T-shaped Professions: Ten Tips To Stop Your Career Going Stale
Does the alphabet ever take a break?
Only when it stops for a T.
Nothing like a dad joke to broach a topic as uninviting as career boredom.
Dry as it may sound, professional ennui takes central stage in many of my client coaching conversations – especially this time of the year, with annual leave stocks depleted and no bank holidays on the horizon.
One person I work with rather poetically described the current stage of their career as wandering through a dry and dusty desert with beautiful green hills on the other side but too large and dull to cross.
Another client added some drama, saying they felt stuck in a room slowly filling up with water – nearly floating up to the ceiling with no space left to breathe.
Both are great metaphors for the professional disengagement that sets in once we start to experience a lack of impact and growth in our careers.
In this article, I’ll focus on how to tackle that lack of growth.
I’ll discuss the importance of generalist skills as an antidote to job staleness. I’ll also offer several tips for putting the oomph back into your career or steer it in a different direction.
From an I-shape to a T-shape
Most people's careers follow a fairly linear pattern.
You might recognise it because perhaps you chose a field when you were younger or you fell into one. Over the years, you may have pivoted here and there until finally settling in a career lane and slowly mastering your profession and industry.
The trouble often starts once you're mid-career. By then, maybe you've chosen the path of an individual contributor – a subject specialist – or worked yourself up to a managerial position. Either way, you've become more and more masterful in your field.
All of the above is somewhat typical for a classic I-shaped career. It's in these kinds of careers that boredom often sets in. You may have become highly skilled and well-adapted to your role, but the learning curve has flattened, and you no longer feel particularly stimulated.
Maybe it's dawned on you that you never felt excited about it in the first place or have started to question the impact and meaning of what they're doing.
Here's where the idea of T-shaped people comes into play. First coined at the end of the noughties by Tim Brown, CEO of Design Agency IDEO, it describes people who combine a depth of expertise and competence in one domain (the vertical stroke in the T) with broad knowledge and skills across a range of other areas (the horizontal stroke in the T). Unlike their I-shape counterparts, T-shaped careers show both breadth and range.
Think about a marketing specialist studying for a Masters in social psychology, a family doctor spending three months working in a maternity ward in the Congo, a chartered accountant who moonlights as a financial advisor in his spare time, the C-level executive doing a two-week summer course in architecture and design, or the architect learning to build worlds in the Metaverse.
They're all building generalist skills while tickling their curiosity (and sense of contribution) and making themselves more attractive to future employers/patients or clients.
Operating in a super-wicked world
I'm in my mid-forties, and like many of you, I started my professional journey in a vastly different world. It was a complex world indeed, but not nearly as much as twenty years later.
IDEO, the design firm I mentioned earlier, would describe the past two decades as a shift from a world with wickedly difficult problems to a world with super-wickedly difficult problems.
Yes, unfortunately, this is what happens when Gen X tries to speak Gen Z.
However, to solve some of these super-wicked problems, being a specialist will no longer cut it. Complex issues require sophisticated and interdisciplinary solutions. They demand people willing and able to see connections between their fields and those of others.
Most companies have come to understand this and are increasingly looking for people with updated and expanded skill sets to help them respond to that wickedness. They're looking for empathic employees who can imagine problems wearing different hats. The kind of people willing to drop their ego to go beyond their narrow field of knowledge and happily build on other people's ideas.
These T-shaped professionals combine deep expertise in one area with a breadth of knowledge across several other domains. They show great curiosity in understanding and appreciating the work of others, lead with a creative and open mind and are intellectually versatile.
T-shapers also know how to join forces. Everybody wants them on their team precisely because they're both excellent at what they do and collaborate so well.
10 tips to breathe new life into your career
How does all of this relate to professional boredom? If you're currently busy with quiet quitting or languishing at your desk, deciding to develop broader T-shape skills and expertise could massively re-energise your career.
Below, I'll set out ten possible avenues for you to become more of a generalist. Some of them require bandwidth and courage, while a handful may involve significant financial investment and/or the explicit support of your employer.
Tip #1: Start early. If you haven't joined the workforce yet or you're still studying, know that to thrive in a super-wicked complex world, you need both depth and breadth. By all means, get a foundation in at least one domain or skillset, but supplement it by cultivating a broad range of experiences. You can do that through internships, student jobs, volunteering, joining societies, international travel, etc. All of these will help you create a well-rounded personality and an attractive CV.
Tip #2: Give yourself a decade to explore. The pressure to pick a career lane and the opportunity costs of not doing so early in your twenties can feel enormous. But as anyone who's done it will tell you, you're always young enough to pivot or change careers. In fact, people do it all the time. Instead of obsessing over what you want to do for a living, why not use your twenties to do plenty of prototyping? This will give you plenty of exposure to various roles and industries. You'll thank me for it in your forties.
Tip #3: Build relationships. Even if you know that your current career lane is right for you, you should keep cultivating empathy and curiosity by building your networks inside and outside your industry. Attend events, meet-ups and conferences directly or tangentially related to your industry. Engage in conversations with a wide range of professionals because one day, this may lead to exciting collaborations, job opportunities, or mentorships. It'll also prevent silo-thinking in your role and get you out of that ivory tower.
Tip #4: Seek mentoring or reverse mentoring. Why not identify a few people in your organisation who've already embraced a T-shaped career and ask them to be your mentor? Most people love talking about themselves and will be flattered to share their experiences. Mentors can also act as advocates for you in your organisation. Also, if you're a mid or late-stage-career professional, why not reach out to some of your younger colleagues for reverse mentoring? Nobody's better than those Gen Zs to help you 'slay' all these emerging technologies and trends and prevent you from becoming the office dinosaur.
Tip #5: Collaborate. Be bold in actively seeking opportunities to collaborate in interdisciplinary projects or with colleagues from different teams. Join professional communities, participate in cross-team projects and offer to share some of your knowledge. Your colleagues will appreciate the fresh perspective you provide. At the same time, you'll get a better view of the bigger picture and develop examples of great teamwork to dazzle future employers.
Tip #6: Focus on adjacent skills. Adjacent skills are low-hanging fruit when it comes to developing that horizontal T-stroke. They're usually not mentioned as essential in your job description, yet they help build expertise in your area – things like marketing, data analytics, AI content generation, etc. Because they're closely related to your day-to-day role, you can often develop them quickly without straying too far out of your comfort zone. Plus, most employers won't think twice about paying for extra training in those areas.
Tip #7: Build a side hustle. Starting a gig outside your usual employment offers a relatively low-risk and potentially rewarding avenue towards building broader skills and expertise. One day, it could help you to transition your career entirely. Whether you sell your crochet work on Etsy, rent out your property on Airbnb or do some consultancy work on the side, you'll learn a tonne of new skills. You'll build your confidence, stop feeling stuck, and maybe even bring in some extra money at the end of the month.
Tip #8: Consider a career break. Some of the most exciting CVs are those where people decided to take time to gain a new outlook on life. This is only an option for some because career breaks usually involve taking unpaid leave for at least a few months. Still, some employers actively encourage it and will keep your job open until you return. A career break can serve many purposes, from spending time with your family to travelling the world, starting a passion project, developing new skills, or prototyping a few alternative career paths.
Tip #9: Go on a secondment. If the opportunity arises for an external or internal secondment, grab it. Secondments offer valuable exposure to new work environments and are an excellent opportunity to broaden that horizontal T-stroke and develop new areas of interest and expertise. Internal secondments provide an entirely different view of your organisation (particularly if they're in a branch abroad), while external ones will get you much more knowledgeable about your industry.
Tip #10: Become a student again. Enrolling in a part-time or full-time education is a great way
to develop more generalist skills. It'll help set you aside from other job applicants and can even be an avenue to pivot into an entirely new career. This may only be an option for some because it requires significant funding and headspace. However, in today's tight job market, more and more employers are more than willing to part-fund further education or MAs – particularly if they are deemed relevant to your current role or career trajectory.
Conclusion: taking back control
So there you go, ten options to breathe new life into your career. The moral of this article is that whether you find yourself in pre-promotion purgatory or dread drudging through another two decades in your current job, you're more in control of your future than you think.
Curiosity is one of the best antidotes to boredom, so start broadening your interests and lengthen the horizontal T-stroke. It'll put the fire back into your belly and open the door to a lateral move or a complete career shift.
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