High Achiever or Wide Achiever? Why We Need a Revolution in Career Advice

10/05/2012 22:50 BST | Updated 09/07/2012 10:12 BST

If a nation's currency is a clue to its character, Britain should be worried. Just take a look at a £20 note, where you will find the eighteenth-century economist Adam Smith staring fixedly at workers toiling in a pin factory.

Smith argued that this factory would produce far more pins if workers specialised in just one or two tasks - like straightening the wire or sticking on the head - rather than doing all the stages of pin-making themselves. The result was his most famous invention: the division of labour.


But this idea is one our most disastrous inheritances from the industrial revolution. It has led to the belief that becoming an expert in a narrow field is both what we should expect from our jobs and what we should aspire to. So we find ourselves employed as logo designers, corporate lawyers or building surveyors, and rarely have the privilege of doing a whole task from beginning to end like a craftsperson.

Is being a specialist the best way to use our talents? Of course the world needs heart surgeons, and we can gain personal satisfaction and social status from exercising our expertise. Yet the cost of being a top specialist or high achiever, may be that we forgo the benefits of being a generalist or wide achiever, which are to nurture the many sides of who we are and to use our multiplicity of talents.

No career counsellor today would advise you to be a wide achiever: they remain entrapped by the cult of the specialist. But if you had gone to a careers fair during the Renaissance, you would have been told that becoming a specialist is an unlikely way to fulfil your human potential. Instead you would have been advised to find inspiration in wide achievers like the fifteenth-century Italian polymath Leon Battista Alberti, who was an author, artist, architect, poet, linguist, cryptographer, philosopher and musician. He was apparently a gymnast too: with his feet together, he could spring over a man's head. And he wrote a solemn funeral oration for his dog.

For the growing number of people who feel that yearning to nurture their many selves, it makes sense to learn from the Renaissance and embrace the idea of being a wide achiever. But how exactly should we do so today?

One option is to join a generalist profession which draws on a broad range of skills, like being a primary school teacher, where you are required to teach maths and English, sing, draw, provide emotional support to your students and run after-school wildlife clubs.

A second route is to pursue Karl Marx's ideal, which was to work part-time in several careers simultaneously: 'to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.' Today it is called being a 'portfolio worker' - you might be an economist three days a week, then spend the rest of your time as a freelance wedding photographer.

Management thinker Charles Handy says this is not just a good way of spreading risk in an insecure job market, but is an extraordinary opportunity made possible by the rise of flexible working: 'For the first time in the human experience, we have a chance to shape our work to suit the way we live instead of our lives to fit our work. We would be mad to miss the chance.'

Third, you could become a 'serial specialist', following one career after another. I have chosen this path, working as an academic then a gardener, a financial journalist then a carpenter. I have also tried being a full-time father of twins and am currently a writer.

So ask yourself this: What would being a wide achiever encompass for me?

We must question the veneration of the specialist that has become the workplace norm over the past two hundred years. The original 'Jack of all trades' probably had a fascinating CV. If our society really valued the quality of our working lives, we would erase Adam Smith from the twenty-pound note and replace him with a wide achiever. I nominate the impressively-bearded textile designer, artist, essayist, poet and political radical - William Morris.

Roman Krznaric is a founding faculty member of The School of Life in London. His new book, How to Find Fulfilling Work, is published by Macmillan on May 10. It is part of The School of Life's new series of guides to everyday living, edited by philosopher Alain de Botton .