“So, what do you do for a living?”
In casual conversation, this question comes up frequently, particularly when meeting new people. Historically, the answer for most people is pretty straightforward: “I’m a teacher.” “I’m a doctor.” “I’m an accountant.”
But more Americans are working multiple jobs than ever before. So much so that the Bureau of Labor Statistics is expanding its definition of multiple job holders in order to better document these individuals.
For people who hold multiple jobs, the answer to the common “what do you do?” question can be complicated: “I’m a musician, and I write children’s books.” “I’m a special needs teacher and sommelier at a winery.” “I’m a marketer by day and operate a pop-up restaurant on weekends.”
Even though many “plural careerists” create this path on their own volition, as a way to feel whole and fulfilled, it is not without its complications.
When my colleagues (Brianna Caza and Heather Vough) and I started research on what challenges this population faces, we expected individuals to struggle with the logistics of handling multiple responsibilities, especially juggling calendars and conflicting demands from employers. Less expected was a challenge that plural careerists we interviewed said was particularly difficult: fitting their multiple jobs into their identities.
For Americans especially, one’s occupation is a core part of one’s identity—and understandably so, since many have dedicated years of education and certification to enter and advance through a given field. So when someone realizes that his or her passions are pulling them in multiple directions, via multiple jobs, it is a challenge to one’s identity both internally and socially.
Unfortunately, family and friends can unknowingly exacerbate this struggle, either through their confusion (“But are you a teacher or a sommelier?”) or through outright stigmatization. Workers of a traditional mindset may perceive plural careerists to be scatterbrained or uncommitted. Some of the respondents with whom we spoke even noted being told they had “career ADD.”
How plural careerists build an identity at work
Those drawn to multiple careers see it differently. If they were to dedicate themselves entirely to one area, they would be neglecting other talents and passions that are equally important. Pouring 100% of effort into an area that only equates to 50% of who they are means they’ll never feel full.
So how did plural careerists pursue multiple pursuits while also developing a sense of authenticity and identity around their work? We identified two common strategies.
The first is synchronization. Setting clear boundaries and ensuring specific time dedicated to each role is key to building confidence and legitimacy in each job role. Without these boundaries, it can be tempting to start multitasking, which has been repeatedly proven to be a myth for most of the population.
After gaining a sense of authenticity to each job role individually, finding a common thread helps create a unifying and coherent purpose. For instance, one of our interviewees noted that her professional and unifying purpose was, “I help women.” This linked her separate jobs in physical health and career development. Finding a common thread helps sustain multiple work engagements by creating synergy between roles. Now, investments in one area are no longer detractions from another. Instead, one role enriches the others.
Bringing back the Renaissance Man
Somewhere along the way, society collectively decided that pursuing a career meant conceding other facets of ourselves. The phrase “jack of all trades, and master of none” has taken on a negative connotation and generally equates to a willingness to do several things, but not necessarily doing any of them well.
However, we used to use the term “Renaissance Man” to describe those with many talents. Leonardo da Vinci continues to be lauded centuries later for his many talents and the countless works which benefited far-flung fields from art, astronomy, biology, medicine, music, mathematics, writing, cartography and many more. Each of his “jobs” enriched him as a human and allowed him to take aspects from one and influence another. His family may have likewise considered him scatterbrained, but had he pigeonholed himself, humanity would have certainly suffered as a result.
Ultimately, we must be willing to acknowledge that multiple pursuits are not inherently bad and this focus on a singular work identity could, in actuality, be holding us back from our full potential.
Sherry Moss is a professor of organizational studies at Wake Forest University School of Business.