Career advice for cats and foxes
What do you want to be when you grow up?
I spent a lot of time as a kid trying to answer that question — not in a casual way, but with an unchildlike level of seriousness and deliberation, including trips to the library to research esoteric details of my prospective careers. For example, at one point — I think I was about nine years old — I was planning to be a dog breeder, so I read up on everything from breed-specific diseases to the design and construction of kennel-runs.
This continued, with an increasing sense of urgency, right up through high school. The older I got, however, the harder it was to find The Answer, because I kept discovering new things to love. Did I want to be a geneticist? an actor? a psychologist? a sign language interpreter?
I don’t know if anyone ever explicitly told me that I had to pick just one thing to which I would devote my whole life, but it was certainly something I implicitly understood. I had to make a choice, and it had to be the right one, because once I went off to college for a particular major, my entire life’s path was set.
So what did I do? When I was seventeen years old, I decided I would be a fiction writer.
This was partly because I loved to read more than anything. And partly because the world seemed to be telling me I was exceptionally good at writing — I won a thousand dollars in a short story contest that year, among other things.
But it was also, I thought, a way to cheat. If I became a writer I wouldn’t have to pick just one thing. I could keep learning All The Things, and just work them into my writing.
Of course you don’t usually earn a living as a fiction writer — not for years and years, if ever. I knew that in theory, but it wasn’t until after I graduated college that I learned just how hard a road I’d chosen for myself.
Not so much because of the writing — I was doing well enough in that regard — as because holding down tedious, miserable jobs in order to pay the bills often took all the willpower I had, and then some.
Then the web happened, and I fell in love all over again.
I soon felt like I had two completely separate careers, and I was desperate to keep them both. When I was twenty-seven, I wrote:
I don’t know how to do this. I’m exhausted, and a million things are slipping through the cracks … I could, in theory, take a less ambitious day job with shorter hours and concentrate on the novel. Or I could keep funneling my energy into design and the web, and give up being a writer. Except that serious contemplation of either option sends me into an hysterical fit. You have two children: choose which one you will keep.
I did eventually have to choose — in truth, had already chosen, and it was all over but the kicking and screaming. I mothballed the fiction-writing dreams and followed the passion that paid reasonable money.
I was thinking about this recently in part because Sarah asked, “If someone had given you the choice, as a young adult, between money-making and doing what you love, what would you have chosen?”
I didn’t make precisely that choice, since at the time I genuinely loved both things, and pursuing the more financially viable one seemed sensible. But that’s the choice it evolved into.
If I think back, I can remember feeling the excitement of possibility, the pride of creation, the joy of learning — but all of those things are many years gone. Most of what I’ve done in my design career over the last decade has been as frustrating, miserable, and meaningless as any of the crappy day jobs I suffered through in my early years as a writer.
And not even especially lucrative, over the long run. The mid- and late nineties were a wonderful time to be multitalented and a quick learner. With the web so new and rapidly evolving, anyone who could self-teach and perform competently across disciplines was in high demand. But that demand cratered with the dot-com bust in 2000, and by the time things recovered the landscape was very different.
Jobs in the internet industry became specialized, and then micro-specialized. Being good at many different things is nearly worthless now; all that matters is how brilliant you are at one. As designers go I’m very good, but not extraordinary or irreplaceable. When the economy gets tight and jobs scarce, I often don’t make the cut.
It’s easy to think of this as a failure, and there have been times I’ve felt that way — that I’m just not good enough, and it’s my fault. Or maybe that I made the wrong decision all those years ago.
But I don’t think so anymore, and here’s why.
My friend Wolfe showed me this webcomic by Zach Weiner. (I recommend that you go read the original, with illustrations, but I’m going to preserve the text here in case that page ever vanishes.)
Here is something true: one day you will be dead.
Here is something false: you only live once.
It takes about 7 years to master something. If you live to be 88, after age 11, you have 11 opportunities to be great at something.
These are your lifetimes.
Most people never let themselves die. (“I’ve just always known I was good at organizing spreadsheets.”)
Some are afraid of death. (“I’m only trained to do one thing, and if I’m not doing it … then what am I?”)
Some think they are already ghosts. (“I was good at basketball, but then I hurt my ankle. Now I spend most of my time mentally simulating a reality where that didn’t happen.”)
But you have many lives. (“Two years till I die. I wonder what I’ll do next …”)
Spend a life writing poems.
Spend another building things. (“It’s a hoverbike.” “Because …” “Because hoverbike!”)
Spend a life looking for facts.
Spend a life looking for truth.
These are your lifetimes.
I can quibble a little bit at the math. Most of us don’t start spending several hours a day on a single skill at age eleven, except by parental fiat. ‘Seven years to master’ is semi-arbitrary — it might be five years, or ten. Sometimes you might want to spend a little time at the top of your game, instead of rushing on to the next thing as soon as you’ve mastered the one. Sometimes you can even master things in parallel.
But I love the basic concept. We live a long time, now. Most people get a good six decades of adulthood. One’s ‘working life’ often spans fifty years or more. And maybe not everyone is cut out to spend fifty or sixty years riffing on a single theme. Maybe some of us need two vocations, or five, or nine.
When I was a senior in high school, my honors English class studied a poem by Alastair Reid entitled “Curiosity”. Here is a part of it:
That poem resonated right down to my seventeen-year-old bones and became one of the central truths of my life. I first understood it on a personal level — the virtue of allowing yourself to love someone, and lose them, and love someone else again — but it can apply to careers as well.
Most people never let themselves die. Some are afraid of death. Dying is what the living do.
“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” That’s the Greek version of a fundamental dichotomy that’s acknowledged in the fables of dozens of disparate cultures.
Most famously, however, this quote was used by historian and philosopher Isaiah Berlin to contrast two types of thinkers: “those, on one side, who relate everything to a single, universal, organizing principle — and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory.” (‘Let them be nine-lived and contradictory …’)
Berlin’s analogy can be applied to doers as well as thinkers. Hedgehogs are monomaths, concentrated specialists; foxes are polymaths, diversified generalists.
I’m not arguing for the inherent superiority of either approach, only suggesting that there are two paths, when our culture typically promotes only one.
We need dogs and hedgehogs — the people who learn one thing thoroughly and brilliantly and devote themselves to it for a lifetime, secure and stable and reliable.
But we need cats and foxes too — to take risks, even knowing that most of them will fail; to question established practices; to translate concepts across disciplines; to synthesize patterns that no specialist has the context to imagine.
If I could give advice to my teenaged self, I would tell her not to worry so much about picking the one big thing. First of all, because some futures are impossible to anticipate: at twenty-six I had a job in a field that no one had even imagined yet when I graduated college at twenty-two.
But also because I’ve learned to embrace my inherently foxy nature. I’ve recognized that if I keep trying to compete with the hedgehogs in narrow, specialized fields, I’m going to fall short more often than not. Instead I’m deliberately focusing on the kinds of things that only foxes can do. I’m playing on the edges, in the interstices, at the intersections and frontiers.
As a result, in the last few years I’ve essentially ‘gone back to school’, courtesy of my public library. Along the way I’ve rediscovered joy.
If you’re young and struggling to pick just one big thing to do with your life, because too many things are pulling you in too many directions — think instead about what you’re going to do with your first life, knowing that you’ll have a second and a third and even a fifth if you want them.
Or if you’re older and you’re dissatisfied with the path you’ve been on, if you feel you’ve plateaued or you find yourself mourning the road not taken — maybe it’s time to close one chapter and start another. If a door has shut in your face — if your body breaks down, or technology makes your job obsolete — instead of ‘mentally simulating a reality in which that didn’t happen’, reinvent yourself.
Yes, it’s scary. You have to come to terms with the fact that life is not one unbroken upward curve of success. There is always a ‘cat price’ to be paid in starting over. But it’s exciting and rewarding too.
Even stolid hedgehogs might want a second act. My friend Stacy has been a dedicated journalist for almost twenty years, and she’s not done yet … but she says she can’t imagine doing the same thing for another thirty. Wolfe, who showed me the many-lives comic above, is ironically the only person I know who’s worked at the same company for more than fifteen years — but earlier this year he jumped tracks into a radically different type of job, and is vastly happier for it.
I think sometimes we’re asking ourselves the wrong questions. “Would you choose your career for love or for money?” doesn’t encompass the possibility of first one and then the other. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” ignores the fact that our minds never stop growing. Instead of trying to map out our whole lives at once, maybe we should just be asking,
“What should I do next?”