A Surprising Way To Ensure Lifelong Employment

specialization at workBy Jessica Stillman

It's hard to imagine that most of us have the same problems as actors Zac Efron and Vin Diesel, but according to research out of MIT, many young professionals share a conundrum with the beautiful people of Hollywood.

No, sadly, it's not how to fend off too many adoring fans or maintain those eight-pack abs. Instead, the question that consumes both young careerists and many actors is whether to let yourself get typecast.

Just like Efron and Diesel need to decide whether to accept the "teen idol" or "man of action" label and run with it, or insist on proving the breadth of their skills with (sometimes painful) forays into serious drama or comedy, those of us on our way up the career ladder have to decide whether it benefits us more to be known as a generalist or a niche expert.

Ezra Zuckerman, a professor at MIT Sloan, examined the career trajectories of actors (and clearly made himself a popular dinner party companion, at least temporarily), revealing that those who typecast themselves early in their careers tended to earn more, work for longer and become more famous.

And guess what? The quicker actors specialized, the sooner and more they worked.

Non-Actors Take Heed

This isn't just crucial info for your actor friends, according to a recent HBR blog post by entrepreneur Daniel Gulati, it's also key information for young professionals looking for advice on how to guide their careers. Being a generalist, according to both Gulati and common sense, has advantages, including the one that keeps even marginally gifted actors trying to stretch their talents: it's more interesting than doing the same thing over and over again. Plus, in a volatile economy, the ability to be agile and shift focus sounds appealing, while landing a niche gig looks harder than casting your job-hunting net wide.

"There is a permanent new dynamism and volatility in the job market, and the cost of experimentation has fallen dramatically," Gulati writes. But he also believes that many professionals take their aversion to specialization too far. "An oft-overlooked part of this strategy is the requirement to amplify your passions and double down when you see early signs of success," he writes. "Instead, unfortunately, I often see the people who've created the most options for themselves continuing to select the one that keeps the most options open. Over the long term, that is a career strategy with diminishing returns."

It may sound like a snore or a dead-end at the start of your career, but specialization will help you earn more and stand out from other job applicants in a truly tough job market.

Guidelines to Getting Typecast

So if specializing is as lucrative for professionals as it is for actors, when do you move to narrow your focus? "For those who are truly unsure of their career passions, it makes sense to stay general. However, this isn't an excuse to stop hunting for a specialty," writes Gulati. He suggests that the time to specialize is when you find something you can imagine doing with great focus for a long time. Don't force it or you'll regret it, but don't give up the hunt prematurely, either.

How specialized should you go? Gulati notes that this may be more a matter of chance opportunities than something you can pilot exactly. Feel your way to the correct level of specialization, he writes: "Retaining some degree of intellectual breadth is important, as is a level of future career flexibility. In practice, though, this is more a function of opportunities that come your way, rather than a predetermined strategy. Be alert: If your role lacks challenges or if you're disengaging with the content, you're probably being dragged too deep."

Have you been fighting being typecast when you should be embracing it?

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