Be All You Can Be (sorta)

Some of the most memorable commercials from my childhood were from the Army’s “Be All You Can Be” campaign in the early 80s. Every Gen Xer born in America probably has the catchy jingle and its eponymous tagline indelibly etched on their brains.  Each ad featured a crop of young recruits pushing themselves past their preconceived limits, doing things they never imagined they would do. I didn’t answer the call to serve, but the sentiment of the spots resonated with me deeply.

I was a kid who tried a little of bit of everything, from computer programming to playing trumpet to writing short stories. Thanks to a fortuitous combination of fantastic parents, supportive siblings and genuinely caring teachers, school came easy for me. Learning something new was my favorite activity and my goal was to soak up as much knowledge as I could just because I could. The more divergent the interest the better. I wanted to do it all. Choosing was never my strong suit.

It wasn’t until I started college when I first realized that’s not how the real world works. The modern economy rewards specialization. The first few semesters allow you to explore a broad swath of courses, but by the time your junior and senior years roll around, the focus gets tighter and tighter around your chosen major.

After graduation, the noose only gets tighter. You start out in an entry level position and are expected to take on jobs with increasing levels of responsibility, but within a narrow domain of expertise. From junior accountant to controller to CFO. Brand analyst to product manager to CMO. To put a spin on the Army’s old slogan, be all that you can be – but only within this box.

But what happens to those people who don’t want to play that game? The rewards for following the tried-and-true path to the top can be lucrative but stultifying if you’re inclined to take side trips on your career journey rather than going straight up the ladder. If you’re lucky, you’re labeled a drifter, a dilettante, or a rolling stone. The not-so-nice description is loser with commitment issues.

It wasn’t always this way.  We used to call people with expansive interests Renaissance men (or women). It was a badge of honor. The original Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci, was a 16th century polymath most famous for his artistic achievements but his scientific and engineering breakthroughs were years ahead of their time. The same mind that created the masterpieces “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper” also was sought after as an advisor on military affairs, architecture, and mechanical engineering.

Benjamin Franklin is mostly remembered as one of the founding fathers of the United States and his picture graces the 100-dollar bill as a result. He helped to draft the Declaration of Independence, served as a delegate to the constitutional convention and was the first US ambassador to France. Yet, he still found the time be a prolific writer, publisher, and inventor whose experiments advanced the science of electricity.

One can only imagine what a modern day human resources officer would do if da Vinci and Franklin applied for jobs today. Franklin probably wouldn’t make it past the AI-powered resume review given his formal education ended at age 10. Da Vinci would come across as a scatterbrain candidate who failed to show a steady progression over time. Assuming they did receive offer letters, they’d be faced with an impossible choice.

“So, Mr. da Vinci, I see that you have exceptional drafting skills. We have an opening in our Art department where you would be a perfect fit.”

“Grazie, grazie, signora. That sounds lovely. I also saw a role available on the, how do you say, um…. Engineering team. Could I work with them as well?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. da Vinci, you need a master’s degree and at least five years experience to qualify for that position. Besides, those jobs have completely different reporting lines. It would be impossible to do both even if you had the experience. But I think you’ll be very happy working with the creatives.”

“I see.”

As absurd as that conversation sounds, it’s an illustration of how great ideas not only die on the vine, but how potentially great thinkers’ imaginations are snuffed out before they’re born. Ever since Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations popularized the concept of division of labor, it’s been an article of faith that the most efficient way to boost productivity is to split employees into separate groups performing different roles. Finance and Marketing. Manufacturing and Communications. Left brain versus right brain and never the twain shall meet.

For certain tasks that require a unique set of skills, specialization makes total sense. No one wants a part time brain surgeon who moonlights doing the books for the local hospital. But for most jobs, curiosity, work ethic and a degree of intelligence are more than enough to be successful. Higher order thinking skills are protean. Science backs up that assertion.

In David Epstein’s 2019 book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World,” he references studies showing that not only is extreme expertise often unnecessary to create innovative solutions, it can actually be counterproductive. Repetitive practice can lead to entrenched thinking and a stubborn confidence that refuses to see the value in alternative approaches. As Epstein writes, ”The successful adapters were excellent at taking knowledge from one pursuit and applying it creatively to another…They drew on outside experiences and analogies to interrupt their inclination toward a previous solution that may no longer work.”

Those may be the facts, but they’re cold comfort to the kid who never wanted to choose. Not many editors are knocking down the door of an MBA-trained management consultant to read his random musings on the state of the world any more than CEOs are looking for poets to help them cut costs from the bottom line and optimize operations. But maybe they should.

Then again, if it was easy, everybody would do it. And that was the point of the Army’s ads. “We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day,” wasn’t meant to say they intended to turn you into a morning person. The point was that they do things the hard way, because that’s how they get the best out of you.

That mindset could benefit us all, soldier or civilian.


#Substack #writer #Army

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