Context switching when you have a fancy day job
August 16, 2018 5:01 PM   Subscribe

You have a career in Widget Field X. You have earned elite degrees, won national and international awards, achieved some fame, and built a tremendous amount of credibility (and even fame) in Widget Field X. You also do work in Arts Field Y. You have a few small engagements in this field over several years, but no great achievements (yet). You want to eventually become successful in Arts Field Y.

There isn't any overlap in the practice of the two fields, but there is definitely some respect for success in Widget Field X among people in Arts Field Y.

- How do you list the achievements in Widget Field X when you writing an Arts Field Y bio? Do you mention them? In a serious way? In a joking way? Is there a way to get some credit (if that makes any sense) for the achievements in one field in another?
- How do you introduce yourself at professional gatherings for Arts Field Y?
- How do you deal with it when people are intimidated by your success in the Widget Field, but unclear on your status in the Arts Field?
- In general, how do you navigate these context switches and explain this to people?
posted by 3491again to Work & Money (9 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, yeah, as a fellow multi-career holder and career-track switcher including a period of under-employment when everything was a's what I have learned, apply as you see fit:

1. Nobody understands you and your life.

There was a period of time (underemployment) where I was freelancing architectural design services, had a poster that I had created using my previous career's skills in graphic design and marketing and that I was selling myself and on Etsy, and I was also doing professional beer and cheese tastings because that was a heck of a lot of fun and I thought maybe I was going to jump ship and go into Fine Foods as a career.... I was basically holding a lot of doors open and ready to leap at whatever was most lucrative. It was really hard to answer the questions, "What are you up to these days?" without losing my audience. Your eyes are probably already glazing over and you think I must be an insane person. So, you have to be careful and understand why you're telling this person about your life and what they want to know about you.

2. You have to stand strong in your dream.

Now, on the backside of yet another career jump, I am back in the field of architecture doing residential design. The reason I am currently so successful is because I spent 3 years doing Project Management in a tech company and while there I dug hard into learning strategy, basic business principles, honed my talking-to-clients skills, saved a nest egg, etc. and more. I took an opportunity to get back into the field of architecture by working for a small boutique firm, saw how piddly their business-building skills were and decided to go on my own. But here's the thing, it feels like my clients may want my bona fides and it feels like they should care but they don't really care. I'm very proud of my experience in tech and especially pleased with how well it serves my business today but it really doesn't matter how I got the skills, it just matters that I'm adept at using them. If for some reason my past career comes up and I feel like talking about my work in tech, I simply point out, "Yes, it may seem incongruous but it gave me enormous skills in business and I run things in a very clean and organized way." And then I go on to other topics more relevant. Because they do want to hear that this is my dream and my life's work. And it is.

3. Find your story and pick your audience.

Develop a story that is quick, easy to understand but easy to pivot from to bring your audience back to the present day and how your energy and focus is today. If you're writing a bio, you might present your work as, "Previously, 3491again, had success in the field of X, earning this honor." End of story. Look, it's so tempting to dwell on your successes but it's more important to use all that energy that propelled you to that success to focus on your goals now. Your "step up" is internal, not external.

Good luck!
posted by amanda at 5:27 PM on August 16, 2018 [18 favorites]

I've done this for a long time now and I would encourage you to think hard about "crossing the streams." Even now that I'm pretty well established in Widgets X and Arts Q, I worry that I may trip some underlying biases -

1) People in the Widget industry do not have the context to understand why my Great Artistic Achievement is important, so you are left to either be compared to Uncle Jerry who painted one summer in middle school, or to make things clear you must resort to truly shameless bragging

2) Despite your demonstrated commitment to widgetry the existence and importance of this other domain can make people question whether you're in for the long haul or ready to jump ship, causing them to deny you advancement in your widget field out of a sense of cautious long term planning

3) Meanwhile, given the financial discrepancies between the widget and art worlds, too much weight on your widget life can/will lead to art gatekeepers tending to overlook you in favor of someone perceived as more in need of support.

4) In both fields, you're at risk of being written off as a dilettante/tourist.

These days both my professional bios nod at the other life but do it in a four-word blurb as suggested above, and only because there's a specific reason why folks on each field might think it's cool.
posted by range at 6:36 PM on August 16, 2018 [6 favorites]

So, if i'm reading your question correctly, you want to be successful, but not exclusively, in field Y. i.e. you are not trying to transition to field Y full time.
If that interpretation is correct, you just stay humble. Yes, while Widgets may be a bit of pull, for credibility's sake I would go with something like "recovering or reformed or redeemed widgeteer" in a bio for field Y. Unless your art field is defined or explained by your widget work, it's not really a germane inclusion. Thus, if you want to be seen on your own merits in field Y, leave widgets as a side line, joking tone preferable.
For introducing yourself in person, navigating the understandable need for gratification and authority that comes with your widgeting vs. acceptance and accommodation in field Y is going to be difficult. You have to decide what's more important to you and whether you deflect to the reason you're there (field Y) vs. the thing that gets you more automatic recognition and respect (widgeting).
So, in summary, stay humble in field Y. You haven't earned the respect, on that playing field, that you have in widgeteering and remember that you are not due that. It can be uncomfortable, to step down the foodchain a bit, but for the sake of your own realistic esteem and your Y colleagues, don't try to translate status between fields.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 6:39 PM on August 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

People will like your stuff or they won’t.

Trying to parlay widget success into art credibility is... not something I would advise, or generally view in a sympathetic light, YMMV
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:57 PM on August 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm reading between the lines here but it sounds like you want to leverage your success in apples to be better at oranges.

I've seen this in software engineering where someone has a PhD in biochemistry and made a career change into software engineering and, at best, it shows they are probably pretty smart and could make the transition, but it doesn't make them a better engineer. ...Unless I'm hiring for juniors who can "figure shit out" and even then they need to be somewhat "good" at writing code.

Transitioning from Engineering to Arts however is a tougher sell. At best it's probably a somewhat amusing footnote, but probably has an equal chance of alienating folks as much as impressing them.

I'd kind of leave it alone in social settings and try to figure out what soft, meta, macro skills made you really good at X, and how you can leverage those skills to being better at Y.
posted by bitdamaged at 7:28 PM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I disagree with the idea of being jokey about your widget accomplishments. If you want to be taken seriously, act like you take everything you do seriously. Don't boast of widgetry to art people who won't care (and vice versa), but don't dismiss or downplay what you've done either. It suggests shame, and shame is never a good look.
posted by neroli at 4:39 AM on August 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think it slightly depends on what Y is. Bare mention (not necessarily elaboration) of X *might* be helpful if your artistic goals are literary, at like the very end of a bio, *after* prioritizing artistic achievements. (“Joan Smith has won Blah di bla literary award, [more writing stuff]. She is also an engineer.”) If you’re starting a noise band, probably better not to get into it at all. (Dan Snaith aka Caribou aka Daphni aka Manitoba has a doctorate in math, which is only very rarely mentioned, in interviews, as a quirky biographical factoid.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:36 AM on August 17, 2018

How do you list the achievements in Widget Field X when you writing an Arts Field Y bio? Do you mention them? In a serious way? In a joking way? Is there a way to get some credit (if that makes any sense) for the achievements in one field in another?

It depends on the goal. If you want to present a holistic view of what you do, you can do that by emphasizing parts of it that would be of the most interest to the audience. For example, I can both type and think, but if a job wouldn't be paying me to think, I would emphasize the typing and let the thinking be implied from my resume. If they care that much they'll google your name.

And...I don't know if other people are like this, but I don't give a shit about awards that are outside my industry. If I were still a picture framer and, I don't know, a Pulitzer winner showed up to frame some pictures, I would only be asking if they had ever framed a picture before. Some people may actually judge you for changing horses-- they may assume that you burned too many bridges in your old field to continue, for example-- so the trick is to be defined by what you are doing now, not what you did then. Which means emphasizing what you are doing now.

How do you introduce yourself at professional gatherings for Arts Field Y?

Why would you be bringing it up? Would you not just say "Hi, I'm Name, I'm here to do the art" and not bring up your day job unless it's directly relevant? I can't tell from the question, are you that famous for Widgets that you can't escape it, like a rock star who also paints? If people are surprised that you're there, can't you be like "Yes, I'm a Widgeteer but lately I've been super into doing this art"? Or you could say "This art reminds me of a common issue with the widgets field...."

In most situations, people only care about what you can do for them right now. Having a second career or a family or being able to eat fire or whatever is an interesting fact to know, and might be relevant later, but when you're here to do the art, that's all you're here to do.

How do you deal with it when people are intimidated by your success in the Widget Field, but unclear on your status in the Arts Field?

That is not your problem, really-- all you can do is be a friendly, helpful, humble, courteous person, and let people get over themselves. Some people are just insecure and you're not the one to fix it for them. Have you ever been the wealthiest or most privileged person in the room and everybody knew it? You deal with it pretty much the same way you deal with that. Credibility is earned by being good at what you do.

- In general, how do you navigate these context switches and explain this to people?

Leave it be unless it comes up. If it comes up naturally, just be honest about why you do both. "They pay me to be a a Widgeteer, but I do the art because I like it, and I like that I don't always have to choose between them."
posted by blnkfrnk at 7:48 AM on August 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

I do an artsy thing that attracts a lot of technical people, and mostly they keep the two completely separate. Like, at some point I found out secondhand that this woman I'd been art-ing with for years had a C-level title at a company I'd heard of. It had never come up in our conversations.

From the other direction, an artsy friend of mine accidentally bumped into one of the biggest names in our art at his office. He's the kind of guy whose shows get put in the biggest room in the building, standing capacity in the thousands, and still overflow. My friend screamed across the room, "Oh my God, ---- ----!" And his coworkers were like, "Uh...have you met?" They had no idea.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 8:15 PM on August 17, 2018

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