How to stop worrying about not having one career path

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There can be internal or external pressure to "pick one thing" in our careers, but several arts professionals share how they embraced multiple passions, paths and creative pursuits.

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The advice ‘do what you love’ is not as straightforward as the combination of four words may seem – circumstance, timing, opportunities, experience, and accessibility to what we love all play a part.

But perhaps what is most misleading about the advice is that it implies we know what we love in the first place.

Often, the work or the pursuit itself is what reveals the thing we love – it is not until an experience has been had that we can recognise our joy or love for it.

This requires doing many things, experimenting to find what interests us. Along the way many of discover that we don’t have just one thing we love, but many.

Yet we are taught to pick one thing, that having multiple interests and pursuits can feel confusing, overwhelming, even flawed. But in creative careers in particular, having multiple passions can be our best asset.

We gathered their insights on how to stop worrying if you don’t have one path, passion or creative pursuit and instead embrace doing it all.

Sidestepping the internal or external pressure to “pick one thing”, several professionals share how having multiple interests and projects can be rewarding.

1. Know everyone feels frazzled by the juggle

Author Gabrielle Tozer may not have felt the pressure to “choose a lane” in her career, but has felt at times it would have been easier to have one focus.

‘I used to think I was brilliant at multitasking in my twenties and, while I was juggling a lot of balls and my career looked good on paper, behind the scenes I was a frazzled, anxious mess who was just trying to keep it together.'

But that’s not to say you can’t have more than one thing going on and be happy, adds Tozer. ‘These days, I still juggle multiple jobs – author, freelance writer, speaker, and occasionally even copywriter and social media gal – but I have learnt to compartmentalise and organise my life and manage my mental health much better.’

2. Banish the fear of not knowing how to explain what you do

For visual artist, podcaster, curator, and CEO of the Australian Writers’ Centre, Valerie Khoo, having multiple interests is important for feeding your creativity.

‘If you are genuinely interested and passionate about multiple areas of interest, you need to be true to that,’ she said.

While this can make it difficult to summarise what you do when meeting new people, this struggle can be circumvented.

‘It’s important to understand your audience, that is, whoever you’re speaking to at the time. For example, if I’m speaking at a writers' festival I don’t mention my art unless I’m asked about it directly. If I’m doing a talk for artists, I don’t mention that I’m CEO of the Australian Writers’ Centre. I’m not trying to hide anything, I just don’t feel the need to list everything on my CV to people. So it’s about assessing what your audience is likely to be most interested in and having multiple elevator pitches, so to speak,’ said Khoo.

3. Find the overarching connection between the things you love

Cultural critic, academic and DJ madison moore has multiple interests that all fall under the one practice.

‘Even though it looks like I do several different things – writing, teaching, club nights, DJ’ing, exploring photography and more – to me these are not really different things, they are all the same practice.’

All are creative exercises that express a point a view, moore explains. ‘Maybe my career path is one less focused on a career as a final destination and more on the broader stroke of expressing a point of view.'

Liz Fosslien, the co-author and illustrator of No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotion at Work also finds it helpful to create an overlap between your interests.

‘This lets you dabble in several of your skills at once, and is usually where the most fun and novel work lies. It also becomes easier to maintain momentum, especially if you pair something you know well with something you're still learning.’

4. Recognise when imposter syndrome plays a part

Much of the struggle inherent to wanting to do multiple things is knowing where to start and embracing being a beginner once again.

‘The struggle is self-doubt,' said moore. 'The struggle is how to get started. How do you start a brand new project, and how do you know when it’s done? Knowing when something is done presents a struggle because we want our work to be absolutely perfect, to reflect the best of ourselves. But we should realise that there is always room for improvement, for growth, and that every opportunity is also a rehearsal.’ 

Read: How to conquer impostor syndrome

5. Know you can still be serious about many interests

There can be sometimes be internal or external doubt concerning your commitment to a path or project when you have diverse interests.

This is particularly true in academia, explained moore. ‘When you pursue an interdisciplinary research field oftentimes departments are sceptical about you because they can’t quickly read you and put you in a box. There might be a certain distrust of interdisciplinary research because folks presume you have gaps in knowledge that someone who is, say, a 20th century historian might not have. This adds to the idea that if you have multiple hats then you can’t be serious about or dedicated to any of them because you’re constantly cruising.’ 

Letting the work speak for itself is the antidote to doubt from others, or even yourself.

6. Find the habits that work for you

Developing your own processes and approaches to scheduling, planning, time management and rest is key to balancing multiple careers or projects.

‘Everybody works differently, and everybody processes ideas in different ways. Don’t force yourself into work habits that don’t come naturally. When I was in high school and university I was always jealous of folks who could start their final papers two or three weeks before the deadline. I know I need the rush of a deadline to come up with things and to somehow force the ideas out – ideas which, by the way, I’m thinking about all the time, even if they are not reflected or represented by a draft or a tangible thing,’ said moore.

Tozer agreed. ‘I am obsessed with anything to do with time management! Am I brilliant at it? Absolutely not. I’m not even great at it. But I work on trying to improve in this area as much as I can. I don't want to get more done for the sake of getting more done – I just want to get more of the things I love to do done! And that includes having breaks, spending time with friends and so on.’

7. Develop your way of dealing with overwhelm

When you begin to feel overwhelmed from managing multiple projects, sometimes the best thing to do is stop.

moore said: ‘I stop the minute I feel overwhelmed, take a breath and return to it in the morning.’

Starting a day anew can provide a reboot, but as can time management. ‘Try to spread your tasks out in a calendar and dedicate a specific about of time on a day or different days and work to tackle them then. I can’t tell you how much using a calendar has helped my sense of organisation, which is not my best characteristic!’ he added.

Remember such feelings are common, said Tozer. ‘If you’re feeling overwhelmed, lost or insecure, please know you’re not alone. I feel like that at some point most weeks. Many if not all people working in the arts do at some point in their careers. While this following advice may not suit or appeal to everyone, I like to carve out some time for myself, grab a pen and notebook and head to my favourite pub or café to do a brainstorming session. If I don’t do this semi regularly my brain feels like it’s going to explode with all the competing areas of my life – especially as I’m also juggling many of the logistics for my baby girl.’

8. Feeling lost and insecure is part of it

It’s important to recognise how feelings of insecurity have often always been with us – and are likely to linger, explained moore.

‘Feeling lost and insecure is something that queer and marginalised people face all the time, and I do think it is part of being an artist or creative person. When you feel lost and insecure, know that you have probably always felt lost and insecure but you have made it this far anyway, in spite of it all.

‘Lean into that insecurity and try to create something productive out of it,’ moore added.

9. Embrace the many upsides of variety

While there can be feelings of doubt and overwhelm, the upsides of pursuing various career threads is the flexibility and ability to switch between projects.

‘The truth is, I couldn’t choose just one career, even if I did feel external pressure, because my brain needs the variety! Juggling different roles keeps things interesting and no two days look the same for me anymore,’ said Tozer.

‘You also get to meet and work with a huge range of people, which I adore - especially as writing novels is such a solitary job. If I only wrote novels, I would spend a terrifying amount of time alone,’ she said.

For Khoo, being a “slashie” means there is never a dull moment. ‘When you’re exposed to different industries, you use different parts of your brain and you can learn so much from one field and apply it in another,’ Khoo said.

10. You don't need to quit your day job

Having multiple interests, projects and income streams can be helpful as a professional creative, but it also means there is flexibility in how you pursue your passions.

Tozer said: ‘I don’t believe people need to quit their full-time jobs to enjoy some of these benefits of having multiple interests – I wrote my first two young adult novels for HarperCollins on weekends and before work while juggling a full-time gig as either a magazine journalist or corporate copywriter.

‘I’m a big believer in carving out time for creative pursuits that make you happy, whether it’s a paid project or something just for you. No one has to limit themselves to being just one thing or one type of artist.'

11. Find a way of managing work and life

Juggling multiple careers can also add strain to various aspects of your personal life and relationships, explained Tozer.

‘There’s only so many priorities someone can have in a day, or week, or month. I definitely learnt these lessons the hard way but now have a much better understanding of my limitations and what I value most: my loved ones, my mental and physical health, and my career – but only a career that doesn’t negatively impact on the first two categories.’

If you’re trying to figure out whether you have time to pursue something new, you have to be realistic, says Khoo.

‘Sometimes, you need to give something up whether that’s a hour’s less sleep, reducing your time with Netflix, socialising and so on. Sometimes, it’s all of the above. I think it’s fine to get into these obsessive periods from time to time but you also need to remember to come up for air so that you don’t turn into a hermit.’

There’s also nothing wrong with having a time-outs from chasing all your interests, Tozer explained.

‘Less can be more. Sometimes I do that – I can be very all or nothing! – to see what still “calls” to me during the break. It can be a simple way to declutter and simplify things down to what's truly important to you, professionally and personally.’ 

12. Broaden your view of success

Society tells us that success means putting on a suit, going into a big building, and having a straightforward title, but this can mislead us, explains Fosslien.

‘I wish I could go back to my younger self and say, "There are more options than lawyer, doctor, banker! Be weirder, it is ok!"  Unfortunately, I think a lot of people hold a similarly limited view of success…I didn't even know what a creative career could look like until I was in my mid-twenties. [But] I hope the idea that you have to "pick one thing" is losing its luster. The world is moving forward so quickly that having several interests and skills is becoming more and more important,’ said Fosslien.

For anyone facing similar worries about success or hesitations about pursuing a creative career, Fosselien shares the advice she received from a friend.

'The worst thing we do is bravely step out of the mould but then stupidly use someone else’s rubric to judge our own lives every day. If you're going to forge your own path, then do so without judgment. It is a beautiful thing to want something for yourself that originates from you.'

13. Remember life is long

For madison moore, reflecting on our own mortality and time here can be comforting and motivating.

‘From my earliest days I was never focused on doing one thing, even though that’s what society and our families push us to do – life is long and I have so many interests!'

After all, it’s about nourishing your mental and emotional needs, added Khoo. ‘Too often we think we can’t indulge in our creative pursuits because we consider them frivolous, or that we should be spending our time on a single vocation so that we can progress in it.

‘The reality is that if we look after our mental and emotional health by doing what makes us happy, we’ll simply be better human beings. And we’re more likely to excel in whatever we choose to do,’ Khoo concluded.

Story by Madeleine Dore, published by our friends at Artshub Australia.

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

13 Jan 2020

The Big Idea Editor

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