Why 'Get Good at One Thing' Is Bad Advice

Last Updated Oct 18, 2011 12:01 PM EDT

Pretend someone asks, "What do you do?"

How would you answer?

You might say, "I own a restaurant." Or, "I'm a supervisor at Acme Industries." Or, "I'm a lawyer."
Whatever you say, I bet your answer won't include the word "and." But it should, regardless of the stigma often associated with being an "and."

Take me. I ghostwrite books. I photograph weddings. I consult on productivity improvement. If I may say -- and what the heck I will -- I'm fairly good at all three.

But here's what happens. At weddings someone inevitably says, "Hey, you're doing a great job. How many weddings do you do a year?"

"On purpose, only about 15," I'll answer.

"Just 15? Can you make a decent living that way?" (Forget it's none of their business; people always ask.)

"No. I'm also a writer," I say.

"Oh..." they say, and immediately look at me differently. To them it doesn't make sense. I should either be a photographer or a writer, not both. The fact I am both implies I must not be very good at either. No matter what their initial impression, they no longer see me as a good photographer because I don't photograph weddings full time. Evidently I'm not good enough to specialize.

The same is true with ghostwriting. When I tell someone I also photograph weddings they almost always assume I have to do weddings because I must be a struggling writer who needs to find other ways to make money.

To most people, specialization indicates accomplishment and success.

I think the opposite is true, for you and for me. We're too good to specialize.

Why? None of us is one thing. All of us possess a variety of skills, including skills we aren't using. And no matter how successful we are in one area, all of us still have other skills we would like to develop. Regardless of how fulfilling a current business or job may be, we all have other things we would enjoy doing too -- especially if we were paid to do them.

So take the steps that allow you to include an "and" in how you describe yourself professionally. But don't take the easy way out and sign up with a multiple-streams-of-income guru, or enroll in a home-based business program, or start flipping houses with no money down. Skip all the canned programs that enrich others instead of you.

Don't think about what others do or what others can provide. Think about what you would enjoy:

  • Maybe starting a small business on the side would be fun. You can start very small and even take a risk if you like, especially since any income you generate is supplemental.
  • Maybe diversifying your current business would be fun. If you sell products, find ways to expand your range by providing related services. Or provide unrelated services -- why not? You already have most of the business infrastructure in place...
  • Maybe you'd like to teach, or consult, or work part-time, go back to school. Other people want to learn new skills. Other business owners need skilled help. Outsourcing is a fact of life for most companies, and providing services part time is a perfect way to tap that market. Or maybe "I'm a supervisor and I'm halfway through my MBA" sounds cool.
What you do isn't nearly as important as making sure whatever you do is what you want to do. And don't say you can't afford to spend the extra time -- I'll argue you can't afford not to spend the time. You'll create a buffer against downturns, shifts in market conditions, or loss of a job -- and have more fun.

And best of all, you'll be an "and." That's a cool thing to be.

Jeff Haden is a ghostwriter who has ghostwritten four Amazon #1 bestsellers.... and he is an award-winning wedding photographer... and a consultant.

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Photo courtesy flickr user jenny downing, CC 2.0
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    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.