If it can be done by Jack, well then, it can surely
be done by Jill too. But equality—for Jack and Jill—is not what this (piece) is
about. What I have been thinking about recently is how many trades are too many—for
Jack, or Jill? And does having multiple “trades” truly make you master of none?
This topic would not have merited much debate a
decade ago. Being focused/ becoming an expert used to be the unquestioned mantra,
but we have since seen the rise of “multi”. Business cards used to read “supply chain design lead”. In contrast,
many LinkedIn profile titles today have two commas separating the various roles
listed. The concept of one career, one area of expertise, one role—is no longer the norm.
Technology has been an impetus
too—“Push” notifications (breaking news,
WhatsApp memes, social media updates) have created an environment of
interruptions and reduced attention spans for two and 72-year old alike. Teaching methods have had to evolve with modules
getting shorter and shorter as the target market is the same one that’s
addicted to goofy, 15-second TikTok videos. No surprise then, that the idea of
focusing on one thing, and one thing alone, is no longer de rigueur.
Then there are market enablers—such as the rise of
the gig economy. There are college students studying engineering while editing
their movies on iMovie and YouTube artistes that have a side hustle by day.
#FunFact—#hustle has over 20 million posts on Instagram while
#expert has less than 900 thousand.
So, in this environment where there is greater
acceptance of a juggler, and where technology and job markets offer you the
opportunity to have multiple pursuits, the question is—should you?
- What makes you happy? On an alumni forum, a woman asked—“Is there a time when you chose to focus on one thing? How did that make you feel?” The answers were telling. Several described making difficult decisions to focus on one are alone. And many of those who did voiced the opinion that their choice meant less, rather than more, happiness over time. I quit my job as a strategy consultant at the point in my career where the 13-hour work days might have started to pay off. My plan was to spend six months focused on writing before figuring out what I wanted to do next. Two months later, I was spending a lot of time staring at a blank screen and blinking cursor. When a client reached out with a project opportunity, I grabbed it. Interestingly, I then started writing every day and was brimming with ideas and plots. I realised that doing just one thing wasn’t (enough) for me. The answer is, of course, different for everyone. As a close friend told me, only half in jest—“For me, doing one thing is one thing too many!”
- Should your passion pay the bills? I know a talented, self-taught baker who whips up the most wonderful goodies. So, her well-meaning friends rallied around the idea that she open her own bakery. A few weeks on that path and she started experiencing anxiety, and felt her joy of sprinkling frosted sugar on candied roses melt away. It made me wonder—does passion and (monetary) pay-off have to coincide? Does it have to scale-up or is the satisfaction of engaging in that activity enough? Because commercialising a passion takes away some degrees of freedom—which might chip away at the joy of that trade. Sometimes, it is easier to pursue an (additional) interest if you don’t have the pressure of ensuring that the passion has to also provide a paycheque.
- How good do you want to be? Practise might not make perfect, but it does make
you better. Ask any experienced writer to read their own pieces from a few
years ago, and you’re unlikely to find one that won’t cringe at their earlier
work, as they only improved with every new phrase they deliberated, and every
paragraph they wrote. A related argument is that there is some correlation
between how good you are at something, and how much you enjoy it. A chemicals
industry banker I know never studied chemistry beyond middle school. He
stumbled upon the space and over a decade plus, grew to enjoy it, and made it
his own. There just isn’t a substitute for (relevant) practise. And with finite
hours in the day (and night), there are choices to be made—about how many
things you can truly excel at.
- Do you have the support you need? Contrary to point #3, one could argue that Farhan
Akhtar does a lot of things really well—acting, singing, directing. There’s no
questioning his talent, but he also has an army supporting his ambition. Want
to do multiple things well? At the very minimum, outsource tasks that aren’t
essential. Taskrabbit can provide you a personal assistant or handyman (for a
price), to free up the hours you need to practise violin. The point is—it is
hard to do multiple things well, and do them alone, unless you’re a Leonardo da
Vinci-level of genius. Barring that, plan to get as much leverage as you can
and build the critical infrastructure you need to succeed.
If you have multiple passions, there could be a way
to make it all work, but there are priorities to be identified and choices to
be made. Even then, there is a limit to the number of shiny new things one can
pursue, and yet do well, unless you have plentiful resources or are pure
genius. And if it is, still, way too many, then Jack (and, as a matter of fact,
Jill) will come tumbling down.