By Manik Rege
Read: 7 mins.
Do you remember taking that aptitude test in school? I did mine just before passing out. After having me answer 150 MCQs about my interests, personality traits, and ambitions, they called in my parents for a “career counseling” session to discuss which pathways suited me best.
Mrs. Medha said that based on her team’s analysis, I’d do wonders as a lawyer, a filmmaker, or a therapist (psychology). Ultimately, I ended up becoming neither. But in hindsight, I think my current role as a social media manager combines certain aspects of all 3 options:
- The advocacy skills of a lawyer, which I use to sell brands
- The creativity of filmmaking, which I apply in ad design
- And a therapist’s empathy, which is crucial in customer relations
So it’s debatable how accurate or vague my aptitude test was. But the point remains that I was given “either-or” advice, which is the traditional mindset we use whenever we think about our careers. We’re told we should pick one “niche” and then spend our life excelling at it.
This usually involves pursuing Master’s, PhDs, specialized courses, corporate training, and online certifications… along with any other avenue that further secures our place as an expert in the field.
Conversely, being a “jack of all trades” – a novice at several things – is frowned upon; it’s usually interpreted as a classic case of “I’ve not yet figured it out!”
Now there is nothing particularly wrong with suggesting that a singer should focus on becoming a better singer; or that a computer engineer should try to learn as many programming languages as possible. Constant self-development has become as important to one’s survival as water is, no thanks to the ever-rising competition.
If you don’t take efforts in keeping up with the times- and maintaining your position as the best person for the job- there are 25 other candidates waiting to replace you at a lower salary. It’s a dog-eat-dog world.
However, the “go-niche-or-go-home” mindset is dangerous. It assumes that the market will need singers and computer engineers every single day. It assumes that experts will never go out of demand. And it feeds the fantasy that if you’re a pro at something, someone will always be willing to hire you, come heaven or hell.
Try telling that to my uncle, who has flown 500+ flights for Malaysia’s biggest airline. Or my best friend, who has served delicious meals as a sous chef in several restaurants across Europe. Or my ex-professor, who has delivered countless lectures her lifetime.
All of them are home right now, dealing with the shock of losing their livelihood in one snap because of the COVID-19 crisis. And they’re just 3 cases among millions of workers and entrepreneurs alike, who have been asked to leave, or pull down the shutters, either because their entire industry is locked, or their companies can’t afford to pay them anymore.
WINTER HAS COME
LinkedIn is a mess nowadays. I’m seeing folks offering to work for free in the hopes of a cheque 2 months down the line. Migrant workers trapped abroad, miles away from their families, with no support to survive in a foreign land. Confused youngsters who have had their graduate job offers canceled. And seasoned experts with no emergency savings to feed their families. People are panicking, crying, and breaking down. It’s literally the apocalypse.
Even for the few lucky of us who still have their jobs, there is a shroud of uncertainty lingering over our heads. Rumors of layoffs, sharp salary cuts, stretched work-from-home routines, and intense pressure from the top to get impossible results… these are just some of the catalysts fueling a global wave of anxiety.
We don’t know when things will get better. But we do know that they will never be the same again. So consider it a reality check. If this pandemic has taught us one important lesson, it’s that our current way of career planning simply won’t do anymore. Our approach to professional life is outdated.
I mean, what good are our solid degrees, expertise, and portfolios if nobody’s hiring? What good is a strategy is there’s no place to apply it? Just accept it, “SINGLE-PATHWAY CAREER PLANNING IS DEAD.” Because there is no one correct plan for surviving something so unexpected like COVID-19.
So it’s time to re-evaluate how we choose and develop our livelihoods. And while it can feel like one impossible change to make- I’ll lay out a new perspective that might nudge us in the right direction.
The new alternative is “Career Hacking,” a multi-pathway approach that takes into account the uncertainties that have become a certain part of modern life. It encourages us to have multiple options & build various skillsets rather than blindly pursuing expertise in one single field for all our life.
More on that later but note that this approach won’t magically make our troubles go away. It may not have immediate positive effects. However, if we follow it consistently for a decade, I guarantee that we’ll be ready to fight when a recession hits us again, and mind you, it will- maybe because of another virus or something worse.
BECOMING A T-SHAPED WORKER
Probably the easiest way to survive a recession would be to become a doctor, a writer, a footballer, a lawyer, and an engineer. So that whenever one job goes out of demand, you can just switch to another profession.
While there are real-life legends of multi-talents who have actually done this- holding 6 different jobs- this sort of ambition is out of reach for the average Joe. It’s hardly a practical solution because not all of us have the energy or money to pursue double degrees, continue with lifelong education, or juggle between half a dozen professions.
But we can still borrow the essence of this wacky idea, and tone it down to give us the same kind of skill breadth without driving ourselves mad. Let me share my own story to explain how.
5 years ago, when I started my first job as a blogger, that is all I wanted to do in life. I wanted to become the most awesome blog writer in the world.
But when I published my first blog post for the company I was working with, I realized that I needed a nice featured image to promote it on social media. Since I didn’t have any design skills, I had to request our in-house graphic designer to make one for me. She wasn’t exactly happy to help.
Then, my boss asked me to ‘boost’ this post i.e. pay to promote it on Facebook. But I knew nothing about boosting or paid digital advertising. So I had to secretly request a classmate, who was a performance marketer, to do it for me.
This made me realize that if I want to become a good blogger, I can’t only be a blogger. I must leave my comfort zone, my area of expertise, and focus on gaining what are called “complementary skills,” i.e. skills that are directly or indirectly related to your main job. For a blogger, complementary skills would include:
- Graphic design (to create catchy cover images for social)
- PPC strategy (Pay-per-click: to get paid traffic)
- SEO (Search Engine Optimization: to show up on Google)
Armed with this insight, I changed my career goal to become a “T-Shaped” marketer. A T-Shaped career is basically like any generic university degree, where you pursue one major and a lot of minor subjects. You excel at one skill but also pick up a dozen or so supporting skills that strengthen your alpha pillar.
Call it being an expert all-rounder. The goal is to combine the “depth” of one skill with the “breadth” of many side-skills. In my case, here’s what a “T-Shaped” marketer’s CV looks like. One of the 5 domains shown below can be your area of expertise (in-depth expertise), while the other four domains can act as your supporting secondary skills (basic understanding & skill):
This concept is not restricted to marketing. It’s applicable in any profession. For example, a techie can be an expert back-end programmer, but also have some rookie knowledge of UI/UX design, Business Analytics, and CMS (Content Management Systems like WordPress).
A T-shaped skillset has two advantages. First, it supercharges your area of expertise because you can top-up value-added services to your main offering.
For example, you can offer a complete package of social media management instead of just offering to write copy. Any sane client will choose the former option if they’re getting it with a small premium. So you can do more, charge a little more, and earn more.
Secondly, T-Shaping gives you the flexibility to switch your profession effortlessly if you feel like switching, or if you’re forced to. If tomorrow I decide I hate writing and want to instead be reborn as a graphic designer, I can follow my instinct because I have good enough basic skills to start the journey, instead of being a complete rookie to the field.
I might charge less for design projects at the beginning, yes, but then I can go on increasing my rate with each new client. In fact, I may choose to “phase out” my job as a writer gradually- say, over 3-4 months, so that I don’t suffer from a sudden job loss. In either case, I’ll find it much easier to transition into a new career line if I’m a jack of all trades and a master of one.
This technique is also crucial in cases when it’s not your choice. It reduces your risk of becoming irrelevant in recessions, although, to be fair, it doesn’t completely eliminate it.
Suppose my company tells me that they can no longer pay me to write blogs for them, I can request for an internal transfer to the design team. I can tell them to hire me as an intern because of my basic skillset, which is still way better than getting fired.
In summary, you should immediately identify 5 independent professions that compliment your current job description. And you should devote the next 5 years to becoming a mid-level expert in all these fields.
I wrote this article after waking up from a very bad dream, as my urgent tone might’ve already conveyed. I want us to accept that our current approach to careers is vulnerable to “horror years” like 2020.
With increasing political tensions (RE: Donald Trump), exponential competition, and worsening economies, it’s now more important than ever to redesign our lives in new formats that can help us sail through the lows but also make the most out of the highs.
This means reducing our dependence on one type of job or skill. Being multi-skilled, or as we discussed, “T-Shaped,” enables us to stay relevant in an extremely unpredictable & unstable market.
With a broad skillset, we might not become physically immune to pandemics like COVID-19, but we can certainly become immune to the dangers they pose to our livelihoods.
Ultimately, it’s up to us whether to complain about what’s happening; or to use it as an opportunity for self-introspection, healing, and growth. As Professor Dumbledore once said, “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”