I tend to do a lot of things simultaneously and have therefore labeled myself a Multi-tasker, which one good friend points out is an impossible claim to make. He insists that no matter what, I can’t actually be doing more than one thing at a time. So, as a matter of semantics, we agreed that I am a Serial Tasker – someone who does multiple things back-to-back.
As a Serial-tasker, I always have a painting underway on a petite French easel that’s permanently stationed in a corner of my dining room (even my dining room multi-tasks!). It’s also likely that if I am awake, my Mac is running TweetDeck, Mail, iTunes, Photoshop, Safari and probably Word & Acrobat. In each window I am working on a task that has some sort of deadline pending – some sooner than others and some just goal deadlines I’ve created for myself and I continually putter away at.
Chances are also good that I am cooking something while running back and forth in the house between my computer and my easel. The kitchen is between the two rooms anyway – so why not make a risotto or roll some sushi as I am passing through? There’s a lot of useful simmer time that I can capture to paint a layer on the canvas or add a digital layer to my psd file (Photoshop junkies got that reference). Better yet… I squeeze in both - occasionally burning a meal in the process, but not often.
The one thing that I can’t do without focused concentration is writing. I can do several writing projects at once, as long as they are similar in nature, but I can’t mix in other tasks with writing. I need solid concentration time for that particular passion. Even if I step away from a writing project, I need relative peace so I can ruminate over what I am going to be writing. In college I wrote entire academic papers in my head before I sat down to put the words on my computer screen. It used to drive my roommates nuts that I would write and write through the night, before a major paper was due, never sleeping and then turn it in the next day and receive a higher grade than they’d received for papers they’d spent weeks working on. As any other writer might say… hey, it’s my “process!”
I have been a Serial-tasker as long as I can remember. It was a skill that was honored in my family because my father is the same way – both very left-brained and right-brained. I proudly take after him. He used to teach me how to make gunpowder in the garage when I was in grade school (his way of teaching me chemistry) but then we’d go out and tend to our elaborate Japanese garden that he so adored or take a walk through the forest behind our house. He would bring a field guide along and identify every plant, bug and tree for me along the way – then look at his pocket watch and realize that the blackberry pie he was baking was ready to come out and we would have to run back to the house. He and I would have picked and washed the blackberries at sunrise that day. My father is also ambidextrous, which I am not (my left hand is just there to help my right hand tie shoes and lift heavy objects). I almost hate to think of all the additional things that I could accomplish if I too was gifted with the skilled use of both hands!
It wasn’t until I hit middle school that my multi-tasking ability became a subject of ridicule from my teachers. I was accused of “lacking focus,” being “flighty,” or having my “head in the clouds” because I would be doodling some tremendous dragon on my PeeChee while listening and taking notes on a teacher’s presentation. Thank goodness iPods didn’t exist back then or I am sure I would have performed everything to a soundtrack. Oddly, it didn’t seem to matter to my teachers that I was a straight A student. They wanted me to “focus!”
My orchestra teacher wanted me to put my focus on my flute performances and give up volleyball, soccer and track. But I was first chair in the woodwind section, so why did I need to give up anything? My volleyball coach pressed on me that I should focus on one sport so I could excel in it, but I was good enough to stay on all of my teams and still have fun. I certainly wasn’t the star, but I was a good team player that helped the superstars stand out (I was a pretty good goalie, though). Being a team player is central to who I am. I don’t care how good you are at spiking the ball, you still need a teammate to provide you a good set up or to pass the ball so the power center-fielder could take a shot at the opponent’s goal (although I am useless with my left hand, I have a heck of a good left footed kick!).
I’ve always been told to focus, focus, focus and there were times when I really tried. I tried in college to focus on a major and came out with two majors and two minors. I tried to focus on one career but have loved the multiple fields that I’ve chosen. I never believed that my serial-tasking, multi-faceted personality was the curse that others seemed to think it was, but I learned that people preferred me to be more one-dimensional so they could categorize me and check me off their lists. I thought everybody’s brain worked like mine did, so I could never figure out why I was able to get more done in a day than most people could accomplish in 3 days. Seemed to me that they were the one’s who lacked focus.
As I got older I was awarded a new label to explain my “lack of focus” and multiple interests and activities: I was now referred to as high energy. I liked that term a whole lot more, so I embraced it. Today they would probably say I have ADD – and they would be wrong. I have the ability to focus on one thing for a long time, I just prefer to focus on lots of different things at the same time. Still, I can start on a painting and work on it all day, finally putting away my brushes and paints at 3 AM.
Upon becoming an adult I knew I could take advantage of my serial-tasking skills and I used them to propel myself into several interesting careers. I was often promoted within a few months of joining a company – which sounds great in theory – but it doesn’t always make you friends with people who feel left behind on a promotion they’d wanted. In order to get along better with my co-workers, I learned to give them my ideas in an indirect way and not take credit for them later. Soon, I was seen as an effective mentor and worked my way into management and eventually led large departments and became a nonprofit CEO.
I am often stumped when a person asks that presumptive question we all get asked when we’re introduced to someone new, “So what do you do?”
Even as a full-time CEO, I had trouble answering that question. I stammer, “Uh… uh, well, I uh…” The problem with that question is that my head cycles through all of the things that I “do” and it takes me a few seconds to land on the answer I realize they want, Oh! Work! You want to know what I do for work! The questioner often looks at me curiously, like I must suffer from advanced dementia. I know they must also be wondering how I could possibly manage anything, let alone from the position of a CEO, but I get along pretty well. I’m smart enough to hire a stellar staff. In fact, I tend to hire other Serial-taskers, like myself.
Although I have now reached a position in my career where I am high enough on the corporate food-chain not to be criticized for my “lack of focus” because I get things done, I still baffle people who need to make up their minds about me. Are you an artist, a photographer, a fundraiser, a salesperson, a marketer, a gardener, a writer, a graphic designer, a gourmet cook, or a career consultant??
Yes! Yes to all of those things!
You’ve probably realized by now that I’m using my story to get to a message for you to leave with…
Don’t let anybody else define who you are. You and you alone have the power and responsibility to define yourself and the life you want to create out of that. Anyone who tries to define you isn’t doing it in your best interest. They are doing it to make themselves comfortable. If you are in a career you hate or that simply bores you to tears, you have a responsibility to your own happiness to look very closely at why you are there. Is it for money, prestige, security, or something else? Maybe you just got caught up in a stream of jobs and found yourself there? Whatever the reason, if you don’t enjoy it, chances are you are not the best you can be at it anyway.
I love consulting with people about making life-affirming career changes. I feel like I am helping people who’ve somehow become lost in the woods and need to find themselves again. I don’t have all the answers – just helpful suggestions. I’ve found that most people know in their guts what they want to do anyway. They just need me to help them come up with a plan to get themselves there. Ask my former employees who remain in contact with me years later. One of my favorites is living out her dream in the Peace Corps after she and I had several heart-to-heart conversations and I had to threaten to fire her if she didn’t follow her dream. I didn’t of course! I sent her to grant writing workshops instead so she had a skill the Peace Corp would value. Obviously, it was valuable to me as her supervisor too. She now writes large grants for girls’ empowerment programs in Albania. I’m very proud of her.
Please contact me with your questions. I welcome them!