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Multiple careers: Are you relishing your side dish enough?

An essay on the increasingly popular phenomenon of simultaneous multiple careers

Multitask Deny it all you like, but most of us lead multiple lives. Not in the schizophrenic way, but in the “One person – Many interests” kind of way.

Gone are the days in which one person could be slotted into one career – the days when you were a doctor or an engineer or a lawyer or a musician or a writer or a janitor.

A lot of people straddle multiple professions – often vastly different from each other – sometimes sequentially, but increasingly simultaneously. The corporate lawyer who composes music during his free time. The railway clerk who writes furiously at night hoping to publish his first novel. The engineer who is a closet activist. The doctor who volunteers to build homes for the poor on weekends. Or the musician who runs his online outsourcing company and buys a Porsche. While some of these characters are figments of my imagination, there are many like them who are very real. To cite just one example, Shashi Tharoor is someone who never ceases to amaze me. How does he churn out so much writing – books, columns, the whole enchilada – even when he is holding a full-time job at the UN? Well, why go that far – if you hold a job and you run a successful blog – there you go, you are one of the subjects of this post.

The Rational Reasons

The truth is, we are moving into a world where people can’t just do one thing. Be it in the course of one’s life time or in the span of five minutes, we are seeking to do multiple things. Multi tasking is the norm – it is no more just a necessity, it is also a choice.

The reasons for this are many – Firstly, it is a safety net. With decreasing job security, people don’t want to have all their eggs in the same basket. Say, you work in the semiconductor industry and it is going to hit a downturn, aren’t you better off if you could run a dance troupe while you out of your job? Secondly, it is because we can. With the proliferation of internet and several other technologies, we can do much more in a shorter time frame. We could run an internet company while we keep a day job. You can be an online trader. You can find out people who would buy the second-hand goods that you like to sell on Sundays.

Thirdly, societal expectations are pushing us towards it. I know, I know, I said it is a choice. But thin is the line that separates peer pressure from choice. Did you really want to smoke the hash the first time you did it or did your friends subtly prod you towards it, by expecting you to. If everyone around us has a “second life”, who wants to be the loser who doesn’t? Fourthly, the additional income. If you have money, the world is exploding with things you can buy and do. Why wouldn’t you take up another vocation if it can bring in some extra dough? And finally, what about the excitement of variety? I used to eat bee hoon for lunch every day through the winter and spring of 1996. Even a cheese sandwich would have seemed gourmet to me then.

Be as common as it is, this phenomena is not well understood or well managed – by those who engage in it and by those who need to support it.

Lets start with the employers – the ones who need to let us earn our daily bread, lest we starve and can’t spend time on our side careers. And the ones who could, if they like, benefit from it.

The Evil Employer

One of the great debates of our times is how to attract and retain talent. Now, one new innovation in the area – from none other than the mighty Google – seems to be to keep the employees glued to their job all day long and all night long. Ok, I am exaggerating. But behind the carwash-on-campus and the hair salons and the gourmet kitchens and the dry cleaners, the real intention is to free up enough time so that employees can spend every waking minute thinking about their jobs. Not a bad strategy, really. But here’s the skinny on it. We are living in a world where ADD is becoming more and more prevalent – hell, you won’t even be labeled as having ADD if you can keep your attention on one topic for more than 5 minutes – the very definition is being changed by innovations such as Twitter. And soon, it will be humanly impossible to dream, eat, sleep and live your job as Google seems to expect its employees to do.

Now, I am not saying Google is evil, just that its strategy may be flawed. The way to attract and retain people is to let them be themselves – allow them to explore their multiple dimensions, spend time out of their jobs, so that when they are really at their jobs, they are productive and at their best. The diversion will only do them good. Employers who give long term sabbatical to their employees are the ones who are getting it right. So are those who allow flexible hours, and part-time work – they not only have a larger pool of potential employees to choose from, they also have a more re-energized workforce who is at their best in the smaller amount of time that the company pays them to sit at their desks.

What else could employers do? They could actually promote employee’s external interests. Encourage inter-company SIGs – it need not all be of the money-making kind. If there is a bunch of wine enthusiasts who would like to start a wine tasting club, then provide them the ability to find each other within in the company networks. Someone wants to start a fitness academy (which incidentally one of my colleagues just did) – let them use their corporate contacts to get clientèle. That entrenches them deeper within the company than the best gourmet kitchens can. Now, I understand the conflicts if what you do for your job and what you do in the side are too similar. But chances are, the interests are divergent enough. If not, clear boundaries, rather than a complete No-No would be better. There are many more things that employers can do, details of which would make for an entirely new article, but the bottom line is, Encourage the employees’ external interests and provide them the flexibility to pursue them, rather than demanding they are at their job every waking minute – chances are they will choose you over your competitor. And continue to stay with you.

The Zealous Selves

And how about us – you and me – who are passionate about our “second lives”?

Be it your passion, be it your choice, be it your solace from daily drudgery – truth is, it is not easy to maintain a secondary line of career. Even a post on a blog requires you to spend precious time and brain space. So, what do we need to do,in order to have our cake and eat it too?

First, recognize and acknowledge
. There are several of us who don’t even realize the multiple “jobs” we handle. The career woman who after spending eight hours on the job, comes home and starts her next shift as the family’s chef. The blogger who doesn’t account for the amount of time he is spending on posting something new for his readers every day. The wanna-be musician who spends two hours a day practising after a long day spent at his tiny cubicle. True, they are all labors of love. But even labors of love can have a toll on your life. You must admit to yourself the time you are spending on them, so one fine day you don’t wonder whether there is an abyss where your time is disappearing into. Also, it would be a pity to discover too late that there was some place else you would rather have been. Let the decision to spend time on anything be a conscious decision. If you are consistently spending a substantial amount of time of your life on anything, be sure to acknowledge it.

Prioritize and choose. This sort of stems from the first one. If you sit down and think about all the “side things”, sometimes, and for some people, we are not talking about two. But several. Recently, I met a management consultant who spends about 60-80 hours a week, advising corporations on their strategy. He also volunteers on the board of a non-profit organization. He is a member of the choir of his local church. Not to mention that he is considering writing a book on the latest thinking in strategy – a job that will no doubt require not just typing words, but hard-arse research. I talked to him, who seemed to manage everything with a smile. And even seemed to have enough time to spare to talk to the likes of me. Well, talk to his wife and a completely different picture emerges. We all get overworked sometimes, even when we don’t realize it. Especially when it is spent on multiple things. Carefully consider everything you want to do – and choose one. This is already a side. If you have sides for your sides, some things are going to spill off your plate sooner or later.

Carve out a time and a schedule
. If you are serious about something, do something serious about it. There is no point trying to carve out a career as a musician if you are going to go through your day pining about your music, but when you get home your hands are too tired to lift up your viola. And you are never going to make it as online trader, if you don’t spend enough time understanding the market. Even though it is a side, it requires time and effort. The extent of time spent, and the seriousness of the targets set may depend a bit on what you are doing, and why you are doing it. Nevertheless, if you want to have to have a side career, you should at least give it a decent shot to make it successful.

Let all those around you – from family to friends to most importantly, your current and future employers – recognize it and give you credit for it. Let no one call you a loafer just because you come home to spend time behind a computer screen, trading virtual goods on Ultima Online. Or if you spend a good part of your weekend practising with your local jazz band. That makes you a musician, no less than the one who doesn’t do anything else in his time free from playing music. When you write your CV for your next job, build in your alternative career into your skill set. I will wager you might have learned as much or more from those efforts. As important as recognition, is support. If your wife adamantly opposes you freelancing as a web designer in the weekends, it is best to engage her and convince her, just as you would have done, had she disagreed with your day-time job.

And last but not least, remember to give yourself the occasional pat on the back or the kick on the butt, depending on what you deserve.

The Digressive Detail

I just realized that I have probably mixed up several degrees of involvement in a secondary career path in the definition of the side dish that I wanted to talk about. Even though the specific issues you would face were you pursuing your passion as a hobby or trying to meet your ends meet by putting extra hours into the dreaded second job may vary, I believe the issues discussed here remain relevant across the whole spectrum. I couldn’t think of a more apt word – when our plates are full, don’t we just call the dish on the side, the side dish?

The Quixotic Question

So, now, its your turn – pray, tell me, have you had/ do you have/will you have a side dish to the main course of your life? Are you relishing it or not just yet? What worked for you and what didn’t?

Posted in Management, Musings, Society on March 29, 2007

9 Responses

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  1. Sig11 says

    One of the problems that people engaged in side activities and multiple careers face is that they cannot demarcate the time between them. For example, a person who trades in stocks at home, or writes a story may end up researching on the issue at hand during office hours.

    This could also be one of the reasons why companies have a problem with people engaged in some of these multiple careers.

    I guess is an extension of your “Carve out a time and a schedule” point but the extra separation required is just as important as carving out the time.

  2. J.Kamath says

    I am fairly surprised to hear that most people have multiple careers; I live in Bangalore and almost everyone here are terribly focussed on their careers. One of my friends, who belongs to the uppity types that you often stumble across, once mentioned that he had a lot of hobbies. When I asked him what they were, he replied,’ well, I buy properties, jewellery, stocks, gold etc.’ Ho, hum.

    But yes, multiple careers are a great balm when you do not achieve you goals somewhere else. If you have a ‘Hari Sadoo’ boss, but you stick on because the pay is good, managing to see Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (if that is one of your objectives) can be very calming.


  3. Surya says

    Sig11: Maybe. The separation, I think, is the hardest thing to do about multiple careers. But then again, it begs the question, how important is the separation?

    Kamath: The last I read, about 7.7 million people now work multiple jobs, which is about one in 19 people.

    The phenomenon may be more or less pronounced depending on countries (though I find it hard to imagine the hard-working Indian wouldn’t do more than one job).

    multiple careers are a great balm when you do not achieve you goals somewhere else.

    I doubt thats the reason. I think more and more successful people are turning to multiple careers. Think about bloggers, think about authors who brought out books while they were working – did they start out because they were not achieving their goals elsewhere?

    Thanks for the comments.

  4. Nirmal says

    Surya, it is good to have multiple careers but the employers in general do not encourage this idea at present. The employees could actually be more loyal to their employers who encourage it as you mentioned. Let us evangelize this strategy! I am certain that modern management gurus would accept it sooner or later.

  5. Pradeep says

    Some people pursue multiple jobs for money, some for sheer pleasure. Either way, whatever we do, single job or many jobs, we must be sincere and committed. I liked your suggestions. We all contribute in our own ways. As you say, we must recognise them. And lastly, everything can’t be equated with money. Some pleasures money can’t give, some things money can’t buy.

  6. Rebekah says

    loved this article– thank you!

Continuing the Discussion

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