‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’
Ten words that are asked of children around the world by teachers, parents, aunts, uncles and strangers at bus stops.
We tend to expect single rather than plural answers to that question. But the reality is many of us have chosen - or ended up, either intentionally or by accident - to carve out roles where we bring breadth of experiences rather than specialist, singular depth.
That’s my story. But I’d be lying if I said I did it consciously. I started my full-time career with a job in television production. When the TV series I was working on ended, I jumped sideways to an event promotion company, working on a music festival. When that was over I went to a small media company where in seven years I worked across every discipline in the building: radio production, live events, outside broadcasts, marketing projects.
All I was doing was following my curiosity and the opportunities that appeared before me.
But it shaped my career. By the end of my twenties I’d got a reputation as a generalist rather than a specialist. I was a do-er, making creative ideas happen no-matter-what, a safe pair of hands. The people I worked alongside were specialists: radio producers, broadcast engineers, video editors. They had deep career-long skills. They did one thing well.
My one thing? I was good at projects. Whatever the discipline, I took the same approach. Every project is the same: it has a start, a middle and an end. It has a client and a brief. A budget, a deadline. I was the bloke who made all these projects happen.
Today whilst I have deep experience as a writer, that’s combined with breadth across different disciplines (even as a writer, I work for publications and also for corporate clients). I like to cross borders, helping to solve problems by bringing experiences from one discipline to another.
IDEO’s Tim Brown talks about this in ‘The Career Choice Nobody Tells You About.’ “Rather than diving deep into the single discipline of industrial design, I accidentally discovered the joys of working across disciplines,” he says. Like mine, Tim’s career trajectory was an accident but he urges that choosing to go wide versus deep should be made consciously, not accidentally.
As a father that’s what I’m going to urge my kids: not only to build work lives on who they are and what they stand for; but also to consider that choice - breadth or depth? (I’m not arguing one is more important than the other; of course we need both).
But in a world of increasing uncertainty where roles we did ten years ago just won’t exist any more, there’s some benefit in being a border-crosser, able to switch between disciplines, able to add new strings to your bow, able to re-invent.
Choosing breadth means I never get bored of my work, it also means I never know what’s coming next.
*If you’re interested in exploring this further, I wrote about this in my book Mash-up!: How to Use Your Multiple Skills to Give You an Edge, Make Money and Be Happier