Millennials: the Curse of Being "Well-Rounded"



For the longest time I identified myself as a "Jack of all trades", even going as far as to include that phrase in various cover letters and conversations with potential employers. The age-old cliche seemed to express the unlimited potential and impact I could have on a company in a concise manner.

In my mind, it meant:

  • I can do anything I put my mind to (and will do anything you want me to).
  • I am relentless in my desire to demonstrate value to my managers and team in whatever form that may take (I will do anything you want me to).
  • My degree of creativity and problem-solving skills paired with a solid work ethic makes me an extremely employable individual, perfect for a variety of tasks (I will do anything you want me to. AND I will do this better than next person who applies, even if they have a better school listed for undergrad).

The short version: I am a multi-dimensional and well-rounded kid. 

However, as I advanced in my career I became aware of and fixated on the latter half of this phrase:  a Jack of all trades, is a master of none. Since realizing its negative connotation and feeling a strong desire to acquire marketable skills, I have challenged myself to shed it from my persona. 

My academic upbringing is largely responsible for my well-rounded nature.  Dubbed a "lifer", I attended the same small private Quaker school in Baltimore from pre-kindergarten through the twelfth grade.  The Friends School of Baltimore is often compared to a Montessori School: very touchy-feely; on a mission to provide equal opportunity and inspire students' intellectual curiosity. Because the message of acceptance and diversity was widespread, Friends did not like to pigeon hole students into any one corner - we had quarterbacks who starred in the spring play, the most popular kid in class sang in the men's a cappella group and all holidays were celebrated in a main-stream manner. For the most part, kids supported each other and found comfort among our differences. With ninety kids in my graduating class, it was difficult to avoid any one student or group of students so we all coexisted in a suburban utopia with a strong sense of what we could accomplish as individuals. 

friends school of baltimore
Friends School develops in its students an enduring passion for learning by raising their capacity for inquiry and for navigating complexity; It fosters in students thoughtfulness, maturity and purpose; And it inspires students to seize the world of possibilities by engaging them in a rich mix of co-curricular opportunities with students from diverse social, cultural and economic backgrounds.

Indeed, Friends School exposed me to a lot: multicultural practices and beliefs where as many private school environments graduate kids of a single faith or similar economic status. I was introduced to a variety of hobbies and activities. The school succeeded in igniting passion and encouraged kids for try as many different things as possible in an effort to show that we can do anything we put our minds to.

However, I do not feel like I left with a realistic take on what it meant to be successful in the world. Like many of my peers, I just assumed I would be. The emphasis on participation and well-roundedness contributed to an inflated sense of our abilities. In high school, I played Varsity sports, sang in the group chorus, was accepted into the 7-member acapella group called the Pleadies, participated in theater productions, created interesting and thought provoking art (at least, it was for me), wrote and filmed movies, was president of the SAIF community group protecting kids from drunk driving, and had a bustling social life. I felt great about myself and my prospective future. If I ever failed at something, I was patted on the back for trying.  

It wasn't until I got the the University of Maryland at College Park, with its student population of almost 38,000, that I realized it was impossible to sustain this journey of exploring diverse interests. Or at least to really invest in this many interests. The stakes were higher, the kids were more talented and being well-rounded was not celebrated.  Here, students devote their entire 365 days a year to their singular interest. People wanted to know, "what is your thing?"  Kids who shared passion for a similar "thing" quickly glommed together and continued down their path of improving skills, networking and further chiseling a clear portrait of their future.

university of maryland students

They were masters of their crafts, and I was master of none.  

Suddenly faced with the pressure to declare our intentions for the next four years, I found myself unable to comfortably commit to extra-curricular activities, not to mention a career path.  How do I go from ALL THE THINGS to ONE? What if I choose something and end up sucking? What if focusing 100% of my time and attention on this one thing makes me hate it? What about all of the other doors I would be closing as a result of choosing something? 

All of the things that I did in high school were available to me but this environment required something that my high school did not prepare me for: commitment. Rather than navigating through college with a sense of hope and confidence, I felt like I had peaked. All the cool and interesting things that defined me were now in the past tense and I sought comfort by floating in an ambiguous middle-ground. I refused to give in to the stress of choosing a future and hoped that it would choose me somewhere down the road.

In talking to my peers, I see that many others identify as well-rounded commitment-phobes with multiple points of view on how it should be perceived. Depending on where people grew up or how parents approached parenting, millennials are plagued with a resistance to commit, especially as it relates to our professional future.  One perspective is that the reluctance to commit is perfectly fine and we should continue to grow, blossom and develop multi-faceted series of interests without declaring any one thing as our ultimate path. We owe it to ourselves and the world - we are just too interesting, too talented and too full of potential to fit within any one profile.

Because millennials feel pressure to avoid the foreboding mid-life crises that we associate with baby boomers and gen x'ers  (resenting careers, feeling regretful for not following dreams, wondering "what if?" And taking it out on their loved ones) we declare nothing. We get married later, live more in the "now", and make sure we don't over-commit to any one thing - literally, even agreeing to a happy hour can be a challenge.  We don't invest too much in our day jobs because we want to save enough energy for when we receive our calling. 

But from my perspective, this is a very small-private-school-way to think about a being a professional even in the modern world. Millennials are so non-committal and  busy remembering to follow their dreams that they are making themselves  invaluable, unpleasant and a huge pain in the ass. The reality is, most millennials are not going to invent the next Facebook, develop a successful app, or even become a doctor. Why? Because all of those things require commitment, dedication and a shit ton of work.  Even more terrifying to millennials than commitment is the time required to advance in a typical career or industry. Real skill and expertise in a field are developed over time.  According to Malcolm Gladwell, it requires 10,000 hours of practice. And when you split your time among multiple things, it'll take you a hell of a lot longer to become a master of any of them. 

To ensure that I don't remain in the ambiguous middle-ground far into my career as a marketer, I decided to declare that I am a creative marketing professional which means that I am not a technical-marketer. This cuts a deep edge into my well-rounded marketing resume, but for once I feel joy and reprieve. The more I shave off, the sharper my skills can become in other areas.   My expertise is in branding, visual identity, content and messaging - all within the context of e-commerce and online consumer experience. My skill set is growing to include graphic design and UX/UI, which is validated by my decision to pay for and attend classes at the School of the Art Institute. I will still happily remain fluent in the technical aspects of a marketing program because my goal is to be the lead decision maker within the marketing department (Director or CMO) but I will rely on others - those who are experts in this area - to meet me halfway. 

I am still somewhat happy with being perceived as well-rounded because I value being an open-minded and curious individual. But, in an effort to emphasize the marketable aspects of myself I decided to actively seek new skills - which means I need to be comfortable leaving things behind in order to advance in this goal. For example,  I like taking pictures, but I am not a photographer. I enjoy singing and music, but I am not a musician. I like to paint, but I am not a working artist.  I have an exuberant personality, but I am not a performer. I have confidence and people-skills, but I am not a good sales person.  I like getting thoughts out of my head, but I am not a writer.

Friends School succeeded because I do think I could be any of these things. And, If I decide later that I do want to be any of these things, I have now acquired the decision-making skills that are necessary to make that choice. 


Stephanie SalomonComment