Be Focused but Flexible

I always admired peers who knew what they wanted to do. Many entered college resolved to become doctors. Unlike me, who entertained half a dozen majors, they had a clear destination from the start.

As a group, they dreamt big and worked hard. Research, internships, volunteering—whatever might give a competitive edge for med school applications—they were there. Nobody can fault them for slacking.

So how many of them are doctors today? Very few—but most are much happier in their current roles.

Think Flexibility, Not Failure
In our previous post, we discussed how to stay focused to achieve your goals. Too much focus, however, has its downsides. Without perspective, we may let achievements (or lack thereof) define our identity.

As diligent individuals, we often hold lofty ambitions. When we don’t accomplish our goals, especially those aligned with parental or societal expectations, it’s an affront to our self-esteem. We may not only view the situation as a failure but—with repeated rejection and defeat—ourselves as failures.

Whether you aspire to be a doctor or teacher, banker or actor, it’s easy to buy into a performance-based self-image. After all, we’ve been evaluated our whole lives by parents, teachers, and bosses.

We try to prove ourselves by keeping busy, as if doing more tightens the grip on our dreams. We’ve invested so much that changing directions feels like admitting defeat. So we stay the course.

If you’re in this situation, I admire your persistence. We love stories of people who persevered and got their big break. At the same time, keep things in perspective. Allow yourself the flexibility to explore. With your tenacity and work ethic, there’s likely more than one profession in which you will thrive.

Jack of All Trades, Master of One
Focus must be accompanied by flexibility.

Without flexibility, opportunities will pass you by. Common scenarios include:

  1. Experiencing tunnel vision. Laser-focused, you are unable to recognize other opportunities.
  2. Being pigeonholed. Employers see you as a specialist and don’t consider you for other positions.
  3. Becoming your own obstacle. When you’re successful, changing jobs or verticals can be tough. Short-term sacrifices (e.g., pay cut) can make it difficult to choose better long-term careers.

Balancing focus and flexibility is an art. Insofar as it’s possible in your industry, aim to be both a “jack of all trades” and a “master of one.” That is, build a core competency but develop skills in adjacent areas. Not only does this expand your skill set, it augments your main expertise. Learning other instruments helps me become a better pianist. Understanding other roles makes me a better project manager.

Flexibility is about willingness to learn. It’s neither being passive nor indecisive. Rather, it requires great initiative and preparation. You can’t be flexible if you don’t have a focus from which to adapt. Being a “jack of all trades, master of one” positions you to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.

This is the third post in our series: Advice for New Graduates.