The 10,000 hour question

Is there room for ambition for a generalist in local government?

One of my blogging colleagues wrote recently about the struggles they were having when they felt for a while as if they were off form. They raised a number of very interesting questions;

“Am I working any less hard than usual? Nope. Am I trying to perform poorly? Certainly not. Is there an obvious reason why my performance isn’t quite up to the standard I want it to be? Not that I can think of.

Indeed, I can’t even think of an obvious reason for why this is happening (although as always there are a number of possible factors; some serious, some really not).”

After a few days away over the Easter holidays my feelings are somewhat akin to these, feelings which I never thought would hit me this side of retirement and with so much laying ahead: I’ve realised that increasingly I yearn for a simpler life. The ambition which drove me so hard for so long is fading, and I’m finding myself happier than I have ever been to settle for what I have now and seeing out my career in relative peace.

As was also discussed, ambition can be seen as both a positive and a negative. It drives us to deliver the best services we can, to improve ourselves and to do the best for our residents. However, it can also lead us to making mistakes in the name of chasing success, of profiting from others misfortunes and putting ourselves above others to get to where we need to go.

We are lucky enough to have some readers who comment on our musings, either below the posts or via Twitter (@welovelocalgov), and it was brought up in one such comment that there is a perception that all ambitious people aspire to be managers; this wasn’t exactly what we were saying. Ambition is about being the best you can be, and for some that does mean being managers. As another generalist (sort of) I’ve always considered that one of the skills I have is bringing the best out of others. In order ot be the best I can be therefore I feel I need to manage others and help them to achieve their goals, whatever they may be. My ambition is therefore in part achieved through the work of others.

Having been managing staff for some time I feel I am starting to get a handle on how to handle situations of all kinds. But is the extent of my ambition to achieve vicariously? How can I be truly happy when my greatest work is not really attributable to me?

It is a commonly quoted ‘fact’ that in order to become an expert in something you need to spend 10,000 hours doing it. How on earth would a generalist do such a thing?! Even the longest 1:1 meeting won’t stretch this long (despite the fact that they feel as if they are sometimes). Managing others may be something I do, but it’s hardly something that will get me to the very top; for that I need some degree of detailed knowledge in one or more fields, and what’s more I need to actually care about one or more of them, the old discussion of generalist vs specialist.

I have no burning issue or cause which I feel strongly about and act as a champion for. I enjoy helping others achieve their goals and targets, but have none which can truly be attributed solely to me; working as the oil in the engine, my role is often to make all of the other parts of the engine work more smoothly. Perhaps this is a sign that as a generalist I am at the height of my arc, and without the ability to now specialise it’s time to settle. And it doesn’t get easier to spot opportunity either.

As I look above me in the local government food chain I see a decreasing number of roles, all of which bring far more in the way of responsibility, work and small ‘p’ politics for little in the way of extra reward. We are not paid badly in the public sector, but equally we are not at the top end of any scale either. Do I want to do the role I currently have for this level of pay and little more, gaining little in the way of extra motivation for being part of the public sector? Or do I move elsewhere and use my seemingly mercenary attitude to explore a new field or sector? Should I aim to remain at my current level and find something to specialise in, start building up my own 10,000 hours and force expert status upon myself? Or do I accept that I will forever know a little about a lot and just bob on merrily, earning a wage and making no great splash along the way?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions, but I know I’m not alone. Perhaps it’s a sign of the economic times, but many of my contemporaries are looking at their past, present and future careers and considering what the point is. As opportunities decrease in number and reward does likewise whilst pressures increase personally and across local government, more of us are opening up to the opportunities away from the public sector. Many of these people have plenty to offer local government in the short and long term; it could be worth our while looking at how to keep local government attractive to staff as well as encouraging them to retain a sense of ambition, lest we bid farewell to rising stars and retain those willing to maintain the status quo, for better or for worse.

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2 Comments on “The 10,000 hour question”

  1. Tim Turner Says:

    I did the obvious career thing of getting a manager job after many years as a specialist in local government. I wasn’t very good at it, didn’t remotely enjoy it, and went part time after six months to spend the free days doing what I’m good at. I left after a year and am back to my specialist area (which is lovely). Management is a skill, confined to a relatively small number of people – those who lack the skills shouldn’t get the management roles because they’ve put the years in, and shouldn’t go for them just because we’re all told that career progression has to be vertical.

  2. […] these problems and for many, many others there are experts who have spent their lives (or at least 10,000 hours) learning about a specific topic and becoming the people who deliver […]

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