Is Your Career Like a General Store?

Does your set of professional skills resemble a general store?

Depth over breadth?

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking through the general store of a small, rural Ontario town. It was amazing to see the variety of products in this one-person shop.

Non-perishable groceries, household hardware, beer…even a 16-flavour ice cream stand!

I stopped for a moment to pay particular attention to what the store was offering in terms of plumbing parts. The selection sat on a stack of three shelves, about one metre wide.

“Interesting,” I said to myself, “I could maybe fix a few basic plumbing issues with this gear, but would struggle to tackle the bigger, more expensive issues.”

More advanced parts would have to be bought elsewhere. And with my (very) limited plumbing skills, the more complex, valuable and expensive work would have to be done through someone else. I’d need the help of a true hardware store and a real plumber in a lot of cases.

Here’s the $64 000 question: does your career resemble the general store, or is it a specialty store?

A skill set inventory

Here’s a great, quick exercise for you, which I’ll demonstrate now. Write out your own personal list of skills, in the order of most developed to least developed.

For me, a partial list would look like:

  • Coaching (most developed)
  • Operations Management
  • Writing & Blogging
  • Personal Training/Fitness Instruction (leftover from my university training)
  • Public Speaking
  • Marketing & Communications
  • Audiovisual Production/Editing
  • Sales & Recruiting
  • DJing (least developed)

“What skills could I monetize/make a living from?”

As you can see, my own skills list is pretty broad. My professional toolkit resembles that general store a little bit. Over the years, several colleagues have noted that I’m “someone of many talents.”

It’s a nice compliment, I’ll admit that. On the flip side of those kind words however, I’m not as deeply developed as some. And that has cost me in terms of career earnings up until now.

When it comes to your earning potential, it’s typically the depth (not the range) of your skills that determines how much you make.

I believe I have the depth of coaching skill required to make a living out of doing so. I’ve helped clients grow their careers through my work and I intend to keep this up (and get paid well for it!). My specialized understanding of how people change is what allows me to offer a high-value experience.

When your skills don’t cut it

If I look at my DJing skills, which have been dormant for roughly ten years now, there’d be a very long road for me to have to travel before being ready to “turn pro” in that domain. I lack a number of key components, including:

  • working knowledge of current music
  • advanced mixing skill
  • a network of people I could promote gigs to (I didn’t last long in the DJ world because I didn’t make many contacts in the electronic dance music industry)

My skill set as a DJ would need a significant upgrade before I could employ myself in a financially sustainable way.

If I were to quit my career now and go try and line up gigs in clubs (which doesn’t interest me at all anymore), I’d quickly fall flat on my face. I’d maybe even have to proactively declare bankruptcy! 😬

Is being a specialist the way to go?

For many people with financially strong careers, their answer would probably be yes.

Specialized doctors have a higher average salary than general practitioners.

Commercial pilots working for large firms are specialized in the advanced types of aircraft they fly, and bring home more cash than pilots working for small, regional airlines with less sophisticated equipment.

Underwater welders have both a very specialized skill set, in combination with a relatively dangerous line of work, and cost hundreds of dollars per hour to hire. They’re considerably more expensive than regular welders.

Virtually all of the most financially successful people I’ve met have hung their hats on key, “rainmaker” skills in order to amass their wealth.

If you’re stuck in the general store…

It’s not the end of the world if you feel you lack a central, valuable skill.

Go back to your skill inventory and reflect on which of those abilities you really enjoy using regularly. Now, what kinds of problems could you solve (and get paid for) using those skills?

For example, let’s imagine you’re an accountant who has worked in a corporate setting for twenty years. You’ve become really specialized in this field (and you’re paid well!), but you’ve also become bored and disenchanted by the work you do. (Important sidebar: this is a major potential drawback of specialization!). You decide that it’s time to pivot to a new career, but can’t name another skill of yours that’s going to pay the bills.

But let’s also say you have some decent conversational skills, and you’re a solid, empathetic listener. You can really connect with others when need be. You like kids and have the patience required to help them develop. So, you decide to take this side pool of skills and deepen them: you become a teacher!

This actually happened in real life to a colleague and friend of mine, and he’s enjoyed his teaching career immensely since making the switch in his 40’s.

You can always change stores

Although you might feel trapped in the work you’re doing, there’s no reason to believe you can’t change. Learning new skills is often challenging at first, messy while you grow and make mistakes, and eventually becomes lot of fun.

Go ahead – read a book about a topic you’ve always been curious about, but never took a deep dive into.

Take a course and see how much you really like putting the skill to work.

Create something. Try something new. Experiment.

Grab some ice cream from the general store on your way out of it, and get excited for where you’re going next.

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