The Slash Effect

My reading tends to be very random-access; sometimes it takes me years before I figure out the most rewarding perspective with which to read a book. I bought and began browsing Marci Alboher’s (@heymarci) oddball career-guide,  One Person/Multiple Careers several months ago, when she blogged about ribbonfarm.com in the New York Times. But though something about the book was intriguing me, it wasn’t till about a month ago that I found the right perspective. So here is a review/summary, with a couple of editorial thoughts for you to ponder.

The Slash Effect

The starting point, and premise for the book, is the Slash Effect in the modern workforce (I really think the book would have been much more powerful with the title “The Slash Effect”). The most visible symptom of the effect is the professional who uses a slash to describe herself, like “Lawyer/Artist.” Marci herself goes by “Author/Speaker/Coach.” I go by “Engineer/Blogger.”

Starting from this idea of the slash effect, the book develops an entire alternate paradigm of career planning. It isn’t quite Dan Pink’s brave new world of free agency. Neither is it a reference to people within that nebulous cloud of “consultants” that shrouds every industry, or people who are forced to work two dull, minimum-wage jobs just to pay the bills.  Slashes are people with genuine splits in their career personalities. The multiple pieces of a slash work identity might feed off each other in pragmatic ways (for example, I use my knowledge of blogging technology in my research work, and my knowledge of the digital print industry in figuring out my blogging strategy), and even show up as part of the same social identity (for example, in this blog, I sometimes write about engineering research), but in terms of your inner, psychological life, the pieces of a slash identity represent unresolved polarities. Which is fine, since the lifestyle portrait painted is one of dynamic tensions.

If you are living out (or pondering) a slash lifestyle, the value of the book isn’t in the “how to” ideas themselves (they are mostly common-sense, and you’ll discover them as you need to as you embark on the slash road), but in the validation and legitimization of the ideas. In the anecdotal evidence and abstracted principles, there is reassurance that your way of trying to create a slash identity is actually normal and smart, rather than half-assed. So here is the quick synopsis:

Part I: Getting Started

This part has 5 chapters targeting the jaded traditional-careerist who has developed doubts about the traditional career model, but is uncertain about committing to a slash path, and the newbie slash who is looking for validation of his choices.

Chapter 1: The Slash Mind-Set: Begin, Improve, Reinvent, Repeat

You get the money chapter straight away.  The book opens with the stories of Dan Milstein (computer programmer/theater director), Mary Mazzio (rower-turned-lawyer/filmmaker/mother — apparently all moms get one slash free), Jenny Vacchiano (house painter/writer), Scott Sharkey (tour guide/real estate fixer-upper), Carrie Lane (Pilates instructor/art consultant) and a few others.You get hit with the key ideas immediately.

In every anecdote, just as the story hits what might seem like a random piece of improvisation, an associated general principle gets called out in bold. For  example, the rower-lawyer/filmmaker got her start with a documentary about Title IX, the law designed to bring equality to women’s sports in the United States. Luck, you might think, that she got the chance to make a movie where her other slashes came in handy. Nope, we are told, in bold: [u]sing contacts and knowledge from one career to build another is a common slash technique. It is a visually jarring way of typesetting a book, but functional. At the end of the chapter, we get a repeat of all the exemplified-and-called-out general principles. Chapter 1  has 7 such call-outs.

The gist of the lessons in Chapter 1 is this: get used to thinking of a slash career as a career in “perennial beta.” If moving from life-time employment models to the job-hopping model removed one training wheel, the slash effect removes both. You go from a naturally stable career path to a naturally unstable one where balance is an active skill. The traditional employee traded his single-use employee for a lifetime career-file in HR at a single company. Then the job-hopper came along in the 80s and, needed to refresh his resume every 3 years. The slash must maintain a completely dynamic resume (otherwise known as “LinkedIn”).

This is a surprisingly useful piece of validation (I felt myself thinking, okay, so this uncertain mess is the right condition to be in), and it also blows away any residual yearning for Nanny employers you might be nurturing. It is also sobering, because the anecdotes illustrate that it is dumb to operate with the “when I get rich off my book/rock band/pottery/eBay business…” mindset. You should buy into the slash model not as a way “out” of some imagined trap of a job, but as a lifestyle choice.

Chapter 2: Slash Breeding Grounds: Starter Professions, Volunteering, Passions, and Detours

This chapter is about the tactics that you need to learn once you accept the attitude recommendations in Chapter 1. You get the exemplify-and-call-out treatment of the idea that you need to view your career as a portfolio of  parallel rather than serial options, at different risk and maturity points. You get quick treatments of entry strategies, ranging from volunteering to starter professions. You get a treatment of how to selectively delegate and retreat from some parts of one slash job to create opportunities in parts of another.  There is an anything-goes sense of anarchy to the suggestions, and it is clear that the real people in the anecdotes are master improvisers, doing what it takes to create their my-size-fits-me lifestyle designs. The whole chapter reads like corporate strategy reduced down to the one-person corporation. You could reframe the ideas in terms of standard management concepts like core competency, diversification, differentiation, competitive advantage and so forth. Your primary, pay-the-bills job is just your biggest customer (or cash-cow product), not the nurturing umbrella for your whole life, the way it used to be. Chapter 2 also introduces a more textured “For Dummies” sort of format, with tip-boxes and the like. Again, the big value in the 13 end-of-chapter highlight points is the validation of an ad hoc, improvisational style. Lifestyle design is more a matter of finding the right few hacks that work for you, than a systematic recipe. If you prefer fixed compositions to improvisation, you should stick to a traditional career path.

Chapter 3: Thinking Like a Modern Moonlighter

Welcome to calculated pragmatism with a soul. The suggestions include this gem: “Civil servant jobs — with their regular hours and guaranteed income– can be a good way to build security while pursuing a more risky venture” (the anecdotal example is cop/gym owner). Another is “take advantage of the rhythms of the seasons — work that follows an academic schedule or is done only in a certain season can provide a guaranteed income… while leaving long blocks of time.” As I read this chapter, it hit me. We’ve come full-circle, from a Protestant Ethic of work as a higher calling that you crafted for yourself, to work as a off-the-shelf lifestyle with no soul, and now back to work as a higher calling. Except it looks different this time around. On the surface, it is all pragmatic moves. Underneath, it is all about self-actualization through work/work.

Chapter 4: Writing, Teaching, Speaking and Consulting: Four Slashes That Go with Anything

This chapter was something of a dilemma for me. I’ve always been a little snobby, I admit, about the vast number of people whose job is the loose constellation called “writing, teaching, speaking and consulting.” My snobbery is of the “get-your-hands-dirty-with-a-real-challenge-dammit” variety. Marci’s metaphor for this quartet is one no man would ever think of, “the black pants of the slash wardrobe — four slashes that go with everything.” Though the advice in the chapter is pretty good, and I am sure many W/T/S/C professionals work really hard and add real value, some part of me is turned off by this pattern as a stand-alone. W/T/S/C, to be credible, has to be about something other than W/T/S/C itself. In fact, I have a higher bar than that: true credibility hinges on having an active and ongoing engagement in some get-hands-dirty work (like Surgeon/Journalist Sanjay Gupta, who featurs in the book). I still haven’t resolved my ambivalence towards what, in my unkinder moments, I characterize as a portfolio of sideshows. A generalization of the “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” principle to “those who can, do; those who can’t, W/T/S/C.”  But then I reflect and realize that a lot of specific people who I admire are pure W/T/S/C acts. I think I am right: pure W/T/S/C acts are not credible, until they transcend their commodity W/T/S/C persona with a true personal brand. Usually this means a best-seller book.  Behaviorally, Stephen Covey is just another W/T/S/C guy like any random loser from the Budget Motivational Speakers’ Bureau. In practice, he is the “7 Habits” guy who transcended the W/T/S/C level. David Allen is “GTD guy” (@gtdguy is actually his twitter id, and within weeks of joining, he hit the stratosphere; the top 100 of Twitter. Currently he has over 176,000 followers).  So the bottomline is a harsh one. Pure commodity W/T/S/C plays aren’t credible until they make the leap into differentiated brandhood.

Chapter 5: Anatomy of a Slash Combination

This chapter is a pen-and-paper exercise, but the premise is an interesting one worth a comment. The exercise hinges on the distinction between “anchor” elements of a slash career (the parts with significant constraints like being in a physical location) and the “orbiter” elements (the parts that are flexible and adaptable). This is the divide across which you create dynamic balance. Curiously, the distinction is purely a daily-life operational one. It isn’t about which part of the slash career makes more money or is more “real.” In fact, the “real” job might be the orbiter. It sort of is, in my case. My main job at Xerox is demanding, but pretty flexible on a day-to-day basis, especially since I work from home in Washington, DC, reporting to Rochester, NY. On the other hand, it is this blog that is more like an anchor: I have to sustain momentum by posting at least once a week.

Part II: Succeeding in a Slash Life

This part also has 5 chapters, and assumes you’ve figured out a full-steam (though not stable; by definition slash lifestyles are a perennial work-in-progress) slash career.

Chapter 6: Presenting Yourself: Introductions, Resumes, Business Cards, and More

This might seem like a trivial issue, not deserving of its own chapter. But on the other hand, the process of figuring out what perception you want to convey, and how to manage those perceptions, is pretty much at the heart of figuring out your personal brand. I offered my take on this a while back. The chapter spends a good deal of time dwelling on the nitty-gritty, but the anecdotes are revealing in other ways. Going by the stories, the process of deciding whether to have one combo business card or several and perfecting a schizophrenic elevator pitch is apparently the key to finding yourself.

Chapter 7: Synergies, Leveraging and the Power of Incongruous Combinations

The idea of work-life separation, in the slash context, becomes, at the minimum, the work-work-life separation idea. There are really only two roads here: you can either embrace the chemistry and potential synergies, or you can try to compartmentalize. As far as I am concerned, the jury’s in. Compartmentalization is basically impossible. Your various lives will feed off each other in weird ways, and your only problem is how much work you put into telling an integrated story. The chapter recommends, “don’t hesitate to connect the dots for others” and “get comfortable sharing multiple aspects of yourself in different contexts.” Myself, I am ambivalent. I take the trouble to tell the whole integrated story to people who need to understand it. For the rest, I leave it at “understand what you will, from whatever pieces are visible to you.”

Chapter 8-10:The “For Completeness” Chapters

A little my disappointment, rather than drilling down into one of the more interesting slash phenomena for the coda, the book ends with three rather slow-moving chapters. Still, I suppose the “for completeness” motive is a valid one.

Chapter 8, “Working the Twenty-First-Century Workplace” is mainly concerned with finding slash-friendly employers, understanding the process of negotiating unique career paths and understanding the problem of dealing with slashes from the employer’s perspective (there is a useful “if you knew what they knew” list).

Chapter 9, “Overcoming Overload, Naysayers and Other Slash Stumbling Blocks” is mainly a collection of reality checks. Overload was the one I resonated with. Any significant slashiness in your life is going to create dawn-to-night relentless pressures, that you can’t manage away by being clever. There have been weeks when I have almost wanted to shut down this blog and reclaim my evenings and weekends. There have been times when I have been tempted to abandon interesting opportunities at work in order to create more time for writing. Me being me, I never did either. But I have to admit there is a health toll to be paid, and stress on personal/family relationships to be managed. But overall, if I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I can’t conceive of any other way to enjoy my life.

Chapter 10: “Special Considerations of Parent Slashes” should interest parents, but I, of course, have exactly nothing intelligent to say about, since I don’t have kids and to be honest, the subject of kids doesn’t interest me in objective ways either.

So that’s the Slash Effect for you. Now for some closing musings.

Two Questions

Since the future of work and work-life issues in general fascinate me, it surprised me that the book stayed away from exploring some key patterns that emerge in the anecdotes. I’ll pick out two that interest me in particular:

Why Are So Many Slashes Yin/Yang Patterns?

Almost without exception, the examples in the book follow a particular pattern. On the left of the slash is typically a tough, demanding specialist profession requiring many years of formal training, practice, and working in real, consequential contexts where your non-performance can hurt others. On the right there are typically playful, creative, non-professions requiring primarily originality of thought, self-taught skills, cultivation of auxilliary talents like public speaking or non-specialized writing, and working in inconsequential contexts where your non-performance wouldn’t matter a damn to anybody.

In my case, I have three degrees in engineering, and spent years becoming good at math and scientific computing (and most recently, managing other technical people). Serious money is invested in the work I manage, and if I don’t perform, or were to get hit by a bus, others would have to deal with a good deal of unpleasantness, at least for a few months.

On the other hand my writing projects (this blog, and my book-in-progress) rely on self-taught skills and broad reading outside the fields where I have some “professional” standing. If I stopped writing this blog, or never wrote my book, I cannot deny the truth that it wouldn’t really hurt in any serious way to others.

So why this pattern? There are practical reasons of course (doctor/engineer or lawyer/physicist in parallel requires superhuman talent and persistence). But there’s more. First, this pattern represents a practical motive: normal professions have a high baseline of income expectations, but overall, you will never beat the house. Artistic professions on the other hand, tend to have huge reward gaps, ranging from burger-flipper to millionaire celebrity, due to the talent-lottery dynamics. There is a second motive:  groping towards self-actualization. After decades of pretending the corporation could actually provide self-actualization, we’ve realized that the part of Maslow’s pyramid within the enterprise is more like a volcano. The top pointy bit has to be sought elsewhere for a significant number of  people.

Are Some Slashes Merely Hiding from Life?

Though there are many many yin/yang examples, and no tough/tough ones, there are several soft/soft ones (like yoga instructor/holistic healer or candle-maker/artist). We already talked about another pattern, the W/T/S/C, that does not have credibility unless and until it transcends slash-hood by becoming a real brand.

Let’s separate these out into three categories:

  1. Those who are going to become or have become brands and thereby prove/have proved themselves.
  2. Those who are going to try their damndest and fail, and die potentially perceived as losers, but happy with themselves for trying.
  3. And then there’s the third kind. The kind who are afraid of risk and challenges, who aren’t seriously trying at all to gamble big for brandhood, and are basically hiding out in a portfolio of non-professions and are in denial about their irrelevance in the pay-the-bills part of their portfolio (or worse, are living off soft-touch friends and family).

This third category of soft/soft folks are the ones who are hiding from the line of fire in the “staff” jobs for the economy at large. Always helping, supporting, coaching and advising, but never actually trying to directly impact the world.

Call me a skeptic if you will, but I think at least half of all slashes in soft/soft patterns are hiding. A quarter will prove themselves. A quarter will die unrewarded, but deserving of an A+ for effort.

That brings me to the one big thought I had, reading the book. There are only two sorts of slash patterns that are credible and sustainable: the hard/soft pattern, where the cash-cow line-of-fire work subsidizes the self-actualization side show, where there is no serious intent. Or the soft/soft pattern that eventually transcends slash-hood and achieves brandhood.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Venkatesh,
    What a thoughtful and provocative review. I especially like reading something about my book that causes me to think about the slash concept in new ways. And this one did that.

    One aspect I’m still turning over in my head is your section about writing/speaking/teaching/consulting, the four slashes I recommend as compatible with almost any other slash. The way I see those pieces is really as brand extenders or ways to take an existing expertise or knowledge base and play with communicating ideas through a new outlet. So if you are an engineer by day, why not explore teaching engineering, consulting related to your expertise, writing on related subjects? That said, I agree with you — that those things along, without a knowledge-base or expertise to play off of, would be empty — and I never intended to recommend the pursuit of those 4 things merely in combination with one another. What would one consult on if she had no desired area of expertise?

  2. That did come out in your book, that you recommended X/W/S/T/C rather than pure W/S/T/C, and I suppose the whole thing hinges on what that ‘X’ is. Everybody has at least a nominal ‘X.’ I think what bothers me is the people who attempt to milk an ‘X’ that is just not substantial, or was substantial, but now they’ve given it up for full-time W/S/T/C.

    It is especially evident in blogging – pro-blogger Darren Rowse complains about the number of people he talks to who want to make money blogging by, err… blogging about making money blogging. Then there are those people who write a book about a get-rick-quick scheme and try to get rich with the book rather than the scheme. There are ‘novelists’ who publish 1-2 bad, failed novels and then spend the rest of their lives W/S/T/Cing (or trying to) about writing…

    The counter-argument though, is that the best players never make the best coaches. So maybe there is something there.

  3. A few thoughts:

    The Slash Effect is probably a permanent feature of the Age of Information/Knowledge/Creativity/Unreason/Whatever). It *is* a paradigm shift in not only careers but how knowledge is extracted, presented, consumed and spread.

    I have more than my share of prejudices against the likes of Shiv Khera, Stephen Covey and Deepak Chopra, mainly due to their source-uncredited rehashing of plain old wisdom catchily told with stories and proverbs (or “Laws”, which sounds pompous). However, in my charitable (or vulnerable?) moments, I see the value of what they seem to have achieved, going by the sheer number of people who claim to have been deeply impacted by their writings.

    Given the scope of what they W/T/S/C about, it is more difficult for these three W/T/S/C stars to “do” and show that they are doing it successfully (they are thundering W/T/S/C successes but that is not their original ‘X’ career). On the other hand, David Allen with GTD, can show his successful practice of his W/T/S/C domain, given his steadily growing fame and stature.

    Such pure W/T/S/C-ers reign in today’s world. The web facilitates voices to be heard but it also means there is infinitely more competition to make your voice heard. Somewhere, credibility and authority (C&A) is hard to assess and sustain. Google’s PageRank is step zero and I expect significant developments on this front. This is especially needed as we have seen the downfall of many of the paragons of C&A in their respective domains over the past decade–Big 5 Consulting, Investment Banks and Rating Agencies come to mind as examples.

    I think the best player versus best coach is a fundamental dynamic and one need not be insistent on continuing the ‘X’ in a specific format. Many good consultants are in touch with and upgrading their ‘X’ to the extent that they ensure excellence in their W/T/S/C. I think of it as transcending into W/T/S/C rather than transcending beyond W/T/S/C.

    Differentiated brandhood is key but it also needs to grow up from the You Are Like Shampoo phase.

    Hugh MacLeod’s How to be Creative (misleading title, it is much more about balancing one’s deep yearnings with the exigencies of earning a living) is another interesting take on this. Among other things he talks of a Sex & Cash Theory–many successful people have at least two jobs, one is the sexy, creative kind that fulfils inner needs and the other pays the bills.

    Thanks for whetting my appetite for Marci’s book and your interesting perspectives.

  4. Thanks for the MacLeod ref; now on my list. And yes, the naive approach to personal branding is obviously the trap a lot of people fall into.

    You raise an interesting point about the Coveys and Chopras. I like to distinguish those who make it by selling snake oil (or worse, mind-drugs) to the masses, and those who make it by actually providing value that stands up to critical scrutiny, rather than merely winning popularity contests.

    ‘The Secret’ is an example of an idea that is the intellectual equivalent of cocaine. Alluring and addictive, but not legitimate, principled medicine.

    The coach-player dynamic needs its own blog post :)

  5. Sample these gems from Charles Handy (years ago!) in his Gods of Management:

    People will move jobs more often… They may work, part-time or self-employed, for two or more organizations at once. Many will turn their hobby or their profession into a tiny business on the side…

    Time, for most people, will be more discretionary… It will be a more flexible world, with fewer people able to define themselves… [RG: without slashes, that is!]

    People will end up with portfolios of work rather than one occupation which saw them through life. Instead of having to get money, status and fulfillment out of one job, they can be shared out a bit over different parts of work and life, with money coming from one activity, perhaps, but status from something that provides little financial reward.

  6. For some reason comments links aren’t showing up as clickable. Will look into it.

    The quote is very interesting. Sounds very similar to my own purple prose language in the first of my cloudworker series: The Cloudworker’s Creed. RG — you may have missed this series if you are catching up on this blog after an extended break.

    Venkat

  7. Barbara Saunders says:

    Another thought on the Slash Career. I don’t think they are for everyone, though more people may be adopting them out of necessity. I also think there’s a type of person that always wanted this option. Years ago, the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, (which, I believe, started within the HR department at some large corporation), began framing career needs in terms of aptitudes and identified a type of individual with “too many aptitudes” or, more precisely, more than the usual number of aptitudes in common occupations.

    Low-hanging fruit of an example: When I worked as a personal trainer, I met a LOT of lawyers in the fitness industry. A LOT. Their law careers apparently satisfied drives to use verbal and analytical aptitudes but left no place for the aptitudes having to do with physical expression or whatever goes into teaching.

    With increasing automation, many professionals (assuming they have the autonomy to do so with their employers or can get self-employed) can substantially reduce the time they spend on “clerical” and record-keeping types of tasks and fill that time instead with entirely new jobs/businesses that satisfy the formerly unused aptitudes.