Some people are happy sticking with a single specialization their entire lives. The pathway to do that is readily laid out within your specialization. You can ask your manager or some other mentor within the field how to go about staying the course if that is your goal.
What do you do, however, if you don’t want to stay the course? What if you want to switch specialization or — dare I say it — stop specializing altogether?
It’s hard to find a good guide for switching specializations. It’s even harder to find a guide to being a polymath. This is partially because of the open-ended nature of the specialization-free path.
I’m going to lay out 3 necessary elements of a plan for breaking free of your specialization. These elements will benefit you regardless of whether your goal is to join a new specialization or to become a polymath.
I. Define Your Transferable Skills
Even as a specialist, most of your learned skills are transferable. You just need to learn how to turn your typical tasks into something that you can sell beyond your own domain. Lucky for all of us, there are general steps for how to do this.
1. Focus on the skills with which you provide the most value.
We’ll start with the obvious. If you haven’t provided value with a particular skill then one of the following is true.
- You aren’t good at it.
- It isn’t a valuable skill.
- It wasn’t an important skill in your specialization
If it’s A or B then you clearly don’t want to bother including it in your transferable skills. To an outsider, C is indistinguishable from A, so you still don’t want to bother with it. Focus on skills with which you’ve proven your value.
2. Break down each technical skill into transferable skills
Here’s where you find out that what you do really isn’t all that special. Strip away the fancy lingo and the job-specific equipment, and you’ve just been using transferable skills.
Let’s try out a couple of examples.
Meet Jordan. Jordan is a computer programmer. Jordan’s day consists of writing code, debugging code, and doing code reviews.
Lucky for Jordan, writing code involves a lot of logical thinking and problem-solving, two very transferrable skills. Debugging code involves a heavy amount of research, which is a transferrable skill. Code reviews involve listening, providing feedback, and persuasion. There are several more skills I didn’t include here as well. For instance, Jordan probably has to document his code, which involves multiple written communication skills.
Next to the stage comes Drew. Drew is an artist. Specifically, Drew’s day revolves around drawing. (Yea, I know. Creative naming is not one of my skills).
Drew’s drawing requires spatial reasoning and visual communication. There was a significant amount of planning and organization that certainly went into each piece. Did I mention being imaginative and detail-oriented? And that’s all without knowing the specifics of Drew’s task.
I could go on with more examples, but I have a better idea: find a few dozen job listings for your position. Look at the list of skills they want people to have. That is probably a good starting point for your own list. Compare it against a list of transferrable skills to see which ones you should focus on.
3. Be ready to show your proven value with these transferrable skills
You are going to have to convince a future employer that you have used these transferrable skills to provide value in your previous work. This will be a bigger challenge than any job interview you’ve gone through before. These new employers are not from your domain — they will not speak the same language you do.
Here’s what it will take.
- You are going to need to strip away all of the jargon from your speech because they won’t understand it otherwise. I used the words “It’s really just balancing exploration and exploitation” in an interview once. I thought it was a brilliant analogy, but I think the interviewer was horrified. Exploitation is a fine word in my former field but all he heard was me speaking positively of what he deemed a quite negative word.
- You are going to have to adopt an ELI5 (explain like I’m five) mindset. You can’t assume that the interviewer has any experience with your previous role, so saying “I’m a computer programmer, so I obviously know how to research” won’t cut it. Go read some examples from the ELI5 subreddit. It will help you see what this level of explanation takes.
Don’t try this out on the spot during an interview. I’ve done that, and it ends badly. Write down your explanations. Make sure they make sense to you. Now ask someone that isn’t in your field. This needs to be someone that will be brutally honest with you.
Try to convince them that you have proven your value with these transferrable skills. Now ask them to explain it back to you. If it comes out as gibberish, that’s your fault. Work out a better explanation and circle back with that friend.
You’ve just learned one of the biggest secrets of polymaths: while specialists try to sound smart, we spend our time trying to communicate at the level of a child.
Once those explanations are ironclad and incredibly simple, you are good to go.
This section was pretty heavy, but that’s because it’s the most difficult part. The next two should be easier.
II. Broaden Your Reading
I read over 200 research papers on saltwater and computer simulations of saltwater during my graduate school career. Very little of that has been helpful since then.
While working as a data scientist, I read several books and research papers all focused on machine learning and statistics. Those are more helpful, but a single book on each of those topics would have given me nearly as much useful knowledge for my current career.
If you plan on transferring into another specialization, you may have no choice but to go deep with your reading — focusing only on books, blogs, and papers in that new specialization for a while.
But if you want to break away from specializations altogether, it’s time to go wide. Don’t stop reading deep dives on technical topics, but limit them to 1 per topic. Spend most of your time learning about transferrable skills. Read more books about empathy, communication, problem-solving, mental models, and other such topics.
Technical books intended for non-technical readers are fantastic resources for learning the ELI5 mentality. Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein are two of the most brilliant physicists of the last 200 years. The most astonishing thing about both of them, though, is how well they explain physics to even a layperson.
Don’t stick to nonfiction either. Fiction and poetry are vital to the polymath. They refine your imagination and your creativity. Remember that the polymath should strive to learn from expert specialists. If you want to learn storytelling, why would you not turn to those that have created some of the most memorable stories of all time?
Are you not sure where to start? Bill Gates publishes his list of recommended books rather frequently. Those are always great options and quite varied. As another option, here are the books that I’ve read this past month. Feel free to take any of them as a recommendation because I refuse to finish reading books that aren’t offering me anything.
- Educated by Tara Westover
- Dare to Lead by Brene Brown
- Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
- Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh
- Presidents of War by Michael Beschloss
III. Expand Your Network
I failed to keep my reading broad throughout my career, so the breadth of my network is what saved me when it came time to switch careers. Make a conscious effort to hang out with people from outside of your department, outside of your company, and outside of your industry.
These connections will provide several advantages.
- They will serve as pathways to job opportunities outside of your specialization.
- They provide an ideal group with which to test your ELI5 abilities.
- They think differently than you. This means you will be practicing your empathy and communication skills to a greater extreme with them.
The sooner you build up your extra-specialization network, the sooner you’ll start to see these advantages. Even if you decide to stay in your specialization, this extended network will be well worth having. Which do you think matters more: your 31st marketing friend or your 1st accounting friend? (Feel free to reverse that if you are one of the 2 accountants that read my articles).
Here’s what you should have at this point:
- A list of your transferrable skills and the ability to prove the value that you have provided with each of them.
- A wider range of reading material that will bring you beyond your specialization.
- A group of friends and colleagues outside of your specialization.
Skills, knowledge, and network are the three pillars of the business world. You’ve done it. You are ready to break free.
It still isn’t going to be easy. Staying in your lane is always the easy path. You have everything you need to choose a new specialization or to become a polymath, but it’s still up to you to take the plunge.
If you’ve read this far, I assume that you don’t want to remain in your specialization forever, so don’t.
If your goal is a new specialization, I wish you luck.
If you are ready to call yourself a polymath: welcome aboard!