If there’s anything to take away from an extended period of unemployment, it’s that human capital can mean the difference between receiving a good job offer and remaining unemployed. There are many facets of human capital, and as your human capital increases, so does your marketability. There are many ways you can gain an edge, including seeking more education and gaining experience. One way to grow your human capital is to broaden your focus.
I came across a joke yesterday that described becoming an expert as learning more and more about less and less until one knows everything about nothing. There’s only room at the top in any field for very few, and in some fields, you have to be at the very top to take the most advantage of the effect on human capital. For most people, learning more and more about more and more is a safer approach to boost your human capital.
The specialism vs. generalism debate can be heated, and I often face opposition when I claim that I usually side with generalism. I believe broadening your horizons and being versatile is better in the long run than focusing intently on one skill. Even in the most recent article in this series about becoming an expert, I cited one of my favorite examples, Ron Howard. He broadened his scope beyond acting as soon as possible to gain more skills and allow himself to be open to more opportunities.
While I am sure this director and producer has other interests, he is not known for anything outside of the film industry.
Moving beyond a narrow focus
Nick Mason is best known as the drummer for Pink Floyd, but he is also a racing car enthusiast. He was able to use his success as a member of the band whose most popular record still has holds the record for most consecutive weeks on the Billboard chart to fund his classic car collection. After his responsibilities with the band slowed down, he had the opportunity to spend time racing. With his wealth, Nick will likely never need to worry about his human capital, but the ability to explore your interests, hobbies, or notable skills can lead to a more fulfilled existence, discovery of other talents, and possible changes in career paths.
My story is a little different. From my time in elementary school, I planned on being a teacher. In high school I decided I would teach music, and I attended college with that goal and the appropriate degree in mind. I earned my degree, but I followed other interests at the same time. I built online communities long before there was a World Wide Web. Even while I was learning to teach, I managed bulletin board systems accessed with modems and eventually taught myself how to program websites once Mosaic was available to the public. This eventually led to more experience writing and the beginning of this website. I’m pretty far away from where I would have been if I had focused solely on learning how to teach and practicing musical instruments as certain professors would have preferred.
And now that writing has been my main focus, I’m looking at other activities to fill any spare time I can grab, which isn’t much. I’ve mentioned that I’ve been learning more about photography. I’ve completed several classes presented by local experts and I try to spend time every month improving my art. It may never lead anywhere professionally — this is a field where anyone can buy a digital SLR, use a wide aperture, and declare themselves an expert and fool a lot of people — but it is something I enjoy. The enjoyment may add to my human capital indirectly; if professional opportunities open up it will have added to my human capital directly.
In my last full-time job, where I worked for a financial company, my job wasn’t technical in nature. However, my experience and skills with information technology, database management, Excel, as well as my capabilities as a good communicator and teacher, opened some opportunities for me in that position that went beyond what others in my position would have been expected to do.
- The programmer who also has experience running his own business is better suited for management opportunities.
- The lawyer who has a passion for the arts could be comfortable working for a variety of companies.
- A mortgage broker who writes professionally can earn income when banks stop offering loans to the public.
- The baseball player who learns about finance can manage investments when an injury destroys his career.
In high school, extra-curricular activities are generally assets on college applications; in college, experience in your field lead to well-rounded résumés. Being able to include a few sentences or bullet points on these résumés to inform readers of worthwhile but unrelated or tangentially related endeavors could give you an unexpected advantage over other applicants. Having some skills beyond your job description could increase the probability of receiving a promotion or a transfer. If your industry disappears, having alternative skills will make a transition easier.
Looking beyond your field is about more than “having something to fall back on;” it’s increasing your worth to others by having a varied set of skills and interests that make you compelling as an individual.
How have you spent time to focus on skills or activities other than what your job calls for or what your main education track provided?
Published or updated October 17, 2011.