Sharp Focus: How to tame your inner generalist

This blogpost is part of HireArt‘s applicant series. We’ve asked a few of our candidates to talk about their experience and what they learned in their job search. If you’d like to contribute to our blog, please contact If you’d like to browse jobs, visit our jobs page.

No prospective employer has ever seen my full resume. Nor have any of them gotten to hear about all the experience I have as a journalist, a copywriter, an editor, a screenwriter, a graphic designer, a marketer, a researcher, a publicist and even my experience wearing a giant bee costume for the launch party of a website.

I did all the things I’ve listed above professionally before becoming an editor for custom clothier Black Lapel’s style journal, The Compass. As an editor for an online publication I call on my varied professional experience all the time. Yet, I would never suggest anyone try to get an editing job (or any job, for that matter) by emphasizing how broad your range of experience is. Why? Because the people who are doing the hiring are rarely looking for a generalist. They’re hiring because they’re in search of someone to solve a specific problem. In many cases, solving that problem (aka, doing the job) requires someone who can draw on a variety of skills and experience, but in order to get the job you’ve got to show the employer that you’re really good at the specific task at hand. So what’s a job seeker to do? Edit!

The Story of You

Think of your career as a novel and your candidacy for any particular job is like the movie version of that novel. In the movies filmmakers (that’s you) trim down novels to the essential story elements to make them compelling to the audience (that’s the prospective employer). If people really like the movie, some members of the audience will say, “I’ve got to add this one to my permanent collection” (that’s you getting hired). When people buy the DVD/Blu-Ray, they get the director’s cut and commentary (that’s where you can expand into all the other wonderful aspects of your career that ended up on the cutting room floor).

I can hear some of you protesting, “But my wide range of skills are a great asset, why wouldn’t I want to emphasize my diverse background?” That may be true, but every second a prospective employer spends learning about your broad background is a second they could be learning about how you can do the very specific elements of the job well. These seconds are precious because there aren’t many of them for any one candidate. You’ve got limited time to show how you can do the job. Use it wisely. To go back to the movie metaphor, the legendary filmmaker and film professor, Alexander MacKendrick, wrote about screenplays, “If it can be cut out, then CUT IT OUT. Everything non-essential that you can eliminate strengthens what’s left.” Take MacKendrick’s advice when presenting yourself. The quicker and more efficiently you can get a prospective employer to see you solving the specific problem they have, the better.

The T-Shaped Candidate

The trick to editing your story is not to think of what you’re cutting as gone forever. Just because you’re not listing everything you’re capable of, it doesn’t mean you’re any less capable. Will you draw on your diverse background to do the job if you get it? Of course, but I’ve got more sobering news for you? So will everybody else. Everybody’s background is diverse. The days of people finishing school, going to work in the field they studied and doing the same thing for the rest of their lives are over. That means that there are plenty of people out there with a little experience in a lot of areas. There’s no shortage of people who know enough to be dangerous in any job.

To stand out you’ve got to show how you’ve got the most deep, relevant and practical experience to do a great job. Establishing that you can do the job is step one. Once in the job, you can move on to being what the consulting firm McKinsey & Company calls “T-shaped.”

In the 1970s the people at McKinsey & Company began to cultivate what they dubbed, the T-shaped consultant. These were people who had deep knowledge of their particular industry, but enough experience in other fields to have a generalist approach to business problems.

As an example, when I first applied for the editing position at Black Lapel, I focused solely on my experience writing for and editing online publications. I gave some hints that I could do other things (like mentioning that I can be found on IMDB under a nom de plume) but only in the context of how those other things would help me as an editor and only after I had built a solid case for my ability to be an editor.

In the position I’ve done plenty of writing (mostly editorial but some marketing copy and even a video script), I’ve done some graphic design, a bit of marketing and research and even helped out with publicity. The only thing I’ve done in the past that I haven’t done in this job is don a giant bee costume. That’s fine. I’ve hung up the antennae…for now.

One Comment

  1. Jeffy said:

    This article was posted on hckrnews under the title, “Why being a specialist is better than being a generalist for getting a job (”.

    My response is, ‘Why being a *generalist* is better than being a *specialist* for *keeping*a job.”

    September 26, 2013

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