Just a hair over three years ago, I changed jobs. My new job came with a new title: CMS Specialist.
For the first time since 1999, I was working on the web not as a generalist, but as someone specializing in something. I shuttered my "Web Generalist" blog and got started in my new gig being responsible specifically for tending to a content management system. But I don't think I ever stopped thinking about a generalist.
Then the other day I got into a conversation on Twitter with a former coworker about that very subject, and I realized that while my job may be more specialized than it used to be, I'm still a generalist in my heart.
When the need has come up for writing, or content strategy, or [something else], I've never been able to stay content with just tending to my own little field. I've gone towards things that have expanded my understanding, led me into fields that are near mine, and tried to keep up with those that I've left behind.
But why? To what end? And I realized there's different parts to it: I'm a bit of a control freak. No, scratch that: I'm a lot of a control freak, and if you know how to do lots of different things, you can control them pretty well. Most of the time. It doesn't always hold up well over time, though.
There's a more flattering side of that, which is curiosity. The friend I was chatting with used the word polymath, with the caveat that you can't call yourself a polymath. But I'm happy to claim the spirit of curiosity behind the word. If I hadn't been so set on being a writer, there's no way I could've decided on a major in college. I was interested in too many different subjects. Even now, outside of my work, I'm curious about lots of subjects, and my reading list and my Netflix queue tend to reflect that.
Then, finally: not to be all both-ways-uphill-in-the-snow about it, but when I started out on the web, one person could pretty much do ALL THE THINGS. Before the turn of the century, I wrote HTML, CSS (early ugly CSS), and then ASP "Classic" in Pagemill, made buttons and optimized photos in Photoshop.
I did troubleshooting on other people's Frontpage code, and decided that we needed a CMS to avoid that sort of thing. At one job I set up WordPress site; at another I converted hand-coded HTML to Drupal.
I was on Blogger when it was a little server under Ev's desk; I had a MySpace account -- for work; I figured out and got creeped out by Facebook ads; I struggled with email newsletters and was grateful for templates.
Like a homesteader out on the prairie, having to do all the things, because there isn't a town yet. You do what needs to be done, because otherwise it's going to be a cold winter.
It's easy for the homesteader to harden into a survivalist or anachronism: if it was made after my time, it's not worthwhile.
And if you're always just staying ahead of the wolves or trying to protect the wheat from locusts, there isn't time for finesse or going into depth or putting in real glass windows.
Which explains why I stepped away from being a generalist and was glad to specialize in something, but not why I find myself drawn back into adjacent subjects. If this were a proper simile, I'd be like Laura Ingalls Wilder's dad, always looking for the next frontier. But that's not really me either.
Maybe it's just that self-reliance is a habit both hard to break and still useful.