18 Jan 2024

Finding Your Career Meaning: Purpose for Generalists

Many view purpose as a distant, singular goal. You might have a notion that ‘when I grow up’ is when you will uncover your true purpose and work toward fulfilling your full potential.


However, for Generalists with evolving interests, skills, and passions, purpose is not a fixed end state. There isn’t necessarily a single North Star guiding decisions and direction through life.


Generalists find common threads of purpose in varied activities. For example, one person might host a podcast, design a knowledge management system, and volunteer at a library, all unified by the goal of facilitating broader access to information.



The Kaleidoscope of Purpose for Generalists


For Generalists, purpose is like a kaleidoscope. The stones in the canister represent skills, values, strengths, and passions. Occasionally, we swap a colorful gem out or add a new one in.


As the kaleidoscope turns, the picture shown through the viewfinder changes. The shapes and colors recombine to create new images with each movement.


These pictures represent the shifting nature of purpose.


They are formed from the same foundational elements, but seen from a different perspective or with a new combination of the key ingredients.


This vision of a shifting and evolving purpose challenges some of the traditional frameworks.


Let’s take a deeper look at the prevailing theories of purpose and explore how they relate to Generalists.


Note: I won’t spend time debating the frameworks themselves - there are plenty of resources available exploring the pros and cons of each, see links for additional context.



Frameworks for Purpose: An Overview


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs


First up is the OG. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs states that humans progress through a set pattern of needs that must be met. It starts with the basic foundation and as each layer is satisfied, a person moves up and focuses on solving the next level.


For example, once food and shelter are plentiful, attention turns to safety, love, esteem, and finally self-actualization.


Self-actualization is defined as realizing one’s full potential based on their capabilities. Upon reaching this pinnacle, someone has attained their highest aspirations and levels of personal growth.


Application to Generalists: For Generalists, the path up the pyramid can stall between self-esteem and self-actualization. In their journey, Generalists often have a moment where they realize their approach is different from the ‘norm’ [note: we've written about this here:].


They notice their strengths and approach are unique and during this milestone moment, either seek to conform to the specialist path or lean into their Generalist identity.


Embracing Generalist superpowers acts like an unlock key - feeling confident in their way of working and seeing the value they generate meets many of the needs of the esteem level. At that point, they can move on to actualization.


Upon reaching the self-actualization apex, a Generalist might experience restlessness after mastering one area and bounce around on the pyramid, looking for new growth opportunities and realigning based on their evolving interests and passions.


Learn more about Maslow’s Hierarchy here or here.



Ikigai: Japanese Concept Regarding Reason for Being


This framework, often referenced in discussions about purpose, suggests that joy and fulfillment are found at the intersection of four key elements: what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for.


Missing any of the four elements can lead to an imbalance, such as enjoying work but not being compensated for it. Or doing something well but not meeting a real need in the marketplace.


Application to Generalists:

For Generalists it is important to regularly revisit these four questions:

  • What do you love?

  • What are you good at?

  • What does the world need?

  • What can you be paid for?


Your talents and passions will likely evolve somewhat but retain a core consistency over time.


However, the world's needs and marketable skills can change rapidly and dramatically.


This dynamic is well-suited for Generalists who excel at adapting to new technologies, frameworks, and business trends. Regularly reevaluating how your skills and interests align with the needs of the market lets the Ikigai framework grow with you as a Generalist.


Read about Ikigai here and here.



The Flow Theory by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


This framework is about finding happiness in 'flow,' a state where you're deeply focused on an activity. Imagine those moments when time flies by, and what feels like minutes turns out to be hours — that's flow.


Flow occurs when you have the right blend of skill and challenge to be completely absorbed. By recognizing when you're in this state of flow, you can choose to spend more time on tasks that bring you joy and satisfaction, activities where you excel naturally and are eager to engage.


Application to Generalists:


For Generalists, experiencing flow across various activities is common, but it's important to remember that being deeply engaged isn't always synonymous with fulfilling larger goals or contributing to the well-being of others—key aspects of purpose.


Generalists benefit from regularly assessing how their interests and passions evolve. This self-awareness can help in directing time and energy towards activities that not only offer a sense of flow but also align with an evolving sense of purpose. It's about finding the right balance between deep engagement in the present and aligning these activities with broader goals or contributions to the community. This mindful approach ensures that the pursuit of flow also nurtures a sense of purpose.


Read more about flow here.



The PERMA Model from Martin Seligman


The PERMA model emphasizes five aspects of overall well-being.

  • Positive Emotion (P): Focusing on things like joy, gratitude, and hope

  • Engagement (E): Involvement in activities that fully capture your attention and engage you deeply

  • Relationships (R): Building strong, positive connections with others

  • Meaning (M): Having a sense of purpose and feeling that what you do is valuable and meaningful

  • Accomplishment (A): Pursuing success, achievement, and mastery of skills


While this holistic model outlines the key factors for well-being, it doesn’t offer guidance on how one can achieve purpose and accomplishment.


Application to Generalists: The PERMA model resonates well with the versatile nature of Generalists, whose interests often lead to engaging in a blend of activities — from creative projects and volunteer work to paid roles and community involvement.


This set of activities not only fulfills the 'Meaning' and 'Accomplishment' aspects of PERMA but also contributes to Positive Emotions and solid Relationships. Note that fulfillment for Generalists often comes from beyond their primary occupation, feeding a broader sense of purpose.


Listen to Seligman talk about the PERMA model here.


Note on Additional Frameworks That Address Purpose


Positive Psychology and Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy both emphasize the importance of finding purpose and meaning in life. Positive psychology focuses on leveraging individual strengths to achieve fulfillment and make a positive impact (and is closely related to the PERMA model, which is a concept within Positive Psychology).


Logotherapy highlights the search for meaning as a primary motivator for all humans. According to Frankl, meaning can be discovered through work, through love, or through suffering.



Finding Purpose as a Generalist


After reviewing the prevailing frameworks on purpose, my recommendations for Generalists seeking purpose are:


Embrace a fluid approach to finding purpose. Recognize that your journey doesn't have to lead to a single, unchanging answer. Your interests, strengths, and passions can lead to various images of purpose over time. Be open to continuously discovering what brings meaning and fulfillment.


Reflect deeply on the core elements - the kaleidoscope's stones - that shape the evolving picture of your life's purpose:

  • Revisit and affirm your core values.

  • Identify what truly matters to you.

  • Explore your passions.

  • Acknowledge what activities you love.

  • Assess your strengths and what you excel at.


If you find yourself stuck on these core elements, go deeper before zooming back out to look at the big picture:

  • Look for commonalities in your favorite roles and projects.

  • Consider your criteria for new opportunities and what satisfaction means to you.

  • Note the moments when you're most deeply immersed or in a flow state.

  • Think about times when you were so engaged in a project that payment was secondary.


Wrapping up, understand that finding purpose is more of a marathon than a sprint, it's an ongoing process, not a one-and-done event.


For Generalists, this journey is about mixing and matching — combining your various talents and passions in both your professional and personal life to carve out meaning for yourself.


Keep an open mind about what it means for you. Stay flexible, stay curious, and remember, your kaleidoscope images are uniquely yours.

About the author:

Kathryn Montbriand spent a decade championing culture change at a Fortune 500 company. She pioneered a first-of-its-kind team of ‘Culturists’ that focused on employee engagement and creating authentic connections in the workplace. She used that same spirit of positive disruption to create Montbriand Services which provides Fractional Chief of Staff support, and Lived and Loved which enables people to access their stories in an innovative way.



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