In this photo taken on May 24, 2013, a Chinese woman visits a job fair held at the Zhongguancun Talent Center in Beijing. (Andy Wong/AP)

A few months back, I was filling out forms for my Harvard Law School reunion when I came to a sudden stop. The question was what I do for work, and there was a single space. One space. One job. One professional address. I couldn’t decide what to write.

The fact is, I — like a growing number of people — do more than one kind of work. It’s a model known as a “slash career” — a core professional identity that encompasses more than one thing — and it has deep roots, notes Marci Alboher, who popularized the phrase in her 2007 book “One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success.” Among history’s notable slash careerists: Benjamin Franklin (publisher/ politician/ technologist) and Leonardo da Vinci (artist/ inventor).

“What do you want to do first? What else do you want to do?” In the 21st century, these are far better questions.

But if slash careers are nothing new, they are also uniquely suited to our time, to an age when careers can launch and vanish in the blink of an eye. Gail Sheehy put it this way in her 1995 book, “New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time”:

A single fixed identity is a liability today. It only makes people more vulnerable to sudden changes in economic conditions. The most successful and healthy among us now develop multiple identities, managed simultaneously, to be called upon as conditions change. Recent research also suggests that developing multiple identities is one of the best buffers we can erect against mental and physical illness.

That said, opting for a slash career tends to be about more than practicality. Rather it’s a reflection of diverse personal interests and needs. Alboher embarked on her own slash career — author/speaker/coach is how she identified herself when the book was published — after a career counselor observed that she seemed too restless ever to do just one thing and would likely have a composite career. “I had never heard the term before, but I was immediately comforted by it,” recalls Alboher, who practiced law for a decade. “Settling back into a single-track career seemed stifling and uncreative.” (These days, Alboher has a single full-time job that incorporates her previous slashes.)

Alboher says slash careerists often find tremendous synergies in their diverse undertakings. That’s certainly been my experience. My two primary identities — higher education communications professional and blogger/freelance writer (a slash within a slash) both enrich and inform each other. I often get ideas for work at Harvard School of Public Health while working on a blog post and vice versa. (The fact that one job pays most of my bills in no way detracts from the importance of the other.) My friend Jane, a ceramic artist/epidemiologist, reports similar experiences, as does my lawyer/actor/musician friend Ned. For a whole bunch of reasons, many of us are better off working simultaneously on multiple tracks.

Among history’s notable slash careerists: Benjamin Franklin (publisher/ politician/ technologist) and Leonardo da Vinci (artist/ inventor).

One of these reasons is temperament. I have always been what the pioneering career expert Barbara Sher refers to as a “scanner” — someone who is drawn to learning and doing lots and lots of different things. As Sher asserts, and as I have found, the first step to thriving as a scanner is to recognize that you are one. Only then can you start to figure out what a fulfilling life looks like. (There’s an excellent discussion of what it means to be a scanner in Sher’s 1994 book, “I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was.”)

I was reminded of this last week during a call with a new coaching client struggling to figure out his next steps in work and life. I was struck by his seeming conviction that he needed to pick one thing — that moving forward required choosing, not finding ways to integrate and balance. Not that I don’t understand exactly where this comes from. It’s a perspective that makes total sense in the context of the assumptions of the past — that settling on a career is part of growing up.

It’s time we recognize that this way of thinking is at odds with today’s realities. I’d like to think that there will soon come a time when reunion forms like the one I received will include space for multiple careers and jobs, perhaps encouraging respondents to add an additional page if there isn’t enough room.

And at the other end of the career spectrum, we might stop asking kids what they want to be when they grow up, as if it’s a final destination. “What do you want to do first? What else do you want to do?” In the 21st century, these are far better questions.

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Kathleen Crowley

    Amy — Terrific piece on an under-recognized phenomenon. I love what you say about the pay differential having nothing to do with the relative importance of your various areas of work.

    Scan and slash on!

    • AmyGutman

      Thank you for taking the time to read & comment, Kathleen! Actually, I almost left out that point — Marci suggested I add it after she reviewed the piece to be sure I didn’t have anything wrong. Glad I added it! It’s certainly true for me and for my slash career friends.

  • GirlintheLockerRoom

    Great concept. I’m one of those “scanners”. I’ve had 5 careers at last count, several simultaneously. Thanks for the new ID.

    • AmyGutman

      Sounds like we’re running pretty much neck & neck! ; ) Thanks so much for taking the time to read & comment.

  • PY_Worcester

    I had multiple careers: corporate funding for a public radio station / retail furniture sales, from low end to high / independent interior designer / journalist / online content editor for a) a red hot furniture startup that flamed out within 2 years, followed by b) a stable, well known consumer audio company–my last job, but first ever experience working for a large corporation. The changes were dictated by life circumstances and/or broad economic realities (i,e, recessions and recoveries) but the variety suited me to a T and I loved almost every new learning curve. Most people have more than one skill set; I can’t imagine a lifetime of doing the same work.

    • AmyGutman

      Agreed! Thank you for sharing your experience.

  • Jraff79

    Sent this immediately to a couple of people I know!

    • AmyGutman

      Great! So glad you found it interesting/useful.

  • Lillian Worton Castner

    I, too, have had multiple careers. I have since relocated and am currently looking for a job. It’s difficult to use sites like “Monster” and “Linked-In” since they tend to pigeonhole you into previous jobs based on your historical listings rather than any future aspirations.

    • AmyGutman

      I know exactly what you mean! I started my blog Plan B Nation during a period of unemployment which went on for some time (though I did pick up some freelance work along the way). Ultimately, the job I was offered–and took–was with someone I’d previously worked with who knew my work and for whom my background was a positive, not a problem. Good luck!

    • Guest

      Ooops! This is Amy Gutman here–need to figure out how to update my Disqus name (which I set up during the aforementioned period of unemployment while living in western Mass)

  • dcrunnergirl9

    this is an awesome article. i wouldn’t really think to call the stuff i do as side projects for spending money as “careers,” but i spend a lot of time on them, so i guess i’m at about 3 careers right now. :) i always just considered myself scatterbrained career-wise, so i’m glad to find out that this is an actual phenomenon, haha.

    • AmyGutman

      I think it’s so helpful to name this — it gives it legitimacy. I think a lot of people are in your position. Glad you liked the piece!

  • jack

    Amy, thanks for the great article teaching me what the modern name for the renaissance spirit is. I’m repeatedly amazed and inspired by how many folks find their niche is not one thing but experience a level of comfort, or a need/yearning, to do/investigate/experience multiple careers or disciplines. This is where I find my self after 58 years. Why do I like doing all these things? Is it fear of boredom? I don’t know, it just is and can’t be otherwise. I wonder how many of us slash from the need to survive (income), or is it the basic inability to stay static in one area–curiosity? Possibly both, I suppose. However, I’ve found that being a slasher doesn’t necessarily help your employability. So, in my case I have grazed in spite of my basic need for employment security. So, there are adaptation aspects of being a slasher but they sometimes aren’t enough to keep you employed with an income at a level you prefer. For example some career areas a quite unaccepting of dabblers without the proper academic credentials…patents and proof of capability be damned. It’s not suprising there’s a down side to slashing, considering the great upside for people who relish new and different challenges!
    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on this.

    • AmyGutman

      All excellent points, Jack–and you bring up some of the same points re: employability raised by the commenter just above you. Clearly there is much more to be said on this topic. Thank you for sharing your perspective!

  • Deborah

    Great article, Amy. I loved the book Refuse to Choose by Barbara Sher. I’ve been calling myself a multi-preneur for years now. I am a writer/designer/teacher/yoga teacher/organizer ……..and now looking for a full time job to bring all my talents and creativity together in one place. I’ve got separate resumes for each of the between slash topics but I’d love to find someplace to work that wants me for my versatility instead of viewing me as unfocused.

    • AmyGutman

      Barbara Sher is so wonderful–such a pathbreaker. And I totally understand your point re: most employers wanting one thing rather than this slash diversity–I think it’s possible to combine slashes (Marci seems to have it now) but yes, challenging–all the more so the wider the range of one’s interests. (I too am a certified yoga teacher!) Good luck–and thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

  • Cynthia Jones

    Thanks for reaffirming what I’ve always known, but haven’t always practiced! Back in the day when, if you were a woman, you were told that you had to climb the corporate ladder and reach for that corner office (remember the women’s magazine covers of the powerful woman in her 3-piece suit, carrying her briefcase?) because the women who had gone before us fought for us to have better opportunities, etc. (which is true, and kudos to those who make different choices; I respect that everyone is different); you had to “bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan,” among other things. For a moment, I tried to make myself have the desire to strive for that; fortunately the moment passed, and I went back to reading books like “How to Work for a Living, and Still be Free to Live.” As you mentioned, the seeming inability to “make up one’s mind” about what to do for a living, has been considered a Peter Pan-like refusal to “grow up,” or a sign of some type of disorder, when in reality, having multiple careers whether simultaneously or at different times in one’s life, is not only being a Renaissance Man or Woman, but is quite practical given the ever-changing employment landscape. Just as those who are able to grow their own food or engage in other activities of self-sufficiency will fare better in this world, so too will those who have the ability and desire to be flexible in their work life; having multiple streams of income instead of just one. Great article!

    • AmyGutman

      Thank you so much, Cynthia! And I resonate with pretty much everything you said. : )

  • Michelle Swift

    So I can be a zoologist/archaeologist/psychologist/freelance photographer all at once? Because I really can’t pick just one.