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Why Have One Career When You Can Have Three? Or Four? Or More?

A few months back, I was filling out forms for my Harvard Law School reunion when I came to a sudden stop. The question was what I do for work, and there was a single space. One space. One job. One professional address. I couldn’t decide what to write.

The fact is, I — like a growing number of people — do more than one kind of work. It’s a model known as a “slash career” — a core professional identity that encompasses more than one thing — and it has deep roots, notes Marci Alboher, who popularized the phrase in her 2007 book “One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success.” Among history’s notable slash careerists: Benjamin Franklin (publisher/ politician/ technologist) and Leonardo da Vinci (artist/ inventor).

"What do you want to do first? What else do you want to do?” In the 21st century, these are far better questions.

But if slash careers are nothing new, they are also uniquely suited to our time, to an age when careers can launch and vanish in the blink of an eye. Gail Sheehy put it this way in her 1995 book, “New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time”:

A single fixed identity is a liability today. It only makes people more vulnerable to sudden changes in economic conditions. The most successful and healthy among us now develop multiple identities, managed simultaneously, to be called upon as conditions change. Recent research also suggests that developing multiple identities is one of the best buffers we can erect against mental and physical illness."

That said, opting for a slash career tends to be about more than practicality. Rather it’s a reflection of diverse personal interests and needs. Alboher embarked on her own slash career — author/speaker/coach is how she identified herself when the book was published — after a career counselor observed that she seemed too restless ever to do just one thing and would likely have a composite career. “I had never heard the term before, but I was immediately comforted by it,” recalls Alboher, who practiced law for a decade. “Settling back into a single-track career seemed stifling and uncreative.” (These days, Alboher has a single full-time job that incorporates her previous slashes.)

Alboher says slash careerists often find tremendous synergies in their diverse undertakings. That’s certainly been my experience. My two primary identities — higher education communications professional and blogger/freelance writer (a slash within a slash) both enrich and inform each other. I often get ideas for work at Harvard School of Public Health while working on a blog post and vice versa. (The fact that one job pays most of my bills in no way detracts from the importance of the other.) My friend Jane, a ceramic artist/epidemiologist, reports similar experiences, as does my lawyer/actor/musician friend Ned. For a whole bunch of reasons, many of us are better off working simultaneously on multiple tracks.

Among history’s notable slash careerists: Benjamin Franklin (publisher/ politician/ technologist) and Leonardo da Vinci (artist/ inventor).

One of these reasons is temperament. I have always been what the pioneering career expert Barbara Sher refers to as a "scanner" — someone who is drawn to learning and doing lots and lots of different things. As Sher asserts, and as I have found, the first step to thriving as a scanner is to recognize that you are one. Only then can you start to figure out what a fulfilling life looks like. (There’s an excellent discussion of what it means to be a scanner in Sher’s 1994 book, “I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was.”)

I was reminded of this last week during a call with a new coaching client struggling to figure out his next steps in work and life. I was struck by his seeming conviction that he needed to pick one thing — that moving forward required choosing, not finding ways to integrate and balance. Not that I don't understand exactly where this comes from. It's a perspective that makes total sense in the context of the assumptions of the past — that settling on a career is part of growing up.

It’s time we recognize that this way of thinking is at odds with today's realities. I’d like to think that there will soon come a time when reunion forms like the one I received will include space for multiple careers and jobs, perhaps encouraging respondents to add an additional page if there isn’t enough room.

And at the other end of the career spectrum, we might stop asking kids what they want to be when they grow up, as if it's a final destination. "What do you want to do first? What else do you want to do?” In the 21st century, these are far better questions.

This program aired on July 12, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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