The new Renaissance Man: coming out as a transprofessional

Leonardo Da Vinci Vitruvian Man

Laughing over a beer with a mate, I said that the process of changing career is probably the closest thing I’ll ever experience to ‘coming out’. Without missing a beat, he coined the term ‘transprofessional’ – bingo.

I’m not the first and I won’t be the last. The more I turn the light of my reflections on what has brought me to this juncture, the more I feel I’m part of a broader and growing ‘movement’. I concede that I’m victim to a certain extent of confirmation bias, but there is no doubt a growing school of thought that current traditional white collar work and the office environment is in need of an overhaul if it is going to retain an inspired, creative, fulfilled and motivated workforce.

To my disbelief, when I called my friend and builder for some general advice when considering a career in the trades, he said that I was the fourth person to approach him to ask the same question under almost identical circumstances. I felt both relieved that I wasn’t alone, but also slightly jarred that they beat me to it – as if I was somehow competing with them. I wasn’t, and I’m not (unless they all decide to become fine furniture makers). Instead, and more productively, I can now see that we are all part of this burgeoning movement of ‘transprofressionalism’. Doing the seemingly unthinkable and stepping – or jumping – off the dizzying corporate ladder onto the firm soil below.

Sometimes I felt like I was living in a scaled-down version of Isaac Asimov’s ‘Trantor’ – a hyper-version of our modern cities as described in his science fiction Foundation series, which charts the decline of a galactic empire:

Trantor is “devoted to the administrative necessities of empire”…“[Trantorians are] born in a cubical, grow up in a corridor, and work in a cell…”

One of the main premises for the decline of the galactic empire, the narrator explains, is that “as Trantor becomes more specialised, it becomes more vulnerable”. I can see some truth in this in me. I began to feel like my skills were becoming more and more esoteric – especially as I progressed towards more managerial-style work – and I could sense I was losing my ‘handiness’, that undervalued attribute that builds in a sense of redundancy and resilience. Ironically, these are the cornerstones of the engineers’ mindset that I was supposed to be espousing.

Put another way, I would work all day so I could afford to pay others to do the raft of tasks for my mostly empty house and empty car that I no longer had the time or skills to do myself. Of course, there is a balance – we can’t be competent at everything – but for me the tilt of this see-saw was now all too obvious. I’ll discuss later a book that dissects this dynamic in much more detail.

Importantly, I felt that my learning started to approach the top of the S-curve and that new projects and responsibilities were just nibbling at the edges of a universe of knowledge, skills and experiences. What was once intriguing no longer invoked the same intensity of interest, or perhaps more fairly I have come to see how fields of study become more profound and engaging when viewed from above as one of many tiles in tessellation. One person that I feel I must read more about is Leonardo Da Vinci, who many consider the epitome of the ‘Renaissance Man’ – a prodigious intellect who appears to have never paid heed to the tradition of sticking to one silo of thought.

It has been a long time since I have felt that childlike joy of learning something new. Many adults try to tap into that feeling by, for example, learning a language or playing an instrument. I chose to change careers. The corporate buzzword that appears to have made it into the vernacular that explains this well on a different level is ‘disruption’ – specifically ‘disruptive innovation’. The idea leverages off how innovation (a good proxy for success) is fuelled by unpredictive forces and this, as Whitney Johnson explains, is how “disrupting yourself” keeps things fresh with new ideas, insights, markets and networks. Interestingly, she says not to over-plan but let your strategy form organically:

“The best disruptors let their strategy emerge, rather than doing detailed market analysis and developing a deliberate strategy to achieve a certain goal, they’re more flexible, setting out, gathering feedback and adapting accordingly, because [they] are charting an untraditional course [they] won’t be able to see the end from the beginning.”

What will this personal disruption, for me, lead to? Who knows – but what an adventure.

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