We’re often told: “Don’t do too much at once, focus on one thing, rather take 50 strides in one direction as opposed to one stride in 50.” For a generalist who likes to do lots of different things (like me), this is hard advice to take.
But I think it’s an incomplete way of seeing things. It assumes two things: Firstly, that you’re exerting the same effort into every ‘stride’ and, secondly, that you only have 50 strides in you, and then that’s it.
I’d argue that it’s not about how much you do at once; rather, it’s where you place your stakes that matters. And, to take it one step even further, I think that someone who can and does do a lot of things — a generalist, or a multi-hyphenate — has a massive advantage against a specialist.
In this post, I wanted to unpack three ways in which I’ve realised that being a multi-hyphenate is one of my greatest strengths. I want to challenge some of the incomplete ideas of focus, and make a case for why I think it’s more important to place your stakes more deliberately, than it is to pick only one thing in life and do nothing else.
Multi-hyphenate ≠ multitasker
I’ve read a bunch of articles on the rise of the generalist, and why having many skills in many areas sets you up better than just being able to do one thing. Books like Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World also make a strong case for why specialisation can hinder success in a world where things move so fast, and the meta-skill of being able to adapt is more advantageous than any skill itself. For many, including myself, this is a very hopeful idea.
But this stands at complete odds with traditional ideas around focus. Gladwell, for example, talks about spending 10 000 hours mastering one’s craft, and McKeown’ Essentialism is centered around the philosophy of ‘Weniger aber besser’ (or, in English, ‘Less but better’). These are the pillars of focus: Do one thing, and do that one thing fully — anything else is a distraction.
Here’s the thing that I don’t think many people understand, though:
Being a generalist does not mean doing many things at the same time.
In fact, in my opinion, good generalists don’t multitask. Multitasking is doing many things, all at the same level of importance. Instead, I think multi-hyphenates are people who place their stakes: They choose to do a few things at high stakes, and many things at low stakes. In other words, they do one thing where decisions really matter, and many things where they don’t.
Here’s an example to illustrate that:
Imagine someone whose day job is a chef, but they take ballet, illustrate as a side business, take guitar lessons, and write short poems for a blog they run.
If they treated each one of those with the same level of input, they’d burn out and probably never feel accomplished in any of them. However, if they decided that ballet was their high stakes skill, for example, they could rely on the other four skills as places of rest, places to find perspective, and places for restorative activity.
It’s also called being a t-shaped person and , in my daily life, that value shows itself in three ways, namely: Transferable knowledge, dynamic thinking, and vital motivation.
#1 Transferable knowledge
One of the best things about doing a lot is that I get to draw from a range of experiences, and use that in whatever problem I’m currently trying to solve. I build transferable knowledge.
For example, when I design tattoos, I need to think very carefully about where I place the lines and the shading so that they don’t fade into each other in the final tattoo. I’ve found that it’s improved the way I sketch on paper or digitally by helping me draw more economically.
Similarly, in dancing, I learned that figuring out how to use less energy is more effective for improving the way you dance than just trying harder. And I’ve been able to apply that to my swimming as well: If you’re struggling, you’re probably trying too hard. Trying to swim harder and faster will just waste my energy. Rather, speed up by slowing down, and optimise the micro movements to save energy.
So, it’s not that being a multi-hyphenate makes me learn more than someone who specialises in one thing. The difference is: Being a multi-hyphenate lets me access lateral thinking much easier than a specialist would.
It’s really cool to be able to see how the logic from this thing I do might help me solve a problem for this other thing I do. Plus, for innovation, this is the best way to stimulate new ideas and interesting solutions for something you’ve been stuck on for ages. If I didn’t do as much as I did, I’d probably just hit the same wall over and over again, and wonder why the same action isn’t yielding different results.
#2 Dynamic thinking
This brings me to the next benefit of being a multi-hyphenate: By changing gear every so often, I get a valuable opportunity to gain different perspectives, fresh ideas, and new insights.
Doing the same thing day in and day out makes it really easy to get stuck in one’s old ways of doing things. On the other hand, having many things that you spend time on forces you to readjust, and recalibrate.
Personally, regularly switching between my day-job (writing) and things like sketching, dancing, or playing music, helps me come back to writing with new ways of thinking about old problems; it helps me come back to writing, and be a lot more critical of why I do things the way I do.
This means I’m always coming into something with fresh eyes — generally from the thing I was doing just before. In my experience, taking breaks from something makes me more productive, not less, and more invested in that thing than if I stuck at it for hours, days, weeks, or even months at a time.
#3 Vital motivation
And that leads me to the third and final strength of my generalism: I never get bored.
The high stakes things require resilience, yes. It’s often a crucial part of getting through the hard stuff of the high stakes things that we don’t want to do, but that we have to do. However, if you end up staring at your screen because you’re tired of writing the same sentence over and over, or you’ve hit a wall for your business idea and aren’t budging… Trying to muster the willpower to push through is not a sustainable solution; because, once you’ve done that, you’ll feel bored and stuck again.
By having something else to turn to, I can escape for a little. I can switch off one light — and, more importantly, move on to something with lower stakes. So, when I say vital motivation, I mean both in the sense of “energetic and lively”, as well as “important.” Energised motivation is vital.
For example, if writing that day is deathly boring or frustrating, taking an hour to practise swimming, sketching or playing guitar lets me let go for a while. I can mess up, I can make bad decisions, I can let go of feeling pressure to level up and skill up and grow and and and… and then, when I’m done and I’ve had that release, I can come back to writing — my higher stakes skill — with new energy and new motivation.
This vital motivation is what I nurture in my low stakes skills, and what I use to drive me in my high stakes skills.
Being a multi-hyphenate has let me tap into this wealth of knowledge, perspective, and motivation that being a specialist would never do for me. I know there are people who thrive in specialism, but I truly believe that generalism is one of the things that defines my ability to learn new skills quickly, and grow in old skills consistently.
I expect there to be differing opinions on this, so as a closing thought: Take this all with a pinch of salt. I’m not saying it works for everyone, and I’m definitely not saying it’s a perfect solution for anyone, let alone myself. Part of being a generalist is being adaptable — and, if nothing else, I think that’s a strength no-one can argue against.