When I grow up, I want to be a generalist

Like many other kids, early in life I was confronted with questions about what I would be when I grew up. What one single area of study, profession and career would I build my life around? I gave the question all the weight it seemed to deserve because I didn't really know another option.

When it was time to pick a focus in college, I considered a lot of different paths; minister, writer, diplomat, teacher, political activist and computer scientist were among them. But I thought I needed to pick one. Technology was the area where I had most consistently thrived in what I did, so I made my choice.

For the almost twenty years that followed I thought I had my thing I would be when I grew up.  I was a tech guy running a tech business. I did a lot of different things as a part of that role, but there was a strong overarching theme I could easily explain in answer to, "what do you do?"

When I started working for someone else, I was sheepish about it at times. I liked the work itself but I was slow to adjust to the public identity of "tech employee," worrying that it was a step backward from "tech entrepreneur." And because employees are ultimately carrying out someone else's vision (no matter how much they share in it), I wondered if I had lost access to my own driving, anchoring passion for what I was doing with my life.

It didn't help that the popular narrative about how to be GREAT is to pick one thing and devote your life to it. One day when I was feeling particularly disoriented about what I wanted to be when I grew up, I encountered something along the lines of this tweet, presumably written in response to the question "how can I be amazing?"

You pick something you want to get good at and you devote every day of your life to it. That’s it. No secrets.

Oh dear. I had many things in life to be thankful for and happy about, but did I have the one thing I wanted to devote every day of my life to, professionally speaking?

It was neat that I'd run for political office, performed as a magician, taught college classes, organized conferences, hosted a podcast, learned to fly an airplane and run a company, but was enough enough?  Was it time to stop messing around with side projects, passing interests and skill-building that was tangential to my "one thing," whatever it was?

Was it time to really grow up?

Then I encountered Emilie Wapnick's book, How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don't Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up (affiliate link).

And thank goodness I did! As I read Emilie's words, I came to identify strongly as the type of person she calls a "multipotentialite," sometimes also referred to as a polymath, renaissance person, jack-of-all-trades, generalist, scanner, or a puttylike person.

I highlighted so many passages while reading How to Be Everything, but here are a few worth excerpting (page numbers from the HarperCollins Kindle Edition):

that the key to thriving in an uncertain economy is having “a mind-set that embraces instability, that tolerates—and even enjoys—recalibrating careers, business models and assumptions.” In the postrecession era, adaptability is not merely an asset; it’s a necessity. (pp. 26-27)

[On studying the components of a happy multipotentialite:] They had all designed lives that provided them with three common elements: money, meaning, and variety—in the amounts that were right for them. (pp. 34-35)

For multipotentialites, productivity is about more than just getting things done. We need to make sure that we’re working on the right things, that our schedule is conducive to getting things done, and that we understand when it is time to abandon a project and move on to the next. (p. 147).

The principle goes like this: the majority of our activities can be divided into three categories: creating, connecting, and consuming. Creating involves bringing something new into existence. Connecting involves reaching out to others and can include activities such as responding to e-mails or posting on social media. Consuming is any activity that involves research or learning. It can consist of reading books or articles, watching movies, listening to podcasts, and so on. All three categories of activities are important. But to get the most out of them, you should respect the combining rule: Connecting and Consuming activities can be combined, but should never be combined with Creating. (pp. 171-172).

One of the most common concerns for multipotentialites is that we won’t measure up to specialists who have been working in a field for decades...Being effective matters more than being the best...Your work should be about delivering, not about reaching the top of your field. (pp. 185-186).

What does it mean to lead with your multipotentiality? It isn’t just about accepting and embracing your inner wiring. That’s only the beginning. To lead with your multipotentiality is to build a sustainable life around your plurality. It means figuring out, in practical terms, how to get the money, meaning, and variety you require so that you can flourish. (pp. 201-202).

These were just some of the passages that had me nodding along vigorously, feeling understood and spoken to in ways that rarely happen when reading a "professional development" book. I am a multipotentialite! And I'm really happy about it.

In the struggles I mentioned above, I had been trying to find my new "one thing."  The book helped me see both that my past approach to life and work was not as single-minded and focused as I thought it was, and that what I actually want professionally and personally is the freedom to explore a wide variety of interests, practices and experiences.

When I was running my website development business, I wasn't just a tech guy running a tech business. I was a software developer, graphic designer, project manager, accountant, lawyer, sales person, marketing person, manager, personal coach, and so much more. I also managed to find time to be a community volunteer, non-profit board member, and even candidate for elected office.

As Wapnick says, "The easiest way to work for a boss who lets you wear many hats at work is to be your own boss. There are few careers more multifaceted than entrepreneurship." This was so true for me; co-founding and running my own business was one of the best things I could have done for embracing my multipotentialite nature.

Fortunately, my current job also allows me a lot of potential to live out my best multipotentialite self. Working for a distributed company that values "what you deliver" over many other things, and in a field that's at an intersection of so many of my current interests (software engineering, journalism, writing, the open web, democratizing publishing) is amazing. I don't have to hide my long lists of things I'd like to try. I can pursue my passions so much more easily than if I were commuting every day to a single location with a narrowly defined role whose success was measured by how many hours I appeared to spend on it at my desk.

Wapnick calls this the Einstein approach, "having one full-time job or business that fully supports you, while leaving you with enough time and energy to pursue your other passions on the side." It's one of four different models for living a multipotentialite life that she describes, the others being Group Hug ("having one multifaceted job or business that allows you to wear many hats and shift between several domains at work."), Slash ("having two or more part-time jobs and/or businesses that you flit between on a regular basis."), and Phoenix ("working in a single industry for several months or years and then shifting gears and starting a new career in a new industry").

The book did a great job of laying out some strategies and tactics for thriving within each of these models. I am always in danger of distraction, feeling bad that I don't have enough time for all my interests, or wrestling with what to say when people ask what I'm up to these days. Having advice on how to manage all of that while making sure I give the things that are important to me my best energy was really great. (The related article on 9 Ways to Explain Your Multipotentiality to Non-Mulitpotentialites was also really helpful - it's what resulted in the "Deep Generalist" label I'm now using for myself on social media and elsewhere.)

If any of what I've said about being a multipotentialite resonates with you, even a little bit, I can't recommend How To Be Everything enough. I'm planning on reading it again soon, if only to work through some of the exercises and questions that accompany each chapter in a little more depth. And if you're REALLY interested, Wapnick also started The Puttytribe, a community of multipotentialites looking for conversation and support.

I'm grateful to have found a framework that gives new meaning and structure to my past and present pursuits, and that makes me even more excited to think about the future.

My personal website through the years

It's been a few years since I made any big changes to the layout or appearance of this website. So, I took some time recently to make a bunch of updates, and they went live this week. It's now more of a portfolio than just a blog; the new front page does a better job of highlighting the things I'm involved in and have created, and I'll be adding more to that soon.

Mostly I just enjoyed tinkering with it and applying some of the things I've learned recently in creating and supporting WordPress websites for other people. There's some more technical detail below if you're interested.

I also took the time to look back at my personal web presence over the years. I've probably had some kind of "home page" on the Internet and its precursors since the 1980s (BBSes, anyone?) and I know I had a personal site established on the Computer Science department's webserver at my college in 1995, but the earliest archived version I can find is from my 1999 site:

Pretty sparse, but at least it had a forum and a hit counter!

Continue reading "My personal website through the years"

2017 Year in Review

Happy New Year. As arbitrary Gregorian boundary conditions go, I've been really looking forward to the end of 2017. And as I've done in the past I'm posting a few thoughts from the year. (Previously: 2016, 2015, 2014, 2011.)

Personal

Though I know the machinations of U.S. politics and culture are not a primary concern for many people in the world, it felt like a year where I could not get out from under the dark cloud of the current presidential administration and the things we are naming and learning about ourselves as a society. I'm someone who usually follows news and politics closely, so it was tough to balance awareness, engagement, activism and appropriate amounts of anger with self-care, long-term thinking and finding any kind of focus or calm. I don't think I did very well with that process, and I've watched it take a toll on me, people I love and communities that I care about.

On top of that I spent a lot of time and energy this year accompanying my mom through her cancer treatment and related medical adventures; it was a source of always-present, low-level (and sometimes high-level) stress that was never too far in the background. I was of course always honored to bring care and support where it was needed, but it was hard watching her be consistently miserable while wondering when or how things could get better.

It was a year of incredible growth for our daughter, going from a barely walking toddler with a relatively small vocabulary to a whirlwind of a kid who runs through the house asking us hard questions, telling stories and expressing strong opinions. A day doesn't go by that I don't look at her in amazement, or that my wife and I aren't asking to each other, "did you know that she can do that??" Witnessing and participating in literal child-like wonder has been a special bit of grace in these times.

Oh yeah, and I turned 40.

All in all, it felt like my ability to focus and be fully present to much of anything was severely limited throughout the year. I hope 2018 is better and am taking some steps to make it so.

Continue reading "2017 Year in Review"

Getting notifications about my new posts

If you previously followed my writing on ChrisHardie.com via your WordPress.com account, you may have received notifications via email about new posts. I'm turning off that functionality, so you will not receive those emails after this post. If you use the WordPress.com Reader, you may still see new posts appear there. Note that I've also stopped using Facebook to share links to my site.

If you would like to continue to receive email about new posts, or just occasional summary emails, you'll need to subscribe to my mailing list. Follow this link to sign up for email about new content. I'll never share your email with anyone else. And if you've already been getting emails that say "There's a new post from Chris!" then you're all set up on the new list and don't need to do anything else.

Otherwise, you can use a feed reader like Feedly to follow my RSS feed, or just stop by my archives once in a while to see what you're missing.

I write here mostly for fun, but I want to make sure anyone who wants to follow along can do so relatively easily. Contact me if you need more options.

Forty

I turned 40 years old this week.

Friends have been kind to say that "you don't look forty" (whatever that looks like) and thankfully I don't feel "old," even if I don't often feel young any more.

I do notice the occasional sign of what might be aging.

I find myself increasing the font size on my various devices and apps, and at an appointment this week my eye doctor used the language of "you can't outrun it forever" instead of the past variations on "you're young, no worries."

A few weeks ago I butt-dialed two different people over two days.

The distance across which I can walk to retrieve or do something without forgetting why I started walking in the first place is decreasing. If it involves going to a different floor of the house, forget about it.

My hair has more strands of grey than ever before.

And my ability to sleep through the night without needing a visit to the restroom is all but gone.

Continue reading "Forty"

My new team at Automattic

Starting next week, I'll be shifting my focus at Automattic and joining our "WordPress Concierge" team.

It's a small group of talented folks who build custom WordPress sites for influential people and organizations across a bunch of different industries. I'll be creating and supporting the sites we work on while also helping to help the team scale up its internal tools and processes. I'm excited to flex a different mix of skills and ship some new kinds of things.

It's hard to believe that it's already been more than three years since I joined Automattic and began working with the VIP team, where I'm wrapping up my time this week. That role has been full of its own interesting and rewarding adventures that have taken me deep into the heart of the systems and tools that power the modern open web.

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2016 Year in Review

With another year gone by, I'm again sharing a few reflections on how 2016 went. (Previously: 2015, 2014, 2011.)

New house, staying in Indiana

Sky TrainWith a big shift in my wife's professional life and an intentional wrapping up of most of my local commitments that required regular attendance at in-person meetings, this year found me as physically untethered to the city of Richmond, Indiana as I've been since I first came here in 1995. We spent much of the year asking whether we should stay, or take the opportunity to explore living in new places outside of the U.S. midwest. (Someone even started a rumor that we'd already moved away.) I reflected a lot on why I've stayed in Richmond this long, what we'd be giving up if we did go, and what we'd gain by living somewhere else.

There are changes happening locally and regionally that concern us, and there are times we want our daughter to have more diverse experiences than we can find in Richmond, so we know we'll keep considering these questions. But we decided that our wonderful community of friends and family, the difference we feel like we can make locally, and the opportunities we still have to see and live in other parts of the world all added up to staying in Richmond right now.

Continue reading "2016 Year in Review"