In 2009, when I first started grad school, a professor asked each student in the cohort to share the anthropological topic areas they planned to focus on in their studies and careers. As I listened, it seemed that many had a fairly specific idea of what they wanted to research as academics, or the field they wanted to work in as practitioners. They named off topics like education, health, reproductive rights, architecture, museums, community organizing, and so on. Some were studying anthropology to supplement their existing degrees (e.g., law, architecture, business and social studies). Others were already well into their careers and wanted to add an anthropology perspective to their toolkit. Some even had specific research questions in mind, or problems they wanted to solve, or ideas for the geographic location of their fieldwork.
I, on the other hand, did not have such a refined idea of my interests. I just knew that I wanted to learn and understand things through research, become a master of anthropology, and solve whatever problems came my way. Grad school was a tool for figuring out my path. When it was my turn, I rattled off a list that went something like, “I’m interested in poverty, education, homelessness, tourism, social justice, race and ethnicity, urban development…” and probably a couple more.
This is the mentality with which I entered – and finished – my graduate studies. I came from a liberal arts undergrad where I learned about all kinds of fascinating things, where I learned how to learn and to ask questions, where my innate curiosity was fed by courses like Chinese Literature and Theater, The Art And Culture of Polynesia, Cultural Geography, Latin American Area Studies, and The History of Ideas, along with opportunities to study abroad and do original research on downtown gentrification and “The Facebook” (this was in 2005). Naturally, my anthropology courses were not focused on a particular area of study, just the sub-field of cultural anthropology. I clearly remember one time as an undergrad when I was doing some office work for an anthropology professor, who was also my mentor. We were talking about something, I forget what, and I said to her, “that’s interesting.” This was, and still is, a typical response for me. She smirked and said, “Everything is interesting to you, Amy.”
Later on, in grad school, the professor who had asked us about our interests told me that I shouldn’t be interested in so many things, and that it would behoove me and my career to pick one or two topics about which I could become an expert. A very academic way of thinking about things, if you ask me. I never thought twice about my curiosity-based approach to life and learning. And, needless to say, I didn’t listen to the professor.
A colleague of mine recently revealed that in the past, she did a market research project about caulk. Yes, caulk, the stuff you use to seal cracks in your shower, windows and baseboards. Apparently the project ended up being pretty boring, but I can still imagine the potential of such a study not limited by time or resources. In my own work, one of my favorite projects was helping with the redesign of a software used to edit medical terminology and taxonomies. It doesn’t seem interesting on the surface, and is not as “sexy” as working on automotive design, large commerce sites, social media or gaming, but the usability issues had a big impact on people’s workflow and productivity, and the project was a fun challenge altogether.
Maybe that professor was right about being focused, but the way she communicated it was too narrow. I can’t say that I’ve chosen a topic area, but I can say that I’ve focused on refining my mastery of approach and perspective through my practice of anthropology, my use of qualitative research methods, and my understanding of human-centered design.
This broader way of thinking about mastery, along with my curious outlook and a wide scope of interests, has provided me with ample career opportunities and has made my work more enjoyable. It also allows for nice surprises and cross-pollination of ideas within and between industries, verticals, technologies and channels. I can easily jump between projects with completely different clients, goals, methods and deliverables, with topics as diverse as stress, life insurance and photography, to area rugs, fridges, wine retail, and information security. I feel satisfied in saying that the best thing about the work I do is not necessarily about the topic at hand, but the act of learning and understanding, solving problems, and expanding my perspective. Maybe one day I’ll even be able to say someone paid me money to do a fascinating project about caulk.