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Do one thing? Or do everything?

Is it better to do one thing, or do everything?

When you call yourself a copywriter, you declare writing to be your specialty. Plenty of us get even more specific: Direct marketing, or digital, or broadcast, or SEO. Specializing is good. What if you also do other things, like art direction or music? Should you keep it a secret?

Your reflex might be to say yes. “Do less, and do it better” is a fashionable mantra. Generalists have a hard time marketing themselves. Most career gurus would advise you to pick the job you do best and concentrate your pitch on that skill.

I’ve seen firsthand why that advice works. At my company, if we post a listing for a copywriter, that means we’re looking for someone whom we can apply, hard, to copywriting. If your resume says “editor/journalist/copywriter” or “copywriter/art director,” we’ll question whether your heart is in copywriting. Similarly, I have an unfortunate habit of dismissing anyone who self-identifies as a “writer/photographer” — They’re certainly either a bad writer or a bad photographer, and probably both.

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There’s only one problem with this way of thinking. It’s wrong. That point of view — that humans are incapable of being excellent at two or more skills — is demonstrably false. It’s unfair and sells people short. People can do many difficult things well. Ask any working mom.

In creative careers, we ought to encourage dabbling. Plenty of massively successful people have gotten that way by switching careers, or tackling some project that wasn’t the one they set out to solve. History remembers fondly people who flex multiple talents. (See: Da Vinci, Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison.)

Personally, my profit center is writing — I’ve been making a living off it for 11 years. But I also take photos, I know my way around Photoshop and Illustrator, I write code, I’ve built a few WordPress templates, I’m a social media buff, I’ll do SEO in a pinch, and I’m above average with information graphics. In some of these areas, I know just enough to be dangerous. None of this is what I’m best at, and in a work environment I’d much rather leave this business to the experts. But it’s work I do for fun, or when there’s nobody else around to do it.

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So I’m torn between to opposites. I know it’s better for my career if I specialize, but it’s more fun to generalize. When I think about this contradiction, I sometimes ask: Would I rather be Tom Petty or Steve Martin?

I personally admire both these men. They have had long careers, are well-regarded by their peers, and maintain high standards. But there’s a big difference between the two of them.

The first sentence of Tom Petty’s Wikipedia entry calls him, “an American singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.” That’s it. Tom Petty is an old-fashioned rock-and-roll musician who’s been doing essentially the same thing since about 1976.

Meanwhile, the first sentence of Steve Martin’s Wikipedia entry calls him, “an American actor, comedian, author, playwright, producer, musician and composer.” Steve Martin has starred in some classic movies. He’s written massively successful screenplays and a few acclaimed books. He’s got chops as a stand-up comedian. He won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. He even writes a pretty good Twitter feed.

Tom Petty does one thing and I love him for it. Steve Martin does everything and I want his life.

There are examples all over the writing world as well. J.K. Rowling and Clive Cussler do one thing. Kurt Andersen and David Eggers do everything.

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So what should you do? Follow the career-advancement advice and concentrate on your best skill? Or be the dabbler who’s always learning new things, and trying to see how much you can accomplish in a day?

As a committed dabbler, I know it’s not in my nature to focus all my energy on my one best skill. If I abandoned all my side projects — including Breaking Copy, my mediocre photography, my time-wasting Twitter feeds, and the occasional Saturday afternoon hacking together some mangled PHP script — I could devote much more attention to my copywriting career. But life would be less fun. I’d also have less insurance against the possibility that one day they’ll invent a copywriting robot that renders me obsolete.

So dabble proudly. Make sure your resume emphasizes the one skill you do best. But don’t hide the fact that you’re also a beekeeper, or whatever it is you do on the side. Work hard and pick a vocation. But be freakin’ interesting.

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Photos: Steve Martin © jo Crebbin/ Shutterstock. Tom Petty © steve white photos / Shutterstock.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Copywriting

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