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How To Use Your Creativity to Make Sense of a Varied Career 

Jonny Goldstein on why it’s OK to be dash-shaped and figure out what you want to do after the fact

Photo Credit: Steve Garfield Creative Commons Licensed Flickr link

Making sense of a varied career can be a challenge. Those of us who long for a creative life path are often trying to balance the need for money against our artistic desires. We feel an innate pull towards varied experience and resist the kind of narrow classification that is often required in the job market. One compromise to this is to create a T-shaped persona. Pull in your varied experiences (the top of the T) under one deep vertical skill set (the I of the T). But where does one start?

I asked Jonny Goldstein a visual communications specialist (he draws live pictures on stage of what speakers say at events) about his life path and how he’s able to pull together his varied experience into his work. Jonny’s been a talk show host on an early web series, he’s worked as a videographer and new media producer and lived in about twenty different places around the world.

I don’t even know if I am a T-shaped personality maybe I’m just a really dashed shaped personality. But to make sense of my experiences, I did end up developing my visual skills. It’s difficult if you don’t have something that you’re doing that you can then apply to these experiences and then do something with those experiences. If you don’t have that, It’s like it’s raining but you’re holding out a sieve and all [the water] goes through and [dissipates]. So for example, you’re this writer who’s [a] Hunter S Thompson [type] and has all these weird adventures. You know if you were just having all these adventures it might be cool but hey it wouldn’t amount to much in terms of a career. But if you can write about it, then you can do something with those adventures. So I think that’s [the same] with me. Not that I’m Hunter S. Thompson! But I have developed an expressive skill that helps me turn my all over the place life experiences into something professionally viable.

Creative expression not only gives others a way to understand Jonny’s varied career, it’s also a way for him to make sense of it.

I need a way in my own head to connect with those experiences. I’ve had such an all over the place life that anything I can to do to make sense of it and make the illusion that it’s a coherent whole is gonna make me happier. I was at a conference five or six years ago and I saw someone doing graphic recording on a large scale, live, content visualizations. Then I’m like “Oh! That makes a lot of sense. I can do something [to] make sense of this stuff. Represent it visually…The visual stuff is great. I think it’s a great competency for creating good learning events and creating events where people deeply connect with ideas. So, for example, I just co-produced UX Sketchcamp and so I would like to do more stuff like that, where people use drawing to have a better learning experience. And that feeds into the same thing being the talk show host… I’m just such a believer in that stuff. I want to incorporate that into whatever I do and at UX Sketch Camp it it was explicitly a core part of it.

Jonny’s circuitous path keeps him moving around to different groups and different experiences. There’s value to him in remaining a generalist, someone able to dabble in a wide array of different experiences. In forming a career, Jonny didn’t set out to become a visual communications specialist but has found that it’s a way to use his diverse experiences towards a coherent goal.

How are you gonna be a generalist if you aren’t dipping into different areas? It’s almost by definition that a generalist — at some point in their life — was doing a lot of [that]. I mean, I don’t know maybe there’s other ways to get it. I think I’m by nature not satisfied but kind of where I’m getting to now is that I’m satisfied with the work I’m doing and I want to focus … OK. I like doing this stuff … I don’t have to spend a lot of energy searching around for the next professional iteration. Now I wanna really apply my brain in a more channeled way, but still in diverse settings.It’s your personality,right, that makes you like dash shaped or T-shaped. I became a T-shaped individual partially because I’m a dash shaped individual and the only thing that helps me glue it altogether is visual thinking so I’ve gotten really good at the visual thinking thing partly [because], yes it’s interesting to me but it’s also cause that was the method I used to hold all these disparate things together then after a while it was like “oh! I’m getting known for that.”

Whether you’re just out of school or you’re looking to reinvent your career an important step is being open to new experiences. Often successes in life aren’t won by cold calculation but by spreading out and being open to random chance. A colleague of mine calls this “hedging a lot of small bets.” Traditional business and the four year University often trains for a one track mind-set on jobs and careers, couching experience into “industries.” What Jonny and other generalists teach us is that in the 21st century those with the creative mind to be undecided often win the long game.