Avoid the “domesticated middle”

I think people work on a spectrum from doing what they love to work for income. A very few don’t have to compromise, but most of us do at least some of the time.

It shows in our work. I’m writing a book on the modern artisan and as part of that reading a lot. The styles fall into a spectrum; at one end, people write to be read and at the other people who write to inform on a subject they love. The first tends to go wide and shallow, covering a wide range to make the content interesting and attractive, whilst the second goes narrow and deep to explore the furthest reaches of their topic. Both are enormously valuable, and the lessons for me essential.

Dan Pink and Malcolm Gladwell are examples of the first category. They take complex subjects across a wide range, make them accessible and enjoyable and add enormous value. The second category includes Robin Dunbar (on relationships) and Joseph Campbell (on myth and legend), masters of their subject domains.

I believe the same is true of us at work. We head in one of two directions. We can become the wide and shallow generalists who help make sense of the business for others and understand its place in the market and its strengths, vulnerabilities, and opportunities, or we can become “subject matter experts” who ensure a deep understanding of what is created and sold.

What is dangerous for us is to become stuck in the “domesticated middle “and to find ourselves mid-career with neither the breadth and communication skills to hold a group together in a turbulent market or the depth to ensure success in a world of rapidly changing global competition. To get to fly only when given permission.

To become either of these alternatives in a world of gig economics is challenging. Generalists work best with people who trust them, and trust takes time to build. Specialists need continuity and a network of fellow specialists.

Many organisations have evolved to become short term specialists focused on maximising value for owners, reliant more on narrative than ability. They are more concerned about how they look than who they are—celebrity businesses, rather like the Potemkin villages, built as all facade to impress passing dignitaries.

I think it raises important questions for us. If organisations are content to leave us in the middle of the range, how do we develop the expertise that will satisfy us and give us greater security?
The answer I suspect is to find and form core groups to develop our specialisms in good company. Groups that become communities that bridge our time with increasingly temporary employers, whether we want to be expert generalists or subject matter specialists.

That is something I am looking at now with colleagues at Originize, as well as here. Sign up to this blog, or the Originze blog if you’d like to be kept in the loop as we learn,

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