Jack of all trades, master of none: avoiding impostor syndrome as a generalist

Oct 11, 2021

7 mins

Jack of all trades, master of none: avoiding impostor syndrome as a generalist
Sonia ValenteLab expert

Sonia Valente is an author and certified career transition coach passionate about multipotentialite professionals

“They’ll find out I’m not an expert.” “I’ve done a bit of everything—law, marketing, sales, whatever!” “I feel like I don’t specialize in anything.” Have you ever questioned yourself in this way? If you have, you’re not alone. When it comes to professional accomplishments, many non-specialists—easily recognizable by their diverse backgrounds and varied experiences—feel they aren’t up to standard. And when this feeling persists over time, it can be paralyzing.

Where does this sense of illegitimacy, also known as impostor syndrome, come from? What are the signs you should look out for, and how can you break free of this way of thinking? Over the past two years, and in my work as a coach, many “jacks of all trades” have confessed to being frozen by self-doubt. I feel it’s my duty to share this with you.

Who is to blame?

When it comes to feelings of illegitimacy, there are lots of root causes—and they’re all interconnected. Your upbringing at home, the influence of teachers at school, and the dictates of society at large all posit specialization as the career model to follow.

Family and school influences

The link between self-esteem and parenting is well established. According to Diana Baumrind, a developmental psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, children who are told by family and/or teachers that “to be successful in life, you must choose one path and stick to it are at risk of self-doubt later on.

And children don’t need to be subjected to constant humiliation and pressure for feelings of illegitimacy and imposture to develop. In reality, all it takes is an offhand remark along the lines of, “Your grades in math are excellent. You should go into science.” Children, who are in the process of developing their sense of identity, could well take it as gospel. They may go on to believe that wanting to try and succeed in other fields is not valid.

Societal influences

A child’s home and school environments play a fundamental role in how feelings of illegitimacy develop over time. But they aren’t the only factors—society is equally responsible, especially since it’s inexorably linked to the other two. In the aftermath of the Second World War, businesses desperately needed a capable workforce to develop productivity and economic growth. To achieve this goal, society looked to specialization as the most efficient career model to follow.

Although this productivity race wound down in the 1990s, many businesses today continue to seek out specialist candidates. This has led to highly specific job titles such as “lawyer specializing in property law”, “accountant specializing in the construction industry” or “salesperson specializing in life assurance”. People who eschew this model by taking an interest in a variety of fields or professions are likely to encounter widespread incomprehension. Critics may question why someone would change careers when there is an employment crisis. Candidates may also encounter bias from recruiters concerned about their competence and stability: for example, hiring managers may wonder if they have enough experience for the role or if they might change jobs every two years.

This attitude only enhances the feelings of illegitimacy and self-deprecation already learned at home or school. As a result, many people have confided in me that they won’t apply for jobs that don’t seem like a perfect match. For example, they may worry their degree isn’t in line with the specializations listed in a job ad. Or they may think they don’t have enough years of experience in a specific field or have all the skills listed in a particular job description.

The “bottom-up” comparison

But many of us are also our own worst enemies! Comparing yourself to others is a natural behavior that helps you build an identity. However, it can also increase feelings of illegitimacy when it becomes what the American sociologist Leon Festinger called “upward social comparison”. This is when people compare themselves to one or more individuals whom they perceive as superior or better. For example, someone with a varied career path might compare themselves to a specialist. They see specialists as role models upon whom they base their self-assessment.

Overall, the factors governing feelings of illegitimacy are as varied as the career paths of people who like to mix things up in the professional sphere. Now that you know some of the root causes, you might be wondering how to tell if someone has these feelings.

A sure sign: over-investment

People who doubt themselves and their legitimacy frequently hold themselves up to high levels of scrutiny, and specialization is part of that. For example, they may think, “I’m not enough of an expert” or “I’m not capable of answering all the questions I’m asked.” They often think their work is not up to the standards they hold. They believe that having skills in many different fields and not having one standalone talent means they are “mediocre at everything”. In other words, they believe in the idea that “A jack of all trades is the master of none”.

It’s as though they have two inner voices fighting for supremacy rather than being able to coexist. One voice is begging them to stay true to their jack-of-all-trades nature by going after versatile jobs and constantly exploring new horizons. The other voice, meanwhile, is putting on pressure by telling them the only way to feel legitimate is to make a single, stable career choice.

When non-specialists suffer from impostor syndrome, they fear their potential incompetence will be exposed and they feel guilty. They are often convinced that they are taking a role from someone who is more deserving—an expert. To avoid exposure or to make up for their perceived lack of expertise, they will often over-invest by:

  • pursuing further training and even degrees
  • accepting a lower salary, since they think they were hired by chance or out of sympathy instead of on merit or potential
  • putting in long workdays

Of course, the risk of such behavior is mental and physical exhaustion or even burnout

Does this sound familiar? If you are suffering from feelings of illegitimacy and imposture, remember that nothing is set in stone. While you can’t obliterate all self-doubt, you can reduce these feelings so they become manageable. Here’s how.

Getting rid of feelings of illegitimacy

Are specialist careers in decline?

A career model based on specialization could give way to one that favors multiple experiences and occupations throughout one’s life. At least, that’s what the OECD Employment Outlook 2019 report suggests. The study reveals that the average lifespan of a technical skill in 1987 was 30 years, whereas today it varies between 12 and 18 months. Consequently, the idea that only experience and specialization legitimize you will no longer apply. Good news, isn’t it?

In addition, hiring managers are more interested in soft skills than ever before. These behavioral skills are not only valuable in terms of professional success but are also transferable and can apply to any industry or role. And there you have it—by changing jobs regularly, you develop your ability to learn and adapt to new environments, tools, and working methods. Many companies and employees have had to reinvent themselves in the face of constant change. While the traditional organization of work is changing in the post-pandemic world, the digital revolution has influenced the way people work. With this in mind, learning and adaptability are key skills, and you have them! Think about highlighting them. Before closing the door on a career path you like, take time to list the required soft skills and ask people you trust if you have them. This extra measure will prevent you from jumping to the conclusion that you have none.

Celebrate your wins, and write them down!

No, your success stories aren’t all down to luck, hard work, or sympathy from your professional network. The psychologist Pauline Rose Clance, who coined the term “impostor syndrome”, suggests training yourself to identify your skills—both interpersonal and know-how—as well as your potential. Never underestimate your potential! It’s everything that sets you up for success in a job or profession. An employee’s potential is recognized when they meet the innate abilities and aptitude required for a role.

To pinpoint your potential, carefully reflect upon the little things you find easy in everyday life, such as putting yourself in other people’s shoes, having strong negotiation skills, and being organized or at ease with numbers. Be aware that while these things may seem simple to you, that’s not necessarily true for everyone. And if you’re struggling to find anything, think about times when your family, friends, or colleagues have remarked on your natural talents. What were you doing?

Anne de Montarlot and Elisabeth Cadoche, authors of Le Syndrome d’imposture (“Impostor Syndrome”), suggests a similar approach. Get into the habit of writing down your successes and goals so you can read them whenever you’re plagued by self-doubt or a lack of confidence.

And remember: the only person you have to compare yourself to is you. Look at how far you have come. For example, a fortnight ago, you might not have been able to write two lines of code, but now you can do it with your eyes closed!

Restructure your thought patterns

Telling yourself, or someone close to you, “I’m not legit” is not the same as saying, “I think I’m not legit, but just for now.” In the first expression, feeling a lack of legitimacy is part of your identity; as if nothing could change it. In the second, the word “think” leaves the question of your legitimacy open to change. This feeling doesn’t represent an absolute truth about who you are, but rather an opinion in a given situation that is subject to change. The expression “I think”shows you accept that your view can change, which is a necessary first step towards actually initiating change.

But how can you reframe your thought patterns in a way that sticks? Several approaches are possible. Here are just a few:

  • Get inspiration from the people you feel are good at what they do despite having a varied, non-linear career path
  • Surround yourself with positive people who have experienced feelings of illegitimacy and who have managed to break free. Their advice and feedback will be useful to you
  • Determine what’s at stake if you let self-doubt and feelings of illegitimacy dictate your career choices.

If you try these suggestions and still have the feelings of illegitimacy that are common among non-specialists, consider seeking help from a psychologist or career coach.

Pigeon-holing yourself by choosing a highly specialized role just isn’t your thing. Your diverse background proves it—and that’s a good thing. In essence, businesses and society need both generalists and specialists. Generalists solve global problems, orchestrate projects involving several specialties, and possess multiple skills. Specialists, on the other hand, solve specific problems that fall within their area of expertise. One is no better than the other. And you have value in the job market, no matter which side you’re on. So don’t try to be someone you’re not, and instead, celebrate your diverse background and jack-of-all-trades nature. Specialization isn’t the only path to success. You can also achieve success by regularly changing your career, looking for jobs that are versatile, or simply continuing to wear many different hats at once if that’s your style.

Translated by Andrea Schwam

Photo by Welcome to the Jungle

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