Focus vs Breadth: Defining Your Own Success Story
“If you’re a real creative director, you need to be making creative things. It can’t all just be about making ads,” Donald Robertson, SVP of Global Creative Development at Estee Lauder, told Fast Company this month in his spotlight as one of the magazine’s 100 Most Creative People in Business. Robertson, who shares illustrations with Instagram followers at @drawbertson, gets up at 4am to paint for four hours every day before he heads into work. He is a painter, an illustrator, a creative director, and from the looks of his Instagram feed, a father to a host of cherubic children too.
As we drove to school yesterday morning, and my mind wandered to Robertson’s approach to his days and to his life, my 4-year-old daughter announced out of the blue that when she grows up she wants to be a mommy and an “expert biker.” I told her that those were two very important jobs and asked whether there was anything else she wanted to do or be when she gets older. “Well, I might like to go to work like you do, mommy,” she replied. “Oh, and probably be a baker too.” She had formulated a very clear picture of how the things she cared about most in her life could potentially come together in adulthood.
About 10 years ago, at a crossroads in my life, I had an exploratory conversation with a life coach. As any good coach does, when we sat down over coffee, she asked me what was going on for me that day, in that moment. How did I want to spend our time together? What did I want to talk about? I told her I wanted to talk through a few different options I was thinking about as I considered the next path in my life – specifically, how to decide whether to start a consulting business or a open a spin/yoga studio or a build breakfast café or write a book. Her response to my idea potpourri caught me by surprise. “Why do you have to do just one thing?” she inquired. “Sure, it might be tough to do all of these things, but why can’t a few of them co-exist, at least for awhile? What would it feel like to hold more than one thing in your realm of possibility and move forward with that reality?”
With those few, powerful words, the coach shifted my thinking away from a model I grew up with and closer to the model Donald Robertson has found and my daughter seems to naturally understand: You don’t need to be just one thing in this world, and you don’t need to do just one thing. Despite what we grow up believing, choices aren’t that binary and our lives are not that linear.
It can be difficult to stay anchored on this view of life and work, as focus, mastery, and expertise tend to be traditional hallmarks of success. After all, there aren’t as many examples of thriving aerobics-teaching-curry-cooking surgeons as there are entrepreneurs dedicating their lives to a company with one unifying cause. The tennis players on the front page of the sports section generally just play tennis – they’re not dabbling in skiing and diving between grand slams. In the case of the said entrepreneur and tennis player, it’s very likely that they are fulfilled by the level of focus they’ve committed to master their domains. Thank goodness they have — the world needs people with maniacal focus to endure the challenging paths toward solving some of humankind’s most pressing problems.
But this level of specialization — the one that tends to get the most airtime and screentime — isn’t the only answer. For some of us, pursuing broad-ranging interests is what leads to wholeness. The painter / illustrator / creative directors and the mothers / bikers / office workers / bakers among us are re-defining traditional models of success – proving that unless it’s what you naturally want (and maybe even need) to do, none of us needs to be or do just one thing. In fact, we might be better off for pursuing a few different paths at the same time.
I’m now subscribed to @drawbertson, which I’m hoping will be a regular reminder to embrace my strategist / writer / biker / yogi / mother self and show my kids that they can define success on their own terms. But as they always are, I expect my kids may be ones continuing to teach and remind me that indeed, success can be about being and doing lots and lots of different things…and being awake enough to notice which ones are sticking.