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As the conduit for university-wide initiatives at Arizona State University (ASU), the Office of University Initiatives (UI) is like an island of generalists in a deep sea of specialists. As an R1 university, ASU is a breeding ground for pundits, from professors like Dr. Sha Sin Wei, who studies ethico-aesthetic improvisation and topological approaches to morphogenesis and process philosophy, to researchers like Dr. Diego Mastroeni, who studies genetic and epigenetic changes within single classes of cells in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease using laser capture microdissection.
Unlike specialists, who devote years of their lives-if not lifetimes-to understanding every nuance of a single process, method, or subject, UI fellows are often tasked with learning as much about a topic as possible within a few short hours or days, and then translating that knowledge in a way that can be used to inform high-level, university-wide decisions. The stakes are high, and the pressure is palpable.
I won’t lie, I struggled to adapt to my new role as a generalist at first and found myself plagued by a severe case of imposter syndrome. I found myself dissecting every word I spoke (had I said too much? Did I say something I shouldn’t have?) and doubting the recommendations I was making and the information I was culling, all the while terrified that I would lead my boss-and, in turn, her boss, President Crow-astray.
One of the biggest perks about working in UI, however, is the community of care that Jacqueline and the other staff have so carefully and intentionally cultivated. Working at UI is basically like being swaddled in one of those big gravity blankets; you just feel safe. Safe enough to express how you feel, and safe enough not feel pressured to feign competence or suffer in silence.
Every single person I confided at the office not only validated my feelings, but told me that they had had similar experiences as generalists, and the advice they each gave me for how to cope with it and push through it was GOOD. First, I was advised to focus on asking the right questions, instead of giving the perfect answers, which was a game changer. Piggybacking on that, my boss suggested I read the book, A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger, which conveniently was already in our office library. Another co-worker sent me an article on how curiosity drives innovation, which echoed what my training in mindfulness and meditation had taught me: I needed to wash my mind with “don’t know soap”, approach every project and meeting with curiosity, and practice non-judgment (particularly towards myself).
Once I began practicing curiosity and non-judgment, and shifted my focus towards asking the right questions, I stopped feeling so frustrated and my imposter syndrome started to subside. Better yet, I was able to actually enjoy the one aspect of being a generalist that I do truly love, which is being able to spend all day learning. It still blows my mind sometimes that I actually get paid to learn about new things all day every day. Besides, I still get to work and collaborate with specialists like Dr. Sha Xin Wei and Dr. Diego Mastroeni, who I most likely never would have had the opportunity to even meet outside of this fellowship, and that in and of itself makes this job amazing.