Variety is the spice of work

photo-92Whenever people ask how to make a living as a writer, veterans in the field tend to offer this tip: specialize. You become known for a topic, which means that you have ready access to all publications covering that topic, and you also know who are the right sources and what’s the most current research. That means that each piece takes less time to write. Especially if you want to write books, making the case that you know a field, and have an audience, vastly helps with getting a contract.

I suppose I have followed this advice to a degree with my books. I enjoy writing about time management and productivity, and I also like the gateway these topics provide to broader issues, like careers, talent development, leadership, economics, and so forth. So I’ve written about them a lot.

However, given today’s to-do list, I realize that I just haven’t specialized that much. On the docket:

  • Edit my short book, for the Philanthropy Roundtable, on teacher quality
  • Interview the head of an audio book publishing company for a USA Today column
  • Interview Hank Shaw, of Hunter Angler Gardener Cook on hunting and eating wild game as part of a sustainable, locavore-type diet (that link goes to his “On Killing” essay — worth a read)
  • Interview Dan Clements, author of Escape 101, for a Fast Company piece on sabbaticals
  • Interview the head of a digital media agency on how outside-work passions make you more productive
  • Interview a few people from a major foundation focused on education on their principal training investments
  • Answer a few queries on time management speeches
  • Set up an interview with someone for Mosaic
  • Blog on my scattered professional interests

The truth is, I really like learning about new things. The time that adds to a project isn’t a downside. It’s fun. Writing about school lunches recently, I enjoyed learning that the St. Paul MN school district tries to introduce ethnic dishes from groups that live in the area; Hmong Beef Fried Rice worked, and Karen Coconut Chicken did not. Children do not like turmeric. I suppose I could have imagined that, but now I’ve had it confirmed. I enjoyed learning today that audio books used to be mostly abridged because it’s unwieldy to sell a 30-CD package (CDs can hold about 74 minutes of sound). But with digital downloads, all that’s behind us. You can make an audio book any length you want!

Other facts: The Specklebelly goose is nicknamed “the ribeye in the sky” because unlike most geese, it puts on fat. If you’re going to go for a Christmas goose, try that breed.

I might earn more or be able to work fewer hours if I specialized more. I might be able to write better, deeper pieces, too. But I also think that my longevity in this business depends on me being interested enough in what I write to want to write it. If I had to do the same thing every day, I’d go nuts.

How different is your work on a day-to-day basis?

11 thoughts on “Variety is the spice of work

  1. my work is not THAT different day-to-day on a superficial level (see patients . . . document . . . talk to families . . . sometimes take call/do inpatient stuff), but working with people means that you get an inherent variety!

    ps: i think a previous comment got lost in moderation but was responding to your post about running fast. definitely recommend picking a goal race and doing a PLAN that incorporates speedwork. it can be really motivating, and it works!

    1. @sarah- sorry, I fished it out of the moderation queue. I had a big problem with spam comments and the filter is set pretty tight right now.

      Yes, people are always different! But I would imagine some parts of medicine have more variety than others (ER vs. doing the same procedure multiple times per day).

      1. In our (specialized) division we have a lot of even further specialized people that focus on ONE SPECIFIC disease in the organ system we treat. They are undoubtedly experts, and treating the same thing day in and day out certainly makes them more knowledgable and efficient. I like a bit more variety, but that means I do spend more time hunting down the experts to figure out both the intellectual side, but also the mundane logistics of how to schedule a certain procedure, who to talk to, etc…

  2. The actual work that I do for pay does not vary much from day to day, but my actual schedule has a lot of variety. And because the projects I work on typically last 1–3 months (sometimes more, sometimes less), there’s always something new on the horizon. It’s a good way to work, I think.

  3. My work is basically the same every day – writing computer programs, writing papers and reports – but the subject matter changes with each paper/project, at least as much as it can within a pretty specialized area.

  4. I wonder if the variety is somewhat inherent with your identity as a journalist? I think of journalists as “reporting” on issues in the world.
    On a day-to-day basis I did much the same thing – prep, teaching, and marking. But every 4 months I’m working with new students and this helps to keep things fresh. Plus committee work and projects differ and add variety. It is a nice mix actually.

  5. “diversifying your portfolio” is also a good idea for a research scientist, because you never know what is or isn’t going to work and lead to more (grant-fundable) questions. I’ve been working on that recently, learning the hard way after my “all eggs in one basket” hypothesis did not pan out! It is extremely time consuming, though, there is such a steep learning curve for each different project.

    1. @Ana – I feel this way as well. The fact that I can write about anything gives me a certain career safety net. At any given time, there are more or fewer outlets covering different topics. Something can be hip for a while, then get a lot fewer column inches.

  6. Learning new things is exactly what I love about indexing. The work is mostly the same every day, although I’ve been doing some different types of projects (totally new book, vs. updating an old index for a new edition), but every book is different. I’m happy to be a generalist, and my background as a librarian — another career where I learned something new every day — means I am good at familiarizing myself with a subject very quickly.

    The rote mechanics of the job being the same helps flatten the learning curve of new subjects, as much in journalism as in anything else.

  7. I fully agree. There’s a lot to be said about depth versus breadth, and in software development (or fitness, or any field at all), it’s pretty much the same concept. You’ll get bored if you do the same thing forever, the market might change, people might find better alternatives and you’ll be left behind/ become less marketable, etc.

    Personally for me variety is absolutely essential to a good, balanced life, not just a career. Thankfully for me in computer science there is a _lot_ of variety if one keeps their eyes and ears open and constantly tries to venture forth into the unknown – and the material is very easily accessible too – gone are the days of dusty volumes in the libraries; free videos, free courses, and relatively inexpensive eBooks and free software abound that can facilitate easy learning.

    Luckily my current job also allows me a certain degree of leeway and change. But I myself apply that to quite a large extent in my learnings – I learn about different computing paradigms, different programming languages, different software development techniques, different workout techniques, different nutrition philosophies, things related to hormonal balance, about the universe/ cosmology/ astronomy, and in general a lot of stuff about general knowledge too (partly why I find your writings so essential to catch up with every once in a while).

    Can’t imagine a life devoid of learning/ working on new stuff every day 🙂

  8. Great blog! Just found this thru the Aol Jobs website and I’m really enjoying it so far.

    I do agree that variety is what makes work enjoyable, but I also like to be able to focus in on 1 or 2 important tasks without interruptions or without having to multitask.

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