The Chain of Interests

I know a lot of creative people, I’m sure some of you can relate to this.

I have many interests and had a go at making a living off of several of them with varying degrees of success. I am a published author, I have published mobile apps and video games, I was a photographer for 10 years, and so on.

I often think about what my life might have looked like, if my interests weren’t so scattered. What if all I had ever cared about was music, for instance? Or software architecture?

With many interests, it sometimes feels like time is wasted on transitioning between states, or dabbling to learn things that may never be used again. From a marketing perspective, it is also very challenging to jump back and forth between different outlets, target audiences and messaging. Especially if you are doing it by yourself.

So, what if I had only been a writer? Would I have been a more successful, highly skilled writer? Would my brand be stronger?

It seems likely but here’s the thing: it’s connected like a chain. I am a better writer because I took a lot of portraits as a photographer. Why? Because I studied mood lighting, facial expressions and listened to people’s stories, all of which is transferable to writing.

I make better video games, because I studied how to build suspense in a movie script. I write better songs because I enjoyed building the guitar (seriously, I wrote 7 songs directly inspired by building a Stratocaster).

Of course there is a trade-off. I am not a specialist, which can get in the way, for example when looking for work. I am more of a big picture, high level kind of guy, less focused on polishing the details (though I work well with detail-oriented people). I accept these trade-offs, because the positives make it worthwhile.

Still, there are days where I wonder “what if”?

I, Polymath

Everyone is told to specialize, to “pick one thing” and become an expert in that one thing. But for many creative people, specializing in a single field can feel like an impossible ask. There are too many exciting things out there, it seems, and you want to try them all! It turns out that there can be good reason to not specialize.

This is a topic, I have fought with more than once, going back more than a decade. I am now in my early forties, and I still unapologetically experiment and dabble. Not because I get easily distracted by the next shiny thing; I do tend to finish at least one project in whatever discipline I am exploring. It’s because I love learning, and finding patterns and overlaps between various skills and art forms.

This passion for passions is what led me to write novels, take pictures, code video games, and make music. It turns out that my kind has a name – several in fact: creative generalist, jack-of-all-trades, renaissance man, or polymath.

Mr. da Vinci, pictured above, is another famous polymath. Not bad company, right?

The times when I fought against it, were usually efforts to try and fit into the perceived expectations of a job market, a freelance client, or product launch. No single title seemed to stick. The closest I’ve come to a title that might cover it all is “storyteller”, given that conveying a story is part of all of the things I seem to take an interest in. It’s more of a theme than an actual job title, though.

You might say, that my specialty is the accumulated knowledge and high level overview that comes with studying many disciplines. Despite our specialist-centric society, there is real value in such experience. For example, it can, as the Dude might put it, really tie the room together, when you are working with several specialists. I am pretty good at herding and translating between groups of specialists, and I credit that to having varied experience.

The downside to being a polymath, is that I am not the worlds greatest writer, photographer, game designer, or composer. But I can communicate with all of the above with a fair amount of confidence and authority. This comes in handy when managing projects and events, hiring, scoping, and prioritizing when the specialists are too focused on their own issues to see the bigger picture.

After all these years, my advice to someone with many passions would be to not specialize in one at the cost of the others, but to seek the middle, where there is overlap between them. What are the themes and approaches that can be applied across your passions, and where do they intersect? For me, they connect thematically through storytelling, and pragmatically through cross-disciplinary communication and project management skills.