Confessions of a Multiple-Career Personality
My friend Jenny posted this article today. While it doesn't necessarily resonate with me (the majority of my adult life has been spent working in higher education) I know that there are many who will connect with the article. So here it is:
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Confessions of a multiple-career personality
by Rob Baedeker
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
What do you do? What's your story? Can you explain it in a word or two?
If you're in one of the traditional professions, or have worked for several years for the same company, or within the same industry, perhaps your career traces a neat trajectory, with one job building logically to the next.
But even then, things might not be so simple -- and if you're among the growing number of freelancers in the labor force, constructing a career on your own, piece by piece, or if you're someone who's made an abrupt career shift or who juggles a number of different career identities simultaneously, it can often be difficult to compose the bigger picture of your work life.
For example: I'm writing at the moment in my role as "Money Tales" columnist. But that's not the whole story. For the past decade I've written and produced comedy projects with the group Kasper Hauser, its position in my career and income ebbing and flowing over the years. I've also taught college English classes, edited books on Chinese business and neuropsychology, written for education and luxury-travel publications and, before that, served up cheeseburgers while wearing roller skates.
One could argue (as I have, at times, to myself, in the anxious hours before sleep) that my collection of jobs lacks a through-line -- a logical progression. You could say I have multiple career personalities.
But is this a disorder, or simply a different kind of "order"?
The fact that I'm searching for order at all points to a deeper, universal impulse. "Narrative and storytelling are at the core of human life," says Toni Littleston, a career counselor and coach in Alameda. "People want to make sense of their life story."
We're also encouraged to market ourselves all the time with short, simple stories. Think of the succinct "objective" on a resume or the "elevator pitch" to investors.
But stitching together a career narrative from disparate parts and pieces can be particularly challenging, Littleston says: "The model of moving up the company ladder used to be a common pattern. But now it's almost completely gone. People who long for that don't find it to be available."
That longing is also "a bit of an illusion," Littleston says. The era of single, stable, long-term jobs was an historical anomaly. "That hasn't been the way of career life throughout history at all," Littleston explains. "It was just the blink of an eye."
And even if that standard career narrative were still widely available, many of us might opt for a less unified tale -- even if it's harder to tell, both to others and to ourselves.
Jennifer Hewett, 36, describes herself as a "print maker and business consultant." Monday through Thursday she works on-site at several small-business clients, managing their human-resources operations. Friday through Sunday she creates art from her home studio in San Francisco's Sunset District. She sells her work online through her Etsy shop.
Hewett says she sometimes has a hard time telling the story of her career to others -- like her mom, who retired after 30 years in the same job as a receptionist at Kaiser Permanente.
"My mom keeps asking, 'When is one of your clients going to bring you on full time and give you benefits?'" she says. "And I tell her, 'That's not the point. The point is that I only work four days a week. And I get to pick and choose clients I want to work with. And I can take a month off to travel if I want.'"
"In my mom's eyes, I'm not investing time in a career, so what's going to happen when I hit 65?" she adds. "Am I ever going to be able to make a ton of money or buy a house, or retire?"
To Hewett, the benefits of her freelance, hybrid career outweigh the greater stability that might come from a more straightforward work-trajectory. She says she's found concurrent careers that are both "interesting and satisfying, and not soul-crushing" like some full-time jobs she's had in the past.
But she also admits she's faced dilemmas when deciding how to present her dual career identities to co-workers.
Recently, when a financial consultant she was working with in her human-resources role asked her why she didn't work on Fridays, Hewett revealed that she was also a printmaker.
"He was stunned," she recalls. "He asked if I had a website, and I was reluctant to share it. It was this weird boundary I wasn't sure I wanted to cross."
Toni Littleston says this kind of persona-management challenge is common among those, like artists, who follow parallel but unrelated careers.
"I have lots of clients who have two lives -- where they have their bread-and-butter life, and then their artistic life," she says. "And they often find it requires more skill than they thought it would to present themselves in way that's authentic, and not apologetic or condescending."
As Hewett discovered, the proliferation of digital identities can complicate the stories we tell about our career. When her curious co-worker asked for her art website, Hewett's first thought was, "I just need you to think of me as the HR person. I don't want you on my blog or Twitter or Facebook. You can contact me on [the professional networking site] LinkedIn." (In the end, Hewett shared her printmaking website with him).
Social media have forced me to grapple with career-identity boundaries, too. From my Twitter persona, I write absurd jokes (warning: not for everyone, and occasionally NSFW!), which are connected to my alter-ego as a comedy writer, but which have nothing to do with, say, real-world money tales, and might seem irrelevant (or confusing) to some of my other freelance clients.
And while I may feel anxious about trying to tie together all of the aspects of my career into a neat story, perhaps I should just get over it. When I e-mailed the entrepreneur and blogger Penelope Trunk to ask about the role of narrative unity in career, she asked me to tell her my two-sentence career story.
I went on and on for two paragraphs about my different experiences, excusing my wordiness as a gesture of transparency about the lack of coherence of my career.
"I don't think it's transparent, I think it's b.s.," she replied. "We all feel that we are good at some things; we each have had some odd, successful experiences; but we don't need to list them all. Framing yourself in a way that has focus and leaves out the majority of your life is a way to make things easier for the listener. Including all the random stuff you have done is a way for you to feel like you're special and great and every little thing matters, but that doesn't let people get close to you or understand you." Littleston echoed this sentiment: "Instead of just saying, 'Let me tell you all about me,' (people with complicated career stories) need to find ways of including their listener in their story -- of being inviting and intelligible."
Still, though, you've got to tell a satisfying story to yourself.
And beyond the steady progression of money and security implied by a standard and singular career story, a purposeful narrative also connotes meaning.
"At the end of my career, I want to have created a significant body of work," says a colleague of mine who has also struggled with finding the unified narrative in his career. "I want to create something great."
And this is why the sense of jumping from job to job, or cobbling together loosely related fragments of work life (rather than following an intentional career trajectory) can be distressing. It gets at an existential reality: that life (and work) might be arbitrary -- they might not fit into a neat narrative.
Despite our hard-wired need to make sense of our lives through stories, says Littleton, "throughout the ages there have been philosophers who say it's all pretty random. That's fine, but that doesn't really help people."