The question of whether to “go wide or deep” in one’s career first came to mind when my then eight-year-old daughter asked me a very insightful question: “Mom, is it better to keep trying a lot of new stuff all the time or to try to be good at just one or two things?”
At the time, she was struggling with balancing school, Girl Scouts, piano lessons, and soccer. I had similar challenges in my life and I had to think very hard for a few moments. Then I realized that I personally feel much happier and more productive when I can focus on a few things—when I can “go deep.” I told her so, but emphasized that it’s a very personal choice. She later decided to quit Scouts and piano but, just like me, she hasn’t stuck to this principle consistently.
I’ve had two very demanding jobs in my career that nearly drove me crazy. In retrospect, I realize that they forced me to go too “wide.” I couldn’t gain proficiency in the areas that mattered when it was nearly impossible just to get through my to-do list each week. I always felt like I had my finger in a leaking dike. And while I received praise for my work, it didn’t matter much because I couldn’t meet my own standards.
It’s also interesting to note that both of those jobs involved management, which was not something I was ever passionate about. I may have also been guided more by the needs and expectations of others than by my own desires.
I’m not advocating perfectionism. Experiments, and the resulting mistakes, have brought me to a good place. But I understand now that my personality and work style compel me to spend more time in my comfort zone and less time pushing the envelope. I once again have a career that works well for me. I’m lucky to still enjoy using the writing, editing, and marketing skills I’ve honed over many years—and I’m fortunate that these skills are still in demand.
I’m also not recommending against experimentation. After all, life itself is just an experiment. I’m only saying that when you color outside the lines in your career, it needs to feel right. For example, after rebuilding my business in 2008 and 2009, I had the secure foundation I needed when it was time—past the time, frankly—to re-brand my business, create this blog, and begin diving into social media.
I still don’t have the perfect balance, of course. Balance is a verb, right? We get to keep trying.
I’m curious about what makes you feel more alive and accomplished in your work: going wide or going deep? Or have you found a way to do both? (Maybe you’ve given up sleeping?)