Unleashing Your Many Identities


June 23, 2007

by Marshall Goldsmith

Marci Alboher is a lawyer-turned-journalist/speaker/writing coach who knows that she introduces herself with an abundance of labels and punctuation. She does it on purpose, because she’s hell-bent on spreading the message that people should be unleashing their many identities. For her new book, One Person/Multiple Careers, she interviewed hundreds of people living these lives, from a longshoreman/documentary filmmaker to a management consultant/cartoonist.

She and I recently talked about what she learned from people who are custom-blending careers, why she thinks we’re going to see more “slashing,” and how we can all benefit from the slash movement—both in our own careers and in the companies we build and manage. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow:

You’ve gotten a lot of attention for bringing the word “slash” into the lexicon of careers. So what’s going on with all the slashes?

Slashes are people who pursue multiple careers or vocations simultaneously. They’ve taken the notion of moonlighting and turned it on its head. Whereas moonlighting was something you did shamefully, slashing has cachet. From lawyer/chefs to mom/screenwriters and celebrity icons like Bono (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/24/07, “My Dinner with Bono”), rock star/humanitarian, slashes are appearing at all strata of society.

What is behind this explosion of careers with slashes?

It’s happening for a number of reasons:

Now that so much work can be done flexibly, portably, and virtually, it’s easy to do many kinds of work in the same workweek or even workday.

Economic security no longer exists unless you create it. Having multiple income streams is one of the best ways to create stability.

People are living and working longer, creating a large canvas on which to paint a career.

We are all craving fulfillment and meaning in our careers, so it’s becoming more common to combine work for security with work that feeds a passion.

Are there common models for slashing, or is every case different?

Some combinations are so common that people already think about them as an integrated career—the actor/director or anyone who teaches/speaks/writes/consults in their given field. Then there are the corporate types who have a business or artistic pursuit “on the side.” The slashes who get the most notice are those with incongruous combinations, like Robert Childs, a psychoanalyst/violin maker. Of course, anyone who works while actively raising children is living a slash life.

Most people have trouble managing one career; aren’t you just encouraging them to make careers more challenging and complicated?

The most surprising thing I learned from the people I’ve interviewed is that while people with slashes may experience workplace stress, they tend to say that the difficult times are far outweighed by the fact that they have written the rules of their own working lives. Slash careers provide variety, multiple income streams, and a tonic against the burnout so common in those who pursue one endeavor exclusively.

And in many cases, multiple identities result in unexpected synergies. Consider John Barr, who had a thriving career as financier, all the while publishing books of poetry. When the national Poetry Foundation was looking for a leader who was both passionate about poetry and capable of managing a wealthy nonprofit, Barr was the perfect choice.

How do you create a résumé or handle an interview when you are a person with multiple careers?

This can be tricky, and it all depends on your goals. For some, it makes a lot of sense to be upfront about various slashes in all contexts. Angela Williams, the corporate lawyer/minister who inspired me to write this book, says that revealing her dual professions has made her more marketable to potential employers and clients.

She features both prominently in her résumé and bio. Others keep their identities separate to the point of having multiple résumés. In the era of Web sites and online profiles, more people are describing themselves with a litany of slashes, but in each case it’s about what works best with a person’s particular mix of slashes.

What ever happened to the conventional wisdom that values specialization and becoming an expert in your career? Why would anyone want to go to a surgeon who has another job on the side?

Slash careers are entirely consistent with developing expertise. In fact, many slash professionals occupy the highest rungs of their various professions. Often they took on a slash at a time in their career when they had the luxury to slow down a bit after putting in their dues in a given field.

And many slashes tell me that having other outlets or areas of focus made them better at their original occupation. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who divides his time between his career as a journalist for CNN (TWX) and his work a surgeon, is arguably seeing a wider world of medicine by traveling the globe as a correspondent than if he never left the confines of his hospital in Atlanta.

You often refer to yourself as a former lawyer. Now that so many people go through career changes, how do prior careers fit in with the whole slash movement?

I rarely encounter someone who has switched careers who didn’t carry forward and benefit from the training or perspective that came from the earlier career. The key with “starter careers” is to realize how they can complement or enhance your current career.

We are entering an age where the hybrids will rule the workplace, whether they’re called hyphenates, slashes, or some other name. If you’re an architect with an MBA, you’ll see opportunities in the business side of architecture that few others will see. Careers at the intersections are where innovation is born.

You say throughout your book that slash careers require constant tweaking and reinvention. So what’s next for you?

Just a few weeks ago, I started writing the online column, “Shifting Careers” for The New York Times (NYT). Writing a weekly column is quite different, both in pace and in style, from writing a book. So I am embracing being a beginner all over again as I immerse myself in this new kind of writing. I have a feeling my next book idea will come out of that column.

It has been great to interview you! I now realize that I am an executive educator/professor/coach/writer/columnist/Buddhist!