In a few days, I’m giving a talk at one of my old community college. After struggling with how to fit a performance, description of my dissertation, and synopsis of my life since graduation into an hour, I finally asked myself one simple question: If I could go back to when I was a community college student and give my younger self advice, what would it be? The answer is just three words: versatility, not virtuosity.
I say this as someone who has made not one, not two, but three attempts at virtuosity: first as a performer (epic fail), second as an educator (no one cared except for a handful of students), and finally as a scholar (my mental health prevented it – later on, I’ll write about my “guardian demons” who kept me on the right, albeit hellish path).
Unfortunately, American society is very much built around the cult of the virtuoso – whether in academia, the arts, sports, entertainment, business, etc. Just to be clear, I define virtuosos as those who have been judged by others as being #1(or at least in the top 1%) in their given field and who generally reap the majority of financial rewards and prestige in said field.
One of the most destructive myths in these systems is the idea that virtuosity is an either-or thing. One is either a virtuoso (or would-be virtuoso) or is mediocre (or is mediocre and laboring under a false sense of virtuosity). Even a lot of recent business books are about “hacking” into virtuoso status without the time and effort usually required. Because this mindset is so prevalent, it can be difficult to see any alternative to virtuosity besides mediocrity.
However, as many (justifiably angry) people have pointed out, there are serious flaws in virtuosity-based systems. These systems are not meritocracies, but privilege certain people based on wealth, gender, race, ability, affiliation, etc. Those who do beat the odds usually have had to sacrifice a great deal of time and relationships (and many who make these sacrifices never beat the odds). In addition, there are numerous institutions which exploit the labor of “would-be” virtuosos. There’s plenty of discussion on the internet about these issues, so I won’t linger on them.
While I have experienced these problems firsthand, I suggest that there is actually a more important reason to move away from virtuosity (and toward versatility). Virtuosity is a waste of people’s talents, passion, and ambition because it is about satisfying someone else’s definitions of excellence. Versatility, on the other hand, is about identifying, integrating, honing, and adapting skills (based on your own interests and passions) in order to do excellent work.
Versatility is not about being a “jack of all trades, master of none” [even though this saying is the equivalent of “yo mama” in the cult of virtuosity]. It’s about having a focused skill set, geared toward specific audiences and/or clientele, which changes due to shifting markets (or even just shifting interests).
Versatility still requires hard work, perseverance, and demonstrable competency in relevant areas. I have previously used the term “competency portfolio” [Part I, Part II, Part III] to describe the individualized sets of necessary expertise that one brings into multiple work settings (although my own portfolio will need to change drastically now that I’m going fully off the “virtuoso-track”). Putting together this portfolio, while exciting and fulfilling, can still be daunting, frustrating, and exasperating at times. It is always a work in progress and continually requires a lot of trial and error (with emphasis on the latter).
Versatility should entail earning fair pay for one’s work, rather than the extreme poverty/wealth dichotomy of virtuosity-based systems. Moreover, this pay should be joyfully given by satisfied employers, customers, etc. in compensation for work that solved a problem, provided a meaning experience, or helped improve lives.
Versatility is not a fixed identity like “virtuoso.” In order to be the best at something, there needs to be a clear sense of what this “something” is and a laser-focus on this particular activity. Versatility allows you to combine different activities to create specific products or services. Even non-paid activities can enhance paid ones (whereas such activities are viewed as distractions in virtuosity-based systems).
Versatility is based on relationships. It should allow individuals the time and energy to cultivate a variety of relationships – whether with family, partners, children, friends, or colleagues. These relationships help people grow, and make them more versatile. In other words, these relationships expand people’s horizons, not just their professional networks.
Versatility is about surmounting anxiety – or the fears of failure, the unknown, and change. It’s about learning from mistakes but not dwelling on them. One of the hardest parts of developing versatility is finding low-stakes practice opportunities (to learn and improve) that still present a great deal of challenge.
At the same time, versatility is about trusting your instinct and protecting yourself. The phrase “get rich or die trying” is emblematic of many streams of virtuosity-based systems. Unfortunately, many people achieve the latter outcome. The history of U.S. popular music (a subject I know a thing or two about, having taught it) is littered with the corpses of young musicians who had clearly lost touch with any sense of self-preservation. No one needs to put themselves under that kind of pressure.
It can be difficult to develop one’s own versatility. Most educational settings, for better or worse, are oriented toward producing virtuosos of various kinds. Those who don’t make the cut are often left to “fall through the cracks” (a phrase I’ve heard several people use to describe their educational experiences). However, by taking responsibility for one’s own learning, development, and advocacy, you’re well on the way to building a versatile career.
To conclude my advice to my hypothetical self, I would say: at the very least, don’t live your life as a failed virtuoso. I spent the majority of my 20s feeling like a complete failure – first as a musician and then as a scholar. While I’m happy with how things turned out, I would’ve liked to be a little less miserable during this time. However, while I was busy giving up on myself, I was also (unknowingly) laying down the foundations for a versatile career by developing strong foundations my instrument (with a little help from my yoga training), the writing skills needed to publish quality non-fiction, and the communication skills needed to be an effective tutor or coach.
I’m just beginning to build my career, but I am finally confident that I have the necessary skills, goals, and ambition to do so. I’m working on being a happy, successful, versatile person. However, before I could do that, I first needed to quit trying to be a virtuoso.
[Note: I’m counting this post as Ph.Deelancing #10]