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Forget the T-shaped skillset: Try being a comb instead!

Landing your first job might be tricky if you don’t have a specific skill set, but you know what? Getting hired with a plethora of skills is even more challenging contrary to what you might think. More means more chances of getting noticed by the hiring manager, right? No.  

Don’t sweat it; I’ve been there, done that. I’ve field-tested and learnt what works the hard way, so you don’t have to. And that’s what we will explore in this article. How to pass the recruitment process like a silk scarf through an engagement ring when you are a comb? It’s the Indian rope trick equivalent, except you get hired at the end, and no one disappears.

Here is what you will take away from this article:

  • What are the different types of skill sets, and which one is right for you?
  • How to show up in front of potential recruiters / hiring managers? 
  • What to put on your resume?
  • How to get work? The dos and don’ts of being a comb.

Before we dive into the differences, let’s clearly define each of these concepts. There are three commonly known skill sets T-shape, Pi shape and Comb shape. But, for this article, I’m going to make a case for the comb because I want you to aim higher than lower.

The short version goes like this. 

One area of expertise: You’re a T

Two areas of expertise: You’re a Pi

Multiple areas of expertise: You’re a champion (or a comb)

I would argue that a polymath is the embodiment of a comb. Did I lose you there? It’ll make sense in a minute. Hang tight. First, here’s a good definition of T-shape by Jason Yip:

Image source.

“A T-shaped person is capable in many things and expert in, at least, one.

As opposed to an expert in one thing (I-shaped) or a “jack of all trades, master of none” generalist, a “t-shaped person” is an expert in at least one thing but also somewhat capable in many other things. An alternate phrase for “t-shaped” is “generalizing specialist”.”

Jason Yip

Being a comb comes from combining several T’s, meaning you have expertise in multiple verticals and a multi-disciplinary approach. Full-stack, baby!

Cariel Cohen captures it quite well in his article here.

When you have a T-skillset, you become confined in a uni-dimensional box- a niche. You might know the whole ball of wax about it, but you are entirely clueless about other skills related to your career. And that’s where being a comb helps you bridge the gap. And that’s what we are doing here. 

Some areas where T-shaped works better than anything else include specialized doctors, lawyers, athletes and professors.

A T-shape skilled person is ideal for filling a role in a large company because all the skills are distributed, and you act as a cog in a piece of large machinery. 

On the other hand, Combs prefer to take on more responsibility and are usually leading companies or teams because they have a knack for understanding and solving complex situations and problems. 

Disclaimer: Agreed, this can sound a bit overwhelming to a few and being a comb can be challenging! It’s also not for everyone. There is no one right way. However, if there’s a spark, then I encourage you to read on.

You’ve probably heard the most famous and familiar quote used in arguments for specialist vs generalist: Jack of all trades master of none. Yep, that one! It’s factually incorrect. The complete sentiment goes as: 

A jack of all trades is a master of none but often better than a master of one.

To be a comb, you need to be hyper-curious, live in the nuance and the chaos. It would help if you got away from the mindset that you are only required to excel in one field and not know a dime about others. 

Elon Musk is a comb. He has disrupted banking, rockets, the auto industry, ai, and so on. 

The biggest challenge of getting hired is when you’re a comb, provided that is your predicament.

It is about time we address the disclaimer given earlier. While it gives you a competitive edge, the considerable skill knowledge can act against you too! 

Wonder how? Well, it’s from the hiring manager’s perspective. The wide range of skills leaves the potential employer baffled as to where to fit you. The only way out, according to them, is simply negating your application. 

And here is how you will play a different hand! Look, talk, behave like a T-shaped skill person when preparing your resumes and giving interviews. Acting like a T early in the conversation is to eliminate the decision-making fatigue for the recruiter. You’re thinking from the hiring manager’s perspective and making it easy for them to hire you. You’re giving them evidence to solve a problem they have. 

However, that doesn’t mean you will have to act like a T all the time. Once you have landed a job, start being a comb by taking an interest, being curious, and demonstrating your expertise in every facet of the role, team, and company you sit within.

How will the employer or the organization take it? If you’ve played your cards right, slowly but steadily, you’ll sit at the heart of several functions and projects, making you indispensable and the ideal candidate for a promotion.

There you have it! You’ve either come out wanting nothing to do with combs, or the torn voice inside your brain which desired more has finally discovered its path and place in the world.

By Paul Syng

PSD is a multi-disciplinary design practice based in Toronto. The studio focuses on a problem-solving approach that can take any form or function.