As a long-time developer who recently moved into a design and UX role, I’ve been somewhat preoccupied with how I can improve and level up design skills while still keeping my front-end skills current. I’m what one would call a generalist, but not a ‘unicorn’ by any means.
I hear people complain that things were much easier in the early days of the web, and that back then you could ‘know it all’, and that even though working on the web has fragmented into distinct disciplines (dev, UX, design, systems administration) they worry about keeping up with things even in just their own discipline (I’ve been guilty of this).
I think we have a tendency to look at the past with rose-tinted glasses somewhat, and that with the rise of social media and the 24/7 access to information we are just bombarded now with things that trigger these worries, aspirations, and fears.
We naturally compare ourselves with others in the industry, and often we end up looking at others highlight reels out of context, and feel that we don’t measure up in some way. As a generalist, comparing yourself to someone who is a specialist can be dangerous, as you might feel like there is a gap, and you identify yet another thing to add to the ‘must learn’ list if you are going to ‘succeed’ in the industry. However, they spend all their time doing that one thing, whereas you do lots more.
Must keep up
Chatting with people over the years I’ve heard all sorts of things regarding career aspirations, like if I learn X technology I’ll be where I need to be or to be successful in my career I need to move to a certain city and work for a certain company, for example.
We end up with these big lofty lists of the latest trends we feel we must learn to get ahead, which often are impractical to complete, and by the time we have mastered one or two of this list, the web industry has moved on to the next thing, and the elusive sense of success is forever out of reach. It can all get a bit much and can often be a cause of burnout.
Even if you master something, you’ll continue to compare yourself to others, so you’ll never reach that place you think you should be. Socially it’s called FOMO - fear of missing out, but I think it can be applied equally in other parts of our lives, whether that’s our careers, or feeling that adding the latest thing to your life will make it better.
I’m guilty of it as much as we all are - I keep a mental list of things I feel I should be good at/improve on as a designer and added to it often, and it’s all got a bit overwhelming, and one can feel stuck and not know where to turn.
All the things
As a curious generalist, I'm naturally interested in a lot of things. As a web developer/designer, I feel I need to learn everything that crops up on my radar. As a photographer, I feel that my photography will be better if I have the latest photo gadget. As a runner, I sometimes feel I'm just not good enough.
I think the secret is to step back and look at what it is you are already good at (and how far you've come) and appreciate that for what it is - you’ll find you actually know quite a bit compared to most. We always take for granted what we know and what is around us. In the past I’ve heard talk about ‘practicing gratitude’ and never paid it much attention, but it has real value.
Step back and take a moment
When you feel stuck, it’s hard to see the positive when obstacles are in your way and your fears are being triggered. But when you can see the good as well as the bad it becomes more difficult to complain about being stuck. It helps you realise what you have and lessens the need for wanting to learn/have the latest thing.
I’m not suggesting complacency, just realism in what you strive for and a regular appreciation for what you are good at and what you have, however small. When you are feeling that you are floundering, write a list of the things you are good at and things you're thankful for. Some people do this daily but regularly is just fine.
As a runner I stopped kicking myself about my ability, and am just trying to get out regularly, however slow I am, and enjoy being outside in nature, running. As a photographer, I’m looking at some of the greats for inspiration, and figuring out why it is I like their work, and looking into learning about that, and trying to get out more with my camera. As a designer, I’m looking into what are the things that would make the biggest difference in what I do day-to-day, trying to ignore current trends and others highlight reels online.
Look at what you enjoy doing, and figure out the three smallest things you can do to make a difference to that thing, and just focus on those for now. Forget about the rest. Choose three more once you have made headway on the first three. If you have a bigger loftier goal that scares you, break that down into smaller chunks, then break those down until you can do no further, and pick the three things that you feel will make the biggest impact, and get started.
Don’t be so hard on yourself. Cultivate some gratefulness towards yourself and the things you have in your life, then others. And stop comparing your chapter one to someone else's chapter twenty. It’s OK not knowing it all. It’s also OK being who you are where you are. Of course, there will be times when buying/learning the latest thing will be the right thing to do, but you’ll find in more cases than not, following the above will make the biggest difference.
In the words of Pablo Picasso “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”
Often just starting small and keeping going is enough to get you through a bad patch.
Some good resources on being (un)stuck and gratitude: