“Sir, your application is very interesting, but we’re specifically looking for a certified 4-mast ship captain, and while you’ve been a captain on a variety of 3- and 4-mast ships, you’re certified on none of them.”
“That’s the reason you won’t hire me to lead your expedition to the New World?”
“That’s correct. We’ve other applicants whose sailing experience far exceeds yours, and we’re moving forward with them at this time.”
“So my time as a military officer, my published works, my management of far-flung estates on multiple islands…”
“…while interesting, are irrelevant to our need for a certified 4-mast ship captain, not an uncertified jack-of-all-trades. Should we find ourselves in a position to need any of our other skills, we would rather go through an expensive and drawn-out hiring process to identify another single-skill-specialist whose career was pursued with focused passion along the narrowest of trajectories.”
Sir Walter Raleigh could never get hired in today’s job market.
The era of the super-specialist is upon us, and the idea of changing career fields, or dabbling across multiple fields over a lifetime, is — quite frankly — an utter and total fraud.
Sir Walter Raleigh served as a military officer for much of his career, putting down revolts in Ireland and later administering various estates there, in addition to time serving in campaigns in France. He is most famous for leading several expeditions to colonize the New World, a task for which he never would been selected had today’s industrial-scale “human resources” keyword-obsessed model of data-driven candidate identification existed. He was later tried and convicted under dubious circumstances of plotting to overthrow King James I, and after a run-in with the Spanish in the New World, his death sentence was carried out. No doubt he lacked the necessary qualifications on his resume for execution, also.
There’s an absolute terror of the polymath in today’s corporate hiring culture. Assuming they even manage to squeak past the data-only-no-humans-please scanning process that identifies key words and phrases in their resumes, and somehow end up in front a hiring manager, no one wants to have to go back to the boss and justify taking a chance on a job candidate who has a demonstrated track record of success across multiple endeavors in multiple fields. Instead, it’s the middle-of-the-road safe candidates who have never stepped outside of their existing career fields who end up endlessly populating the overstuffed chairs in front of the hiring managers’ desks. No one has to explain to a higher boss that there is actually useful transferrable knowledge coming in from other fields, and that perhaps other perspectives might be useful in inculcating a variety of diverse perspectives in the office. Note that “diversity” here is not being used in a skin-color-as-a-universal-proxy manner, but rather in the sense that regardless of skin color or religion, varied backgrounds (education, upbringing, geography, etc) can make for useful perspectives when dealing with clients, customers, vendors, and (perhaps most importantly) each other.
If a ‘safe’ candidate gets hired and doesn’t work out, everyone scratches their heads and commiserates “well she looked good on paper.” If a non-traditional candidate gets hired and doesn’t work out, everyone points fingers at each other and exclaims “I knew we shouldn’t have hired her!”
But how often does that actually happen with a polymath candidate? No hard data exists, of course, but anecdotally, discussions with at least 10 different HR folks in medium-to-large corporations seem to show the trend that the polymaths take far less time to settle into their roles, and are much quicker to jump in with ideas, suggestions, and improvements. When you walk into a room with a breadth of experience across multiple different fields, it’s tough for someone to throw a curveball at you.
Here’s what hiring managers can’t see from a resume, and have to meet someone to assess: cultural fit, personality, enthusiasm, forthrightness. All those intangible traits that everyone says they love to have in an employee are present at ridiculously high levels in folks with varied backgrounds. They have to be. How do you adapt to a completely new role if you’re reticent about the change at all?
“Congrats! You’re our new business analyst — get to work!”
No one — I mean no one — goes to school to become an IT business analyst. Everyone stumbles into that job, from all sorts of different backgrounds. But the good BAs? They’re the ones that have a varied background that can tackle tough questions to get at end-user needs. They’re the ones that can more easily put themselves in the customers’ shoes because they can more easily appreciate multiple perspectives — they come to the table with them!
So when you’re trying to break through the spray-foam ceiling (so named because of its artificiality, uselessness, and temporariness) you need an ally on the inside who can go to bat for your varied background.
The term “polymath” isn’t widely known enough to have any real meaning.
The term “jack of all trades” is usually followed by the phrase “master of none” and is often patently false.
Perhaps we should name these people after their most famous predecessor, the paragon of versatility — let’s start calling them “Raleighs” and see if that gets any attention.
I’ve covered the challenges of the polymath a whole lot: here, here, here, here, and here. If you enjoyed this, please hit that magic clap button down there on the left, so other folks get a chance to see it, too. And please feel free to share your feedback — it’s great to read your reactions. Thanks!