Female generalists and the paradox of choice.
Choice is good for us.
We are better off having women’s rights and the ability to chose who we want to be. Today, celebrating femininity can look like strutting a catwalk in lingerie and high heels or wearing a burka in the streets of London. Western culture celebrates choice, but even more than this, it celebrates individuality. We have never had more freedom to choose who we want to be. Yet, for many smart women out there, it’s never been so hard to decide.
Why do so many of us feel immobilized by the weight of decisions?
My story for context
I’m a 26-year-old Bolivian with a background in Development Economics. Simply reading this makes me cringe because I’m so much more than that. Whenever people ask me to introduce myself, the first thing I say is, “It’s complicated. How much time do you have?” And then something like this:
“I’m sofia, a 26-year-old Bolivian/Canadian with a background in Anthropology and Development Economics. But what I actually do is game design for behavior change. Oh, and I’m also a part-time writer and yoga teacher.”
Whenever new people ask me what I do, I’m always unsatisfied with my response. As a self-proclaimed generalist, I struggle to define myself in a tidy, Linkedin-appropriate way. Having to decide how I want people to define me for the rest of my life keeps me up at night; there’s too much to choose from.
The Paradox of Choice
More is always better right?
We usually assume that the more choices we are offered, the more likely we will find just the right thing. However, insights from the field of psychology find that this isn’t always true. Research shows that there can be too much choice, and when there is, we are less likely to buy anything at all.
In 2000, psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper launched a study on consumer choices. One group of shoppers at an upscale market saw a food display with 24 varieties of gourmet jam. Another group only saw six types of jam. The large display attracted more interest than the small one.
But when the time came to pay, people who saw more varieties were less likely to buy than people who saw the small collection. The Inverted U curve of satisfaction
The relationship between choice and satisfaction is a little more complicated than we thought. It looks less like a straight line going up into the heavens of consumerism and more like a frowning inverted U curve.
According to an article published in the Harvard Business Review, “There is diminishing marginal utility in having alternatives; each new option subtracts a little from the feeling of well-being until the marginal benefits of added choice level off.”
At a certain point, the more choices you have, the less likely you are to be satisfied with the choice you made. What if those jams were, in fact, multiple identities you could choose from. What then?
Credit to the author.
The Cult of the Specialized Individual
Individuality is a form of 21st-century currency, and when you lack one, you become utterly invisible in the digital age.
You can choose to be recognized as “A writer and mother of 3 beautiful children” and have thousands of followers on Instagram. You can also choose to define your Linkedin identity as “CEO of CONTECH, a fintech company with a satirical twist.” The point is that you have to choose to be someone to take part in the digital economy.
The traditional path to success has emphasized excelling in a single discipline or field rather than being a generalist.— David Epstein, Range.
That’s because, at the onset of the industrial revolution, the need for workers to be intimately familiar with a unique part of the production process was a necessity to produce high-quality outputs. According to this logic, when you become an expert in a particular subject or skill, you can use your income to trade for whatever you lack.
Specialization is now the beating heart of our economies because of its perceived advantages for trade. I would beg to differ, but “that’s the way the cookie crumbles.” It’s hard to be a generalist in a specialized society.
Generalists know a little about a lot. Today, being a generalist spells trouble in an economy that demands that we define our identity according to the one thing we can do better than the rest.
As generalists, which specific part of the economic engine are we supposed to contribute to? Figuring out where we belong is especially difficult for all those women who, like me, consider themselves generalists. We’re at the crux of the choice paradox, wholly immobilized by it.
The Renaissance Woman
Credit: Titian, Venus de Urbino (XVI c)
The Renaissance is a period of European history that began in the 14th century and marked the end of the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance, people became more interested in learning and educating themselves in multiple areas. At the time, being well versed in many disciplines and topics was considered a sign of prestige. Women who could do so were held in high regard by society.
The modern connotation for the term ‘renaissance woman’ is someone “who is interested and knows about many different things.” If you, like me, are a renaissance woman, these double-edged qualities may speak to you:
Growing up, you were good at many things and were likely encouraged to go professional in more than a few. You played the piano, took dance classes, and got As in class. It’s impossible to put a label on you because you are so many things at once. You excel in many areas but struggled to specialize in any.
Creativity and love for knowledge
Your curiosity drives you to search for new sources of knowledge, and it’s easy for you to absorb new skills. This breadth of knowledge makes you a uniquely creative person. You can draw from many areas to conceptualize and do things in unique ways. You also tend to feel like a misfit in any job and struggle to communicate what you can bring to a project.
Adaptable and multi-cultural
Many cultural chameleons are renaissance women. Being half French half Colombian, or living in a household where your mother is American and your step-father is Haitian can have interesting effects on a person’s psyche. As we grow older, we inherit the gift of adaptability, changing our colors to fit new environments. The downside is that you may feel like you’re stuck in an identity limbo culturally or professionally. You struggle to commit to one identity having so many to choose from.
Curating your identity as a 21st-century generalist
For us renaissance women who resemble museums much more than assembly lines, the one big challenge is to stay focused. In the 14th century, multifacetedness was a way for women to assert their individuality in an age of repression. Today, being a generalist for some purposes is like having no identity at all. Identity and visibility are intimately connected in the 21st century. Society interacts with your public identity through your LinkedIn profile, Instagram, and Twitter accounts. As things go, to speak the language of the 21st century, renaissance women have to do a little curation. In other words, we need to pick which parts of our museum we want to put on display.
Choose your top items to exhibit: How would you like others to interact with you? Think of this as an intelligent user-experience design on a landing page. To get the most from your viewers, you only display the elements you want people to click on first. It’s a gateway for them to discover all the great things that your website has to offer.
Market your best traits: Is shame holding you back from sharing your value? As we’ve entered the peak age of female liberation in the west, incredible women out there still fail epically to market themselves. Humbleness is a critical female trait that has resisted the passing of time. We need to shed the shame we’ve inherited from being too loud or assertive.
Once you have nailed what’s unique about you and got clarity on your purpose, you might still have more than one goal. You’ll likely be eclectic for the rest of your life, and that’s a beautiful thing. But you’ll have the communication tools to make the most of your versatile nature. So let’s choose the aspects of our individuality we want to highlight and shout them from the rooftop. The world is waiting for powerful women to step up.
I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision.— Maya Angelou