The Multi-Hyphen Life
Meet Emma Gannon, Author/Podcaster/Substacker/Novelist
Since the 9th grade, I hoped to become an author. Like many ambitions, there was an inspiring teacher, Mrs. Barkely, behind it. One day after submitting an essay on Moby Dick, she advised, “You should think about being a writer.”
At twenty-two, I was partly there, working as a journalist overseas. At thirty, I sold my first book to Doubleday. I was officially an author. For the next two decades, I thought of myself as just and only that: an author. It was enough.
By then, the future had already rolled inexorably past me. It’s clear now that for many of us, a singular career is simply not sustainable. I’ve since returned the hat of a journalist to my brow, as well as added newsletter creator, and most recently, TV producer/writer, to my professional paid output. Since I have children, and my wife works, I should rightfully add stay-at-home Dad to the mix.
For a while now, I’ve considered this addition of jobs as somewhat of a failure (except for the Dad part!). If I sold more books, and optioned them to film for more money, then I shouldn’t have to bifurcate my life.
Then I came across Emma Gannon. She writes a wonderful newsletter called The Hyphen, and among other things, it speaks to the future of work. In a classic feedback loop (I think that’s right, but I’m not a /computer engineer), her newsletter led me to her podcast Ctrl/Alt/Delete and then to her books, including The Multi-Hyphen Life, which highlights how this wearing of many hats is not only necessary for many of us but a positive development to be embraced.
A few months ago, Emma and I connected. Here’s our conversation, and as an added bonus, an excerpt from her book. I’ll be sure my daughters read this Workshop post too. I may have been late to the game, but I suspect this is definitely the one they’ll be playing….
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“When it comes to your career, do you ever feel like you are on an endless journey to get somewhere and you never quite seem to arrive at the destination? This somewhere feels sort of like the sunny top of a mountain: You can't quite see it, but if you squint, you think you can see something blurry and special in the distance waiting for you. When you eventually get there tired and exhausted you assume everything will magically fall into place. You will eventually achieve career nirvana.
It's what we've been promised. You were told somewhere along the way, maybe at school, that you'd reach this life goal in the end if you kept working hard, and it's the reason you toil away at work, nine-to-five (and then some), every day. We will get that reward, someday. When we get another promotion, another pay raise, another perk to post on Instagram, it will surely get us further toward this place of calm and satisfaction. "The dream." But what if such a place doesn't exist? What if, when you get there, there seems to be something missing? On the way up and during those long hours at work, have you ever truly thought about what success really looks like to you? The daily small successes, the mundane stuff, the choices you make along the way? What if the success you were promised at the top of the mountain were to not feel or look how you expected? What if success has an entirely different meaning to each of us and we might be currently risking totally missing the point? What a scam that would be.
There are things we have to do, and unless you're extremely fortunate, work is one of them….I was told and retold the myth that you can find your one dream path. I was encouraged to pick one subject to study, one subject to master. (Why do we have to "major" in something?) But successes in my career have come from having multiple projects, goals, and choices. You don't have to pick one job or be good at one thing. In fact, the positives and possibilities of living a multi-hyphenate lifestyle are endless. Some of us most of us are not built to dedicate our lives to just one thing….
The Multi-Hyphen Life at its heart is about being happier in walking our own paths. We've been told by society over and over again that it's totally normal to dislike our jobs. According to CBS News: "Of the country's approximately 100 million full-time employees, 51 percent aren't engaged at work- meaning they feel no real connection to their jobs, and thus they tend to do the bare minimum." Bloomberg recently revealed that once you are over thirty-five, you're more likely to hate your job* I met someone at a party recently, and when I told them I was writing this book, their response was, "But you're meant to hate your job. It's a job?” I get it; no job is perfect all the time, but having multiple strings to your bow allows your life to be less weighted on one thing. Dispersing yourself and straddling multiple interests will make you better at each one because you are constantly improving and being challenged in multiple ways. You feel less trapped. You get to leapfrog over old barriers. It means you are giving yourself a break by embracing different parts of your life- personality and career.”
In the simplest terms, what is the Multi-Hyphen Life?
It’s a term I coined for building a career path outside the traditional parameters of a 9-5 and having a few strings to your bow. It’s about how to take practical steps in this changing world of work to diversify and have multiple career strands/income streams. It’s a manifesto for crafting your career on your terms. I call myself a multi-hyphenate as I don’t just do one thing.
When you were a kid, what was your dream job? How has this evolved in your own life from your corporate work to Hyphen life?
My dream job was always working at a magazine. I always loved the idea of writing and communicating ideas to readers. The Devil Wears Prada came out in 2006 when I was 17. It didn’t put me off wanting to work in magazines, if anything it made me more hungry for it. Working at Condé Nast in my twenties was my dream job in many ways (I was the social media editor for Glamour magazine) but I quickly came down from the high, and my dream job became more about flexibility, travel, and working for myself. The Multi-Hyphen Life book came about because I quickly realized that the magazine industry was dying and the "job for life" (that we grew up seeing our parents or grandparents have) may not exist forever, especially for writers or journalists.
What macro-trends in the economy, technology, social structures, or the like have driven this kind of revolution in how we approach our jobs?
On top of the 'job for life' being a thing of the past, digital natives (Millennials and Gen Z) grew up experimenting with online tools which naturally extends to exploring ways to earn money in different ways remotely. A GoDaddy study in 2018 found that a huge percentage of people were earning anywhere between £500 - £5000 extra income from side projects, and this keeps growing, with over half (54%) of UK workers saying they are more open to taking on a side hustle or freelance work since the COVID-19 pandemic. The 'Great Resignation" signaled that people want to work differently, and Forbes recently described the pandemic as "a decade's worth of organizational change overnight" when it comes to work.
The pandemic forced us to work from our homes. How has this accelerated the trend toward the Hyphen Life and will there be some kind of backlash, or revert-to-norm? Is that even possible?
I don’t know about ‘backlash’ but I think the pandemic and the rise of WFH culture have allowed these big conversations around the future of work to enter mainstream conversation. I mention ‘hybrid’ work approaches in my book (published four years ago) but it’s only now that people are talking about the nuances of what that means in reality. It's not a one-size-fits-all, for some people/jobs WFH is not good for their mental health, and for some people/jobs the office is pointless. It’s about working out what company culture works for your business and what will retain talent/employees/keep them happy.
If you were able to talk to your younger self, perhaps coming straight from university, what would you tell her in terms of how best to pursue the Hyphen Life? What are the must-knows (i.e. finding your superpower, building a personal brand, always learning, embracing technology, monetizing your hyphens)? Can you explore each of these—or others not listed--briefly?
I would tell her to build her brand online by being both professional and authentic. I would tell her that connections and friendships matter hugely so put the effort into maintaining her network. Be open, giving, and generous, but always stand up for yourself. Be a perpetual teacher, there are always things to learn and courses to explore. Always follow your curiosity. In terms of business: follow what works, and ditch what doesn’t. Don’t focus on money over absolutely anything else when starting out. The money will come — but always make sure things feel right to you first, integrity is so important.
What are the upsides of the Multi-Hyphen Life? You stress flexibility, embracing one’s multitudes, and providing rejuvenation.
The upside is I can go on holiday whenever I want.
Pitfalls that you’ve seen in the Hyphen Life? Why do some folks have trouble pursuing?
The downside is that sometimes it feels hard to take time off and manage the workload. People struggle with boundaries and saying no. It is a learning process.
My wife, who is a successful tech executive, is still astounded that men (typically white men) hold most of the leadership positions in companies, whether from the tiniest startups to public companies. This comes at a time when women in the United States continue to graduate college at much higher rates than their male counterparts. Can the Hyphen Life level this playing field in leadership, how?
One of the reasons I took matters into my own hands is because I felt constantly overlooked in the workplace. I now run a high six-figure business and work in a way that suits me. I love this way of working, but for some entrepreneurial women I know aren’t doing this because they necessarily want to live a Hyphen life, it’s because they had kids and got pushed out of their roles. For many women, doing well on your own is a big middle finger up to all the companies (and men) who screwed them over.
Is the Hyphen life an antidote to the latest “Quiet Quitting” trend? How do you feel about that movement overall?
I had to mute the words ‘Quiet’ and ‘Quitting’ on Twitter because it was everywhere! I think it’s funny that a Tik Tok trend like that can go viral. The fact it went viral speaks volumes that people are feeling burned out by their over-demanding jobs. I think there is a quiet (or not so quiet) rebellion bubbling away, and that the world of work is going through a huge upheaval. The power dynamics are changing. I’m curious and excited about what’s going to happen next.
We still need surgeons and full-time police officers and teachers and the like. What do you say to these legions about the Hyphen Life? Or, what advice can they take from the Hyphen Life to their more singular pursuits?
My sister, for example, loves having one job and closing the door on it every day at 5.30 pm. She does not want the Hyphen Life. I don’t think the Hyphen life is for everybody. I wrote the book because multi-hyphenates often felt like the odd ones out. That’s the beauty of books, they appeal to their audience and find their people, but they don’t have to appeal to everyone nor should they need to.
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We’ll talk again in a week. As always. Same time, same band, same place.
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