Nobody wants to be a jack of all trades. However, we’ve also forgotten the art of the Renaissance Man. In graduate schools and marketing programs around the country, the concept of “positioning” and branding is on the rise. Dan Schawbel and others have introduced the concept of personal branding and one of the key tenets is to choose one idea around which you put a stake in the ground. While positioning yourself around one concept is helpful for others, it’s not necessarily natural to our multifaceted selves, and, is growing increasingly outdated.
I was reminded by multifacetism recently by two men: Baratunde Thurston and Nathan Ball. Baratunde, author of the recent New York Times bestseller How to Be Black, is hard to define. And he likes it that way. And so do most people who come in contact with him. He’s a comedian, but (and?) he’s also a political analyst. He’s an avid Twitter user and also reads and writes in long form. He loves to dance but he also rides a pink bicycle everywhere. His book brings out a number of these (apparent) contradictions, including the fact that he attended the prestigious Sidwell Friends School in Washington DC (think Obama girls and Chelsea Clinton) while attending Afro-centric workshops on weekends. A better title for his book might be “How to Be.” He’s somebody who cultivates multifacetism and challenges us (implicitly) through his book and his comedy to do multiple things and not be afraid of showing (even publicly) multiple sides. He’ll tweet about #WhiskeyFriday, the Republican race, and Cameroon in the same feed.
Similarly, Nathan Ball, as you’ll see in this impressive beatboxing clip “does a lot of stuff,” as he puts it. But if you listen to his introduction, he doesn’t describe what he does in terms of titles or positions or even sectors, but activities: “I’m an engineer, I’m a beatboxer, I play some jazz piano, poll vault, do a backflip off a building every so often.” He doesn’t let one thing in his life (the fact that he beatboxes) affect or influence what he can or cannot do in another part of his life (run a startup).
While both of these men do a lot of different things, neither would be considered generalists. They both harvest and master their crafts (Nate tells me he practices beatboxing about 45 to 90 minutes a day either actively or mentally and Baratunde has a weekly standup gig in New York no matter what else he’s doing). When I asked Baratunde about this, he said, “I’ve often thought of myself as Winnie The Pooh because I like to keep my hands in many pots of honey. Also, I think the word “pooh” is funny. For me it’s not been about a refusal to “focus” or “commit” but instead realizing that I get different types of satisfaction from my various activities, and I ultimately feel the most excited when I can use elements of one arena in another arena. Using comedy in the tech space or technology in my political world is a more complex dance, but makes dancing much more fun.”
While positioning yourself around a specific “thing” can be helpful for others to categorize and classify, I’m sensing a new desire, particularly among this next generation of leaders, to redefine boundaries and have contradicting (or at least unrelated) interests. It’s not as if the generation before us wasn’t multifaceted. They were just encouraged not to show it. That’s changing and it will be one of the rising trends of this next generation of upstarts: to incorporate multifacetism as one of our core values and encourage one another to be curious, learn and develop multiple joys, desires, and, well, facets.