I have always considered myself a “specialized generalist”, never had extraordinary talent for anything and was average in anything I did. But I argue that its always better to be a “jack of all trades, master of none.” What do I mean here?
I recalled being ridiculed at during my schooling years as a teenager. “He cannot sprint, he cannot throw and he cannot jump! Cannot make it lah!” You see, I was an ordinary athlete with no specialized talent nor skill in a particular event, unlike my well-endowed athletic peers. If you were a sprinter, you would have always clocked an acceptable timing to participate in school competitions. I was not in that league. I was a benchwarmer so to speak. Though I was still part of the school’s track & field team, I could not compete exceptionally well in any of the popular events like sprints, long and high jumps, and marathons. I was well, just average in all of them.
So, a senior walked up to me one day and “encouraged” me to join an event called pole vaulting, since they needed students to make up the numbers. I told myself “Heck, since I wasn’t strong in any of the mainstream events, why not give this unheard event a go?”
Sometimes, life just surprises you in unexpected ways.
I have always wanted to be a sprinter back then, and pole vault was never in my mind. Strangely, I eventually grew to love the sport! Not only did I meet my coach, who also an amazing mentor (I still keep in contact with him till now), I realized that competing and winning in Singapore as a pole vaulter was not very difficult. You see, pole vault was a little-known sport in this island city, hence there wasn’t much competition. This was unlike the popular 100m, 200m, long jump, high jump, throws (javelin, discus) etc where you faced hundreds of athletes in a single event; you only had a sliver of a chance to get a medal. In contrast, a typical pole vault event only had like 10-15 competitors. Moreover, barrier of entry as a pole vault athlete was high since you need to have a specialized coach, buy fibreglass poles which can cost at least U$600-U$1,000/piece (and you need to have at least a few of them) and use specific pole-vaulting mattress. Most schools were not willing to make such hefty investments.
Being a pole vaulter fit my description as a “Mr. Jack of All Trades”. I just needed to have the basic attributes as a sprinter, long jumper, high jumper and long-distance runner, and followed the techniques taught by my coach. I will never forget what my coach used to always say whenever we had down days – “Willie, just follow the techniques, come for training thrice a week and you will confirm get your medal!” One thing I admired about my coach is that he was willing to train anyone who had the interest and determination succeed, regardless whether he/she had any talent in sports.
Lo and behold, I was lucky enough to clinch a bronze medal in the 46th National Inter-School Track & Field Championships in 2005! It didn’t matter whether I had to compete against 1, 10 or even 100 other pole vaulters. A medal achievement eventually paved a powerful backstory to land me into several job interviews and offers later on.
What I like to share here is that, you don’t have to beat yourself up if you find that you lacked any particular talent. Taking whatever your average skills, combining them, consistently apply the requisite techniques and you can eventually create a niche for yourself and succeed. Hence, a specialized generalist. This also helps you to avoid swimming with the masses (like competing against hundreds of athletes in popular track & field events) and be contrarian in doing things which no one wants or likes to do (in this case, pole vault).
Trust me, you will reap the rewards eventually.
Similarly, to get your beloved dream jobs is not just about having a pristine set of academic grades. More importantly, it’s about how you combine your range of “hard” and “soft” skills (i.e. technical knowledge, personal branding, networking and communication skills etc) to propel your career forward.
What are some of the niches you have discovered by combining existing skill sets from yourself?