Welcome to a new era of professional identity: the age of the multi-hyphenate. In a world that thrives on complexity and diversity, the traditional notion of staying in one’s lane is evolving into a celebration of versatility. Join me on a journey into the realm of multi-hyphenates and discover why embracing this dynamic approach is key to navigating the ever-evolving landscape of work—and radically improving your leadership.
Let’s start with a brief personal story:
In the middle of 2021, I wasn’t searching for a new identity. Like most of us, I was just happy to get out of lockdown and explore something beyond my four walls. During what was, in retrospect, the interval between Delta and Omnicron, my wife and I traveled to Portugal to celebrate my 41st birthday. Our goal? To walk the Portuguese segment of the famous Camino de Santiago.
If you’ve never heard of the Camino before, it’s a thousand-year-old Christian pilgrimage route that tens of thousands of people walk every year. There are multiple trails that lead towards the same destination: a small city tucked up into the far northwestern corner of Spain called Santiago de Compostela. Many people approach from the east by walking all the way across the top of Spain. Some walk from as far away as Eastern Europe!
Though, technically, the trail ends in Santiago, many people continue on for four more days of walking to another town called Finisterre—which literally means “the end of the world.” This was our plan. We walked up the Portuguese coast for 12 days until we reached Santiago, and then we continued for about a hundred kilometers to get to Finisterre, where a lighthouse overlooks the sun setting into the Atlantic.
You don’t need to be Christian or even spiritual to walk the Camino. Nevertheless, I found something profound about the idea of walking to “the End of the World”, especially after 18 months of upheaval due to the pandemic. Early on the journey, I scooped up a rock and slipped it into the pocket of my hiking pants. I told myself that this rock represented something I wanted to leave behind at the End of the World.
For two weeks of walking, I continually asked myself a profound question: what do I want to leave behind? Gradually, I realized that I was transporting something essential about my professional self. For the previous eight years, I had established myself as a unique communications consultant. My job was to deliver leadership seminars around “business storytelling”. During the second half of the 2010s, I had become very successful—I was getting calls from clients all over the world, and I delivered my seminars across North America, in Europe and in Asia. But despite this outward success, I felt like there was some part of what I was doing that felt inauthentic.
Sure, I was helping people communicate better—and we all know that’s super important. At the same time, I felt myself very constrained by what “good” communication was supposed to mean: polished, professional, proven.
When I got to Finisterre, I threw my rock into the sea, and decided that—somehow—I was going to be different.
Then, remarkable discovery!
Not two days later, I went to Lisbon to attend a very unique conference that was hosted by a group called the House of Beautiful Business. I call it a conference, but in fact, it was like no conference I had ever attended. Rather than a boring conference hall at a high-end hotel, the event was held in what used to be an abandoned warehouse in a seedy part of Lisbon. Rather than rows of chairs facing a stage, the stage was circular, and all the chairs faced the speaker, but also each other. And rather than polished experts, I met many, many people who were also works in progress like me.
I asked for something different, and I found it immediately.
There, at this strange conference, I heard a word I’d never heard before: multi-hyphenate. Later, I looked it up: a multi-hyphenate is someone who’s job description includes multiple hyphens.
It’s common to be a multi-hyphenate in the entertainment business. Think about Oprah: producer-actor, author-philanthropist-TV show host. Greta Gerwig: writer-actor-director. Quentin Tarantino. Taylor-freakin’-Swift.
More recently, it’s been common to run into multi-hyphenate influencers online. Podcaster-model-content creator-athletes… We’re all in a world, now, where one identity melds seamlessly into the next.
Except for one notable exception.
Why is it not cool to be a multi-hyphenate in the corporate world?
There’s one important bastion that the multi-hyphenate idea has not reached: corporations. Most companies do not love hyphens. You’re in sales, or you’re in marketing. You’re a Director or a Vice-President. Your roles and responsibilities come first, and if you’re a DJ or an actor or a musician or even a great salesperson, you’re supposed to hide those skills if you’ve been hired to work on a Product.
This thinking is starting to change. But to see what I mean, go look at people’s headlines on your LinkedIn. The corporate world still thinks that you’re supposed to do just one thing, and do it excellently.
In fact, in the corporate world, there’s a word for people who are good at multiple things. Say it with a snort: generalist.
We all know that old truism: jack of all trades, master of none.
Beliefs like this act like cultural inertia, preventing more of us from fully expressing ourselves.
Fortunately for multi-hyphenates, things are changing.
I understand why job roles have evolved like this. In big businesses, it would be an absolute shit-show if everyone tried to do everything at once. The whole idea of operational specialization stretches back to Henry Ford and the assembly line.
But even in the most dark-suited corners of the corporate world, there are signs that things are changing. One intriguing sign came out last year: an article by McKinsey called New Leadership for a New Era of Thriving Organizations:
We are moving from an era of individual leaders to an era of networked leadership teams that steer the organization…This new approach calls on leaders to make fundamental evolutionary shifts, well beyond the standard expectation that they continually develop additional skills. They must, in fact, reimagine themselves, undertaking inner work to shift their mindsets and consciousness to see the world anew; to rethink their interactions, roles, and ways of working as part of leadership teams; and to reimagine their organizations and the industries in which they operate.
Basically, McKinsey is saying that every corporate leader should walk the Camino de Santiago. 😛
A new narrative around the need for multi-hyphenates
I kid. However, it’s clear that, in our rapidly evolving time, innovation requires breaking down some sacred cows of organizational leadership. Over the last decade, we have seen significant movement towards bringing more of ourselves to work, kickstarted by people like Brene Brown.
Up until now, though, the focus of bringing more of ourselves to work has been around belonging, satisfaction and the mental health crisis. Each of these reasons to break outside of corporate boxes are compelling in themselves. However, they all overlook something even more fundamental: in an evolving world, if we stick to our old mindsets, we’re f*cked.
Personally, even though I have found new freedom to express more of myself in my work—and even though I work for myself, mostly free from corporate expectations—I have been continually amazed to uncover how deep this rabbit hole goes. Every time I try to make changes in my business, I can hear the same voices popping up inside my head: are you allowed to do that? Stay in your lane!
Embracing your multi-hyphenate is not as easy as flipping a switch. But there are specific things that we each can do to break down our siloes—and bring more innovative thinking to our work.
Here’s the secret, though: they’re individual.
If we want to get out of our lane, we can’t look to other people to tell us how we’re supposed to be. Because other people’s solutions—or hyphens—aren’t going to work for us. Being a multi-hyphenate is about embracing the evolving journey of being yourself—and seeing yourself as an unfolding process.
That may not be a very business-y sounding thing to say, but it’s true.
How I’ve Changed as a Multi-Hyphenate
I came home from that trip just over 2 years ago. Looking back, it’s amazing how much that one word transformed my perspective.
Since then, I have
- Totally redesigned my flagship product—storytelling workshops—to bring more creativity and authenticity into them. Not only do I find more fulfillment in my work, I’m getting way better reviews from my clients as well.
- Received the most genuine and meaningful feedback for my keynote speeches—much better than anything I received prior. And I was good speaker back then also.
- Developed way more closeness with my consulting clients. I really feel appreciated now, in a way I never did back then.
- Substantially redesigned my entire business model—and embraced my weird.
Plus I’ve found much better relationships with my partner, family and friends. Seeing myself as a multi-hyphenate has made it much easier to accept myself—and find satisfaction in what I do.
My Advice to You: Future Muli-Hyphenate!
No one can tell you how to be a multi-hyphenate. What we can do is share stories of our own individual success breaking outside of the box.
What I’m finding, as a consultant, is that clients keep calling my perspective “refreshing.” It’s honest, it’s real, and they are responding to that in kind.
Today, even more than back in 2021, the world seems to be fraying at its edges. Some people are doubling-down on things that used to work in the past; others are more bravely stretching towards something that’s never existed.
For me, that’s what being a multi-hyphenate represents.
What’s your experience with being a multi-hyphenate? Send me a message—I’d love to hear about it.