Ok, I might have lied just a bit there. The front of my business card kind of illustrates what I do. If you look closely you can probably guess that I’m working in the creative industry. But what I mean by the title of this post is that I don’t use any kind of professional title on my business card. Following the online trends I could have gone for a cryptic one like “graphic ninja” or “multidisciplinary creative”. Or, as I did on my info section on this website, a simple non-personal description like “design & illustration” might have worked as well. The truth is, I didn’t want to choose one specific title or description and I also couldn’t decide on one. That’s what this post is all about; not choosing.
You choose, you lose!
I love to not choose and I hate it when situations make me choose. Which happens a lot when working as a freelance creative, unfortunately… I always have the fear of missing out on a better alternative when time comes to eliminate and save the best idea for a planned project. It is by far the biggest cause for my procrastination behaviour, but recognising and acknowledging this is a leap in the right direction I guess? On a project level this issue is manageable, because deep down I know that killing your darlings is just a part of the creative process. But on the subject of not choosing a job title this is a whole different matter. And it’s not just the title, it’s even choosing a career path. Choosing what it is you want to do professionally for the next decades is one big ass decision, made even harder by today’s environment and mindset. I was born in 1990, which makes me a part of the end of generation Y (although the exact definition of the end of that generation is still unclear). I grew up with an enormous spectrum of possibilities, made even bigger by the evolution of technology I witnessed in my teen years. By the time I graduated high school I knew I wanted to pursue a creative career, but during the past 7-8 years my field of interest only seemed to grow instead of pointing in one direction. This couldn’t be right I thought, because every article I have read about starting a creative freelance business said to focus on one thing and become a master in it. Until a friend made me familiar with the term “creative generalist“.
Jack of all trades, master of none?
I always had and stil have a deep admiration for highly skilled specialists, be it musicians, illustrators, writers, crafts(wo)men, designers, etc. Hearing and reading them talk about their passion fuels me with energy and gives me a creative boost almost instantly. At the same time I could not see myself doing that, choosing one skill/craft and devoting all my time and effort to it. Even though I’m pretty aware of the saying “jack of all trades, master of none”, I have multiple interests and I would hate to leave one behind just to focus on the other ones. It just so happens to be that that is one of the defining traits of a creative generalist; having multiple, equally important (professional) interests. There have been several articles on what defines a creative generalist (or multipotentialite / polymath / whatever you want to call it) and I’ve put some interesting links at the bottom of this article, but for me these are some of the key traits that I recognise with myself:
- Knowing you have several skills and interests, but finding it hard to choose between them.
- Being very eager to learn something new, but quickly becoming bored with it once the novelty wears off.
- Feeling overwhelmed when having to choose between several options.
- Often looking at the bigger picture, wanting to connect multiple fields and skills.
The problem with being a jack of all trades, is that our environment isn’t set up for this. We are told now more than ever to follow our passion, find the thing that you really like doing and stick to it to excel. And if you can do that, that’s great for you (I envy you at times)! But knowing myself, I can’t focus on one skill for a lifetime, let alone a year or a month without getting bored. Change of direction is what keeps me going, even though this does not really fit in with a “normal” career path and may even slow my progress down in the long run. For me the real problem is, back when being a “Renaissance man” or polymath was considered the ideal, it was easier to excel in multiple disciplines because a lot less was known in each of them. Now there are so many different and a lot more specialised fields of science, art, culture, etc that it is quite unrealistic to pursue a deep knowledge of a multitude of them. As a result we got more and more specialist careers and people look down on jack of all trades, because they believe you’ll never be able to master all of those trades. And I partially agree. So how to solve this then? What if you have multiple interests and don’t want to drop one in favor of the other? In comes the deep generalist. I’ll try and use some kind of metaphor to explain.
On the left we have a swiss-army knife which can – depending on the one you buy – have from 3 up to 33 different tools! On the right we see “Machete”, carrying … machetes. The swiss army knife obviously represents the jack of all trades, trying to do so many things at once. And he’ll succeed in many tasks, but it probably won’t be the most effective way of doing it. Just imagine having to cut a 2 by 4 with the saw on that thing… On the other hand we have Machete. He has one passion and one passion only, knives! (We’ll disregard the fact that he uses these to splash blood across your screen.) Ask him to cut an onion and it will be done in mere seconds and he’ll find the perfect blade for it and can give you a perfect explanation of what and why he does it this or that way. Needless to say the guy who carries the swiss army knife wouldn’t even dare to challenge Machete to an onion-cutting contest (I don’t know if that’s a thing, but let’s just assume it is).
Now imagine someone set up a challenge for both of them to give a manicure, cut out 10 paper animals and open a bottle of wine as fast as possible. (I don’t assume this is a thing) Who do you think would win? I would place my bet on the swiss army knife-wielding guy because he can use his nail file for the manicure, cut out the paper animals with the small scissors and open a bottle of wine with the corkscrew. Machete will probably cut of some fingers, butcher most of the paper and smash the bottle of wine on his head. Points for speed, yes. Quality of work? Not so good… Now if that same person would invite me for the same challenge and let me prepare for it, I would opt for a bigger file, a descent size of scissors and a lever operated corkscrew as my set of tools. This would significantly increase my chances of winning since I’ll have better tools for the job.
What I’m trying to say is this; focus on a small set of interests/skills at a time and try to expand your expertise in them. When you feel like you want to try something else or one of your interests is dropping, replace them. My interests change from time to time and I rotate them a lot, I just pick up older skills I had lost interest in and drop them again over time. Don’t look at your career path as a linear progression but view it as a circular motion where you keep on going through the same motion, sometimes expanding and sometimes contracting your field of interest. Certain phases of your career will demand different skills to be honed. And sometimes you’ll even completely reset your playing area and start on a blank slate, but that should not be a problem. Only a new challenge!
The holy grail
Even though I’m pretty confident of my own words, there’s always a “but”… In this case it can be your boss, your friends or family, your clients, your monthly bills or your limited time. I talked about people and not giving a f*ck about what they think or say about you in my previous blog and I still stand by it. Except for the ones who really care about you, you should not think about other people whatsoever when pursuing your goals. People in general don’t like change, and they’ll often criticise you for not following the mainstream idea of a career path. Let them talk, just keep on moving the way you want to. Money is a tool and you should view it that way, so no you’ll probably won’t be able to spend all your time doing only what you want. And time… well I don’t really have a solution for that and everybody only has 24 hours in a day, so I can only advise you to make the most of the time you have.
Reading all of this is one thing, but really doing it is something else. So let’s see what the goal is here:
The diagram above is pretty self explanatory but here’s my take on it. In order to find the perfect balance of work and passion you will have to find the activities in the dead center of the 3 big circles. 2 out of three won’t be enough so it can be a long search, but it will be worth it! Don’t forget that the middle zone can still hold several passions, you don’t have to single one out. You can even make a combination of zones 1, 2 and 3 to make it work. There’s a solution for everything.
- The almost perfect zone:
In my mind this is the least problematic zone for me, because when you love to do something and people pay you for it you probably won’t mind spending time to become better at it. Getting good at it will inevitably draw you closer and closer to the center – the holy grail – of the diagram, which is where you should go. So invest your time in practising skills you love and which people pay for and you’ll get there! And when you get better at it, people will pay you more and you’ll get a bigger feeling of reward from it.
- The how to make it work zone:
This is the place where all hopes and dreams go to die… unless you can find a way to make a living out of it! A lot of people want to pursue a life situated in this area but don’t know how to move from here to the center and earn money by doing it. If you’re a skillful artist, sell your work. If you love to game and are good at a certain programming language, create an app or a small indie game and go from there. There are countless ways to make money these days, just look at vloggers on youtube; who would have thought you could make money (a lot of money!) filming yourself playing video games and putting those videos online 5 or 10 years ago? There’s always a way!
- The NOPE zone:
If you’re stuck in this area, run! Who cares if you’re good with numbers and companies pay you lots of money to analyse their data when you actually really want to pursue a career in cooking and maybe opening your own restaurant? I believe a lot of people are hanging around here, having acquired a certain diploma and working a job they don’t really like just to pay the bills. It probably looks like the hardest one to get out of, but lots of people have done it so why shouldn’t you? Take the leap, overcome your fear and go for it. The time will never be right to do it, so don’t wait for the moment but make that moment happen.
Just to look back on everything I’ve written down, here it is summarised:
- Don’t be afraid to pursue different interests, but focus only on a few at a time
- Your career is a circular motion through your different interests, not (only) a linear progression
- Find a good combination of activities you love to do, you’re good at and which pay bills at the same time
Thanks for reading and don’t be afraid to comment below! 😉
As promised, here are some interesting reads and talks on polymaths / creative generalists / multipotentialites: