Why your inner multi-hyphenate is the future of your work

Hello, it’s Jordan Bower, your friendly neighborhood corporate storyteller here with another dose of deep questions and structured spontaneity. (Want to get off this crazy ride? Unsubscribe here.)

Let’s start today with a relatively straightforward question:

Who are you?

I know. Deep.

Recently, when I was in Lisbon, I attended a conference called Concrete Love that was hosted by a group called the House of Beautiful Business. While I was there, I learned about this wonderful English word “multi-hyphenate.” A multi-hyphenate is a person who falls into multiple categories; a person whose identity is defined by multiple hyphens.

For example, at work, I’m a consultant-facilitator-coach-systems thinker-storyteller.

In the identity category, I’m a Canadian-Jewish-cis-male-husband.

In the physical realms, I’m a hiker-cyclist-skier-ultimate frisbee player.

In the creative realms, I’m an artist-photographer-writer-dancer-Burner.

In the spiritual realms, I’m a meditator-tarot card reader-consciousness explorer.

And that’s just the start of it. I’m also all the things about myself that I haven’t yet discovered.

Consultant-facilitator-coach-system thinker-storyteller-artist-photographer-writer-dancer-Burner-hiker-cyclist-skier-ultimate frisbee player-meditator-tarot card reader-consciousness explorer-Canadian-Jewish-cis-male-husband-also-all-the-things-that-I-haven’t-yet-discovered.

That’s a mouthful of hyphens. I need to pause to take a drink of water.

The 2021 Concrete Love conference in Lisbon, Portugal

When I graduated from business school back in the early 2000s—twenty years and twenty lifetimes ago—I was taught that being a multi-hyphenate was a bad thing. In my twenties, I was constantly told to “stay in my lane.” It wasn’t poorly intentioned advice. Back then, there used to be these things that were called “careers.” People would go to school and choose a “career path” that, beyond finding a job, gave their life structure, clarity, and meaning. If you were hardworking, lucky, or both, when you reached the end of your career path, someone handed you a fancy watch—so you could keep time, I guess, while you were put out to pasture.

That’s not the way the economy functions anymore.

Most of us born before about 2000 grew up in an education system that thought in this way. And most of today’s organizations are still built upon the same conceptual philosophy about work. The mainstream still thinks that way, even though work has shifted fundamentally.

Today, every organization is omni-channel. Every organization is responsive to the ever-shifting values of the marketplace, to the sudden, unexpected shifts in the news cycle, to unforeseeable interruptions to the supply chain. When product needs to merge with brand needs to merge with strategy, systems, technology, culture… we all know that the organization needs to think of itself with more complexity.

The problem is just doing it. Organizations won’t get there if they’re full of people who are still trying to “stay in their lane.”

A room full of multi-hyphenates at Concrete Love 2021.

The problem goes beyond the way we describe our job role to others. It’s much, much bigger than simply “bringing our whole selves to work”—especially if we end up stuffing our whole selves into the dark suit of the way things have always been done. The problem is embedded in our thinking and our language.

For example, in the business world, we rely on words like “mission” and “vision” and “purpose” and “why” to try and simplify a vastly complex set of motivations and priorities. We believe that simplicity is the holy grail. We tell ourselves that if we can summarize our “why in a sentence, then we’ll be able to attain “alignment,” “satisfaction,” and “control.”

That’s a mouthful of buzzwords. I need to pause to take another drink of water.

This belief would be totally reasonable—if we all lived in a static world. But in a world that is e~v~o~l~v~i~n~g quickly and unexpectedly, with supply chain interruptions and travel restrictions and when are we going back to work and in what capacity and do I need to be vaccinated, it’s counterproductive to simplify. The best before date on our mission was yesterday. We lost the plot on our purpose sometime last year.

We need to take our thinking, language, and the very structures of our work and stretch them beyond imagination. Today, work requires a multi-hyphenate perspective. It’s the only way to adapt to the ever-evolving world.

But here’s the rub: to lead from this new perspective, we first need to learn how to apply it to ourselves.

The circular main stage at Concrete Love 2021

I often look in the mirror and try to make sense of being a consultant-facilitator-artist-tarot card reader-cis-male, etc. I ask myself deep, searching questions like Who are you? and What is my life’s purpose? and wait, earnestly, for the mirror to answer.

The problem isn’t in the questions. The questions are beautiful. The problem is that I actually think that my questions deserve a simple answer.

What questions are you asking at work that you think deserve a simple answer? Are they questions about your strategy, your target audience, your five-year-action-plan? How would your inner multi-hyphenate answer these questions? How could you make space for greater complexity?

What would it feel like to think from the perspectives that you haven’t discovered yet? Now can you bring that same perspective to your teams? To your customers? To your leadership? To your entire organization? You’re going to have to.

It can feel out of control to see yourself as something that is complex and always evolving. It can seem disorienting, ambiguous, chaotic. But, hey, that’s the world today, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be “back to normal” anytime soon.

Why not try to see things in a new way?

When we embrace our inner multi-hyphenate, when we bring that perspective to our work, then we can work with a new complexity. We can connect deeper, engage more meaningfully, and create new form out of the chaos. We can see that the answer we’re really looking for isn’t in the words. It’s in the hyphens.

So. Who are you?