Sally Jenkinson is a freelance technical analyst and solutions architect based in Colchester, in the UK. Working primarily for various global digital agencies, Sally has been involved in projects for clients including Nokia, Electronic Arts, BT, Manchester United and David Lloyd Leisure, and aims to get people talking and thinking about technology in a creative way. She is also an Adobe Community Professional and a speaker.
As a child I was a complete bookworm, and nestled on my bookshelf was ‘The Story of Tiger-pig’ by John Ryan. It’s a charmingly illustrated (although with hindsight, pretty damn politically incorrect in a 1970s way) short tale about a tiger-striped pig who sets off around the world to learn about his identity.
“There was once an animal called Tiger-pig. He was a soft, cuddly, piggy shape but he had stripes like a tiger, and when he opened his mouth wide he had teeth like a tiger and made an angry roar which surprised even himself.”
He lives on an island with his mum and dad, who thankfully aren’t struggling with accusations of cross-species extramarital affairs, as they are both piggy and stripy too.
Tiger-pig doesn’t fit in anywhere. He’s not quite pig, but not quite tiger, and he knows he is different. He struggles to define himself based on what he understands about other animals, and nobody he meets can give him the answers he seeks. Everyone he encounters on his journey to find his identity each have things that they too are looking for, and therefore have ideas of what Tiger-pig is based on their projection of what they want him to be. These forced identities don’t make Tiger-pig happy, and they don’t fit what he feels he is.
After journeying around the globe and getting into scrapes, Tiger-pig rounds the Earth with a long swim, and ends up back on his own little island. When his mother and father ask if he had found out what sort of animal he was, Tiger-pig states “No. But it doesn’t seem to matter any more.”
Whilst we may not be particularly stripy, piggy, or have pointy teeth, Tiger-pig’s quest for definition may resonate with the generalists amongst us. We might fall foul of others attempting to define us, causing conflict because their preconceptions don’t match who we are. We might feel unhappy, falling into roles where our hopes for each other didn’t align. We might feel an emptiness in ourselves from not having an easy label to apply, and to help define who we should be and what we should focus on. We might wander the world looking for the right box to put ourselves in, hoping that each new environment and set of people will hold the answer.
It isn’t always easy to explain our value, and it’s sometimes hard having to fight preconceptions that we may not be skilled if we don’t have thousands of hours worth of experience in one particular area. We might be seen as irrelevant, not as valuable as a specialist, or just not someone who can fit into already established roles.
But in the end, maybe it doesn’t matter any more. As long as we know our strengths, and are confident in finding opportunities that best suit what we know we enjoy, maybe it isn’t important that others don’t always know what to make of us at first glance.
Get on with doing what you love best, even if this doesn’t fit in with normal conventions and expectations. Sometimes you need someone with both a soft, cuddly exterior and pointy teeth to get the job done, and the best organisations will embrace your skills, however broad they are. If people don’t like you, then give your fiercest, loudest roar and chase them all away.
We’re all faced with regular self-assessments of our professional skills. Whether it’s pondering putting yourself forward for that promotion, looking for new jobs, or deciding if you’re the right person to take that project on, we are conditioned into taking a list of requirements and mentally ticking boxes against each item. Who are you? What do you know? What don’t you know? Is this a match for you?
The list is extensive. Requirements, roles, and responsibility descriptions blend into buzzword bingo, with languages, frameworks, methodologies, libraries and systems flitting in and out of fashion accordingly. What do they want to hear? How honest should you be about your level of expertise? Can you tick that box? Do you know enough?
Of course, impostor syndrome is always there, sat on our shoulder as we tap away at our keyboards. You’ve been approached about an amazing opportunity, but you can’t do it. You listened to what they told you, and you’ve mentally ticked 75% of the boxes against it, but that leaves 25% where you’ll be shown up. That 25% will mean that you’ll be a failure. You’d love to learn more about those things, but can’t take the opportunity with no experience in those areas. You turn it down and do something easier instead.
We all enjoy feeling confident. We are hired for our expertise. We love it when our clients and our colleagues respect our knowledge and skills, and we can do our job well. We take the opportunities where we know our skills match 100% for this reason. “I’ve done all of that before; I know I can do it again.” But if we only pursue chances where we’ve already ticked all of the boxes, how will the others ever get filled?
Stop focusing on everything you already know, and focus on what you don’t know. Deliberately and proactively take work where you know there is a shortcoming, and use it as an incentive to improve. There are always a million reasons not to do something, and those tend to be what shout the loudest in our heads. Is that 25% a genuine reason not to take that opportunity, or is this a great chance to up-skill? Be honest with yourself and others, and let them be the judge of whether you can do the job. If it doesn’t work out, then hey, you still levelled up your XP from nothing to something — more than you’d have got from taking the work where you already knew everything.