I find that most high-achieving students fall into one of two categories:
The pigeonhole worrier: Students who are worried about pigeonholing themselves in a particular function or industry
The laser focused: Students who fully commit to a particular function or industry and are focused on building expertise in this field
There’s also a less prominent third category...
The T-shaped learner: Students who build cross-functional perspective and skills by experimenting in a variety of functions and industries
Let’s take a look at each category.
The pigeonhole worrier
Pigeonholing is the fear of going deep into one niche, then having a difficult time finding opportunities outside of that niche.
Students tend to be most concerned about this when they are interning in a specific function or industry that may not be exactly what they want to do full time.
“I have this great marketing internship at a clothing company this summer, but I don’t want that to pigeonhole me as a marketer”
“I’m working in finance, but I don’t want to be pigeonholed in investment banking”
I’ll be honest, the first 10 times I heard people say this I was dumbstruck. It sounded like the biggest non-problem ever… a manufactured concern.
But then I thought about it more and realized the underlying worry is the fear of losing optionality.
As ambitious students and recent graduates, we want to believe that any opportunity is within reach. We don’t want to commit to one career path, especially this early in our careers.
For many, there’s a tendency to avoid specializing at all costs. We are on a never ending quest for optionality, trying to keep as many doors open for as long as possible.
There’s good reasons to preserve optionality and good reasons to specialize -- it all depends on your interests and professional maturity.
But I don’t buy the idea that you can pigeonhole yourself through a couple internships for a few reasons:
First, it’s exceptionally rare to develop niche expertise in a few months -- internships are almost always exploratory in nature. I don’t believe you will be automatically pigeonholed with 2 or 3 internships in the same field, let alone 1.
Second, fields like marketing or finance are very broad and not considered niches. It’s not easy to pigeonhole yourself in broad fields. Even product marketing or investment banking are still broad roles with a fluid movement of talent.
Third, and most importantly, students and young professionals can easily avoid pigeonholing by spinning their experience into a compelling story that focuses on the transferable skills they’ve developed.
This last point is really important.
If you spent your first year in college as a grocery store bagger, you don’t need to worry about being pigeonholed in bagging. Instead, you can network for positions that require strong soft skills (e.g. sales, customer success, etc.) and focus on your excellent customer service experience.
You can unlock nearly any opportunity with a skill-based mentality and enough networking.
The laser focused
On the other end of the spectrum, there are students who are laser focused on one particular industry or function.
Often as early as Freshman year, they are exclusively zoned in on becoming a lawyer, attending medical school, working in investment banking, or some other prestigious profession.
It’s great that these students have a strong hypothesis for what they want out of their career.
But I’ve noticed there’s a tendency to forget that their career aspiration is a hypothesis that requires constant testing and validation. It’s a slippery slope towards overconfidence in your narrative, drinking your own Kool-Aid, and developing career tunnel vision.
Laser focused students will meticulously map out the next few years of their careers. They plot each internship and professional experience needed to get to the next level. If everything goes as planned, they expect to graduate having achieved their goal -- whether that’s getting into graduate school, landing their “dream” job, or something else.
While this approach may improve your chances of achieving your objective, there are three drawbacks to this strategy:
First, you miss the opportunity to explore other professional interests and try new things. In my opinion, that is the whole point of college and the early years of your careers. Everyone is multi-dimensional with many different interests. You may be doing yourself a disservice by focusing on only one interest and ignoring the rest.
Second, you will deepen your skills in one specific field at the expense of developing other skills. For example, you can find four internships to hone your financial modeling and Excel skills, but what is the marginal return on that fourth internship? Would you have gained more by doing two internships related to financial modeling and two completely different ones that flex other parts of your brain?
Third, you are putting all your eggs into one basket with no plan B. Suppose you finally achieve whatever your goal was after years of hard work and focus. What happens if you don’t love what you do? It’s a brutal reality that’s far more common than you might think. And if you’ve spent your entire college career building up to that moment, you run the risk of feeling totally lost when reality hits you.
The laser focused approach can work if you genuinely love a niche and have a high degree of conviction in your passion for the subject. It should be a highly validated hypothesis. It’s usually obvious when someone feels this way -- they can talk your ear off for hours explaining the nuances of the niche they love so much.
Power to them. For everyone else, I’m partial to the T-shaped approach.
The T-shaped learner
There’s a tendency for people to label each other by their field of interest: marketing, finance, medicine, consulting, data science, software engineer, law, etc. This happens all the time in college as students develop their professional reputation.
But this never sat well with me.
I didn’t want to specialize in only one specific field. The issue was not that I had trouble finding something interesting to specialize in. Rather, it’s that I strongly believed that I would be better off exposing myself to a wide variety of fields.
Through my internships, classes, and clubs, I realized that I loved learning about how businesses shape its corporate strategy, company valuations, mergers and acquisitions, growth marketing and customer acquisition, machine learning and data science, product management, leadership, etc.
As I explored each of those fields and many others, my depth of understanding and ability to think about the technology industry dramatically improved. That’s when I realized most of these fields are far more interrelated than people assume.
By developing competency in multiple fields, your brain can form novel connections between them.
Of course it helps to lean towards one field, which for me was business strategy. By combining a breadth of learning with depth in one or two fields, you end up with the T-shaped learning model (coined by Tim Brown, CEO of the world renowned design firm IDEO ).
This approach to learning is how I landed my summer internship at Disney on the mergers & acquisitions team.
Despite having never done a finance internship (unlike other interns with experience at brand name investment banks or hedge funds), the director appreciated that I had a strong handle on business strategy, understood streaming technology trends (i.e. Netflix), and had a decent understanding of M&A finance.
Over the years I’ve found T-shaped learning to be a massive competitive advantage. For example, I’ve worked on projects where we applied machine learning to financial forecasting, leveraged design principles and user psychology to build new products, and developed customer acquisition models for marketing strategies.
You could easily spend years becoming an expert in each of these fields. However, I’m able to deliver more value (and have more fun) by understanding multiple fields well enough and connecting the dots between them.
T-shaped learning doesn’t just apply to technology -- I think it applies to nearly every profession. It enables you to bring differentiated value to the table through novel ideas and insights.
What does this mean for your career?
You will be even better at…
- strategy if you understand finance
- marketing if you understand data analysis
- sales if you understand psychology
- software engineering if you understand product
So try exploring different fields!
Take advantage of being in college or early in your career and explore through classes, internships, clubs, projects, conversations etc.
Don’t worry about pigeonholing yourself or being laser focused. You can still strive for that specific full-time role, but seek other experiences to broaden your perspective.
And when it comes time to interview for that role you really want, you can pitch your story as someone who understands the subject at-hand along with many other related fields.
Give it a try! I promise you’ll have more fun, learn a ton, and make your future even brighter.