The days of working the same job for thirty to forty years before retirement hasn’t been heard about since our grandparents day. It’s typical today to have three to seven career switches over the course of a working life. Millenials and members of Gen Z have grown up in the information age; the democratization of the internet has meant a chance to dabble in lots of potential careers before ever graduating from college. Younger people may have a number of “side hustles” in addition to their 9 to 5 jobs.

The way we work has evolved, yet the way we talk about our work has not. We speak to college students and those new to the workforce of finding their “passion:” the one career path that will fulfil them spiritually and financially. So much energy is put into finding this special “one.” Yet this language doesn’t reflect a modern work experience. Nor does it reflect a true life experience.

Do we know any person with only “one” interest? Even people who are extremely successful in one area of life have developed other capabilities as well. In Jeff Haden’s book The Motivation Myth, he uses Venus Williams as a case study. She was always expected to be a star tennis player. But Venus’s father demanded more from his high-achieving daughter; to excel in academics, to pursue entrepreneurial ventures — in addition to winning on the court. Today, Venus is a Master’s degree student, an athletic clothing designer, and an entrepreneur. And oh yes, there’s the tennis, too.

Venus is clearly more than just an athlete. We’re all more than our most prominent job title. Yet when the question comes around at parties, the ubiquitous “What do you do?”, we often find it’s easiest to stick to a one-word answer. “I’m an accountant.” “I’m a professor.” “I’m in sales.”

There is, as Haden states, a stigma with being an “and” person. Let’s pretend we’ve never heard of Venus Williams and we meet her at a cocktail party. “What do you do?” “I’m a tennis player and a fashion designer and an entrepreneur and a graduate student.”

Most of us avoid introducing ourselves in this way. Why? Because of the stigma of the “and.” There’s an assumption: if a person is pursuing more than one venture, he or she can’t be doing any of them very well. We fear being viewed a dilettante, the college student forever trying to decide on a major. We want people to take us seriously.

But what if claiming all of our “ands” could encourage us to view ourselves more seriously? Very few people are working in factories anymore, doing the same repetitive action for thirty years. We all wear multiple hats. A recruiter is never just a recruiter; she may be involved in training, human resource development, marketing, and business strategy. Why not claim all of those “ands” (since she’s already doing them anyway)?

Let’s look at another “and” person: Elon Musk. Trying to fit him into any box would vastly undermine his contributions to society. Is he a businessman? A thought pioneer? A designer? Intrepid explorer? Activist? He is all of these things and more. His achievements in one area do not diminish the others; rather, they inform the others. Elon Musks’s many interests and pursuits have allowed him to explore some of the greatest problems facing our planet, and to work for solutions which benefit us all.

Back to the recruiter. Suppose she were to speak aloud: “I’m a recruiter and a human resource professional and a marketer and a strategist.” She might then be impelled to invest in herself in those areas; to attend a professional development session geared toward human resource managers, to sit in on meetings with the marketing team in order to ensure that her pitch to new recruits is more aligned with the company message and to make her message more compelling. She would likely gain enthusiasm for her work, her company, and the unique role she plays in the larger mission.

Moreover, she would be able to better connect with a young generation of workers, who haven’t grown up with the understanding that career goals and personal goals should be put in silos. Millenials and members of Gen Z have grown up with the ability to learn about, explore, and excel in multiple arenas. They are embracing the “and.” The larger work culture would do well to embrace and harness the power of the “and,” too. Maybe in so doing, executives and employees may fully claim their many responsibilities — and their power — in order to affect real change.

Caroline Stokes founded FORWARD to support innovation leaders to move forward. Caroline is a certified executive coach, an executive headhunter and a certified Emotional Intelligence trainer focusing on creative media digital industries. She also hosts The Emotionally Intelligent Recruiter podcast to help recruiters move forward in the AI age.

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