Trapped in Your Niche? Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff on the Pros and Cons of Being Typecast

I was once denied a promotion because I was “too good at my job.” In a way, this was intended to be a compliment. I, however, felt as though I was being punished. I had been operating on the assumption that finding my niche (a distinct, specific skill) would make me stand out, thereby leading to more opportunities. My manager, on the other hand, knew that finding someone else with my niche competences would be difficult so why rock the boat. I was typecast.

Bela Lugosi and Boris KarloffThere are worse things than being told you’re “too good at your job”…unless you’re current role is not your end-goal. You may be familiar with the legendary actor Bela Lugosi. Bela played Count Dracula in the famed vampire’s 1931 cinematic debut. Bela’s performance was so distinct that while many actors have played Dracula since, each is really doing a rendering of Bela’s portrayal.

The 1930s were the age of the horror movie. Werewolves and monsters dominated box office sales. So you can imagine what a big break it was for unknown actor Bela Lugosi to play Count Dracula. He was ambitious and saw this opportunity as a path to greater roles. Disappointingly for Bela, Dracula was the beginning and end of his career.

I’d like to quit the supernatural roles and play just an interesting, down-to-earth person. — Bela Lugosi

At this same time, another unknown actor achieved his Hollywood dream. Boris Karloff was given the part of the Frankenstein monster. Like Bela’s Dracula, when we envision the Frankenstein monster, we picture Boris’ performance. Unlike Bela, Boris was thrilled to play this character and, while as ambitious as Bella, remained proud to be associated with Frankenstein throughout his life.

My dear old monster. I owe everything to him. He’s my best friend. — Boris Karloff

While Bela and Boris were typecast in the same film genre, each experienced fame in drastically different ways. So should we be more like Bela – fighting to break free from our typecasted niche – or Boris – striving for more but embracing the labeling?

According to Ezra Zuckerman, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, a specialization leads to a longer, more prolific career. His research indicates the financial benefits for those who are typecast into a particular role. These individuals tend to differentiate themselves from competitors and merit recognition which garners future opportunities.

While Zuckerman’s research may be true, being labeled or typecast is only beneficial at certain stages of your career. Faulkner’s research in the music industry shows that a focused identity (i.e., a niche) is helpful when being chosen for new opportunities but subsequently leads to limitations:

It’s good, because at least people make a link between the composer (and his work). It’s bad, because producers and directors tend to confuse what a composer does with what he can do.

Have you ever heard the adage, “Jack of all trades, master of none?” It means you’re satisfactory in many skills, but lack expertise in any particular one. To progress our careers, we need to be viewed as an expert in something. We need a niche. Is this limiting? Possibly, but only if you allow it to limit you.

Once you’ve mastered a skill, exploit it. Figure out how your niche can be applied to other specializations, interdepartmental situations, and problems. Instead of viewing your niche as being “just ________,” redefine it as a specialization that opens the door to new opportunities. The more you show off the universal applications of your niche, the more others will expand your typecasted persona from “subject matter expert” to “Renaissance Man.” Making this change may be scary, but the treats will far outweigh the tricks.

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