’m not the classic profile of what the ladies want
You might think I’m depressed as can be
But when I look in the mirror I see sexy ass me
And if that’s somethin that you cant respect then that’s peace
My life’s better without you actually
To everyone out there, who’s a little different
I say damn a magazine, these are gods fingerprints
You can call me ugly but cant take nothing from me
I am what I am doctor you ain’t gotta love me

Update: Just read this on GapingVoid.com… wow, nail on the head stuff:

I seem to have inherited the crofting mentality. I DON’T like waking up in the morning and doing the same thing every day. I LIKE having all these different balls in the air- cartooning, painting, consulting, writing, marketing, blogging etc. Sure, part of me would like nothing better than just “retiring to the desert and making paintings”, but another part of me likes all the running around in different directions. And all this running around DOES get tiring, I can tell you that. Sometimes I LOVE the feeling of being constantly overwhelmed. Other times I utterly despise it.

Thanks again, Hugh, for putting what I’m thinking into words.

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