In 2009, Farai Chideya was laid off. She’d been working as the host of the NPR radio show News & Notes—but the post-recession economy of the US took no prisoners. In her goodbye note, Chideya wrote:
“I’ve worked for magazines, television, and as an Internet consultant. I’ve freelanced and written books. Sometimes I’ve had money in the bank; sometimes I’ve run myself into credit card debt when a check didn’t come. In other words, I have seen the ups and downs of the media world from a lot of different vantage points. This is a tough business.”
Chideya’s reflections on her non-linear professional trajectory will probably sound familiar to a lot of people working in the modern gig economy. Both by circumstance and by choice, a growing number of people in the US, the UK, and elsewhere are juggling multiple jobs and professions.
But as Chideya writes in her 2016 book, The Episodic Career: How to Thrive at Work in the Age of Disruption, which she discussed at last month’s 99U creative careers conference, pursuing a seemingly scattered career can actually give you a huge edge—provided you know how to mine your skill set.
Chideya’s research shows that the people who successfully balance multiple gigs and navigate career changes tend to be good translators. That is, they use the knowledge and experience they’ve gleaned from previous jobs to help people at their current gig problem-solve and work together more efficiently.
In Chideya’s case, while she was working in media, she began to take HTML classes on the side. In nearly every project she’s worked on since, her basic coding skills made her the go-between for tech and creative teams, since she could clearly articulating the aspirations and difficulties of one group to the other.
“Being able to bridge between worlds allows you to maximize your professional influence without necessarily acquiring an entirely separate set of skills,” says Chideya. “Translating is often a matter of exercising discernment or judgment—of being competent enough to facilitate communication two worlds that are not interacting effectively.” Gig economy employees are especially well-suited to this kind of task because they often work across different industries and organizations. A freelance graphic designer with a side hustle as a social-media strategist, for example, may be able to leverage her expertise into a full-time role as a marketing director.
The ability to translate across teams and industries is also a good hedge against automation, Chideya argues. That’s because translating requires not just interdisciplinary knowledge—which robots can possess—but also creativity, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence. (The latter skills are still far-off for most AI). And so all of us—gig workers or not—would be smart to cultivate ancillary skills beyond those listed in our job descriptions.
The skills audit
When Chideya first explained the concept, I was pretty sure that my only ancillary skills were knowing about books and cute dog breeds. But she says that a lot of us have skills that the people around us will find useful—we just don’t know it.
To identify opportunities for building bridges, Chideya advises doing a skills audit every six months. It’s not complicated:
First, write down everything you can do reasonably well. Include any skill, regardless of whether it seems professionally relevant. For Chideya, this list featured cooking and photography. For me, it included doodling, public speaking, running, and scooping (and eating) ice cream.
Second, circle the skills you’re willing to do for money. Chideya loves cooking, but doesn’t like the idea of working in a restaurant. However, ancillary as a skill may seem, it’s worth considering whether you’d do it as a side job, particularly if your dream work pays poorly. For example, as an editorial intern, I was willing to scoop ice cream for extra cash.
Lastly, star the skills you’d be paid the most for. Having worked at a hedge fund, basic economic analysis is on my skills list. Though I don’t find it personally fulfilling, this skill helps me identify opportunities to add value at Quartz, given the economic focus of our coverage.
If your audit exposes a career trifecta—that is, a career that incorporates skills you’re good at, want to do, and will be paid well for—pursue that role, stat.
If it doesn’t, you’re not alone. But identifying what skills you have to offer can help you figure out new ways to build bridges and expand your networks without your present role (or roles). If you’re an assistant who’s good at public speaking, you could ask your boss to sit in on her next presentation prep session. Giving her just one helpful tip could open doors down the line.
To compliment your skills audit, Chideya suggests an annual industry audit, in which you look at your current employers and your broader industry and ask, “Is it viable that I continue to work here, given my goals? If so, how do I move ahead?”
“First, you need to know your goals. When I was younger, I chose flexibility and growth over income. As I get older, and plan to adopt a child, I factor earnings more into my calculations,” Chideya explains. An industry audit can prompt you to research what people in comparable positions are earning, thereby ensuring that your salary is competitive. And if your whole industry is undergoing upheaval, the audit can help you figure out your next move.
In Chideya’s case, she says, “I felt journalism alone wasn’t a stable enough industry based on my age and life goals. I’m nearly 48. Salaries tend to plateau and older workers are often buy-outed (to invent a terrible word). I wanted to continue doing journalism and find a way to pursue other things.” Her own skills set revealed a strong background in teaching, so she pivoted to academia while doing journalism on the side.
“Ultimately, audits help reveal what you’re valued for in marketplace, and that may be different than the things you value most yourself,” she says. “That’s where the decision making comes in: Do I work one job for money, and one for love? Do I work one for money, and volunteer for love? Do I take a job that pays less, but I’m happy every second of day?” Whatever your decision, it’s important to take a step back and ask those questions—the better to keep your career from stagnating, and protect yourself.