026 Do your many interests hinder your next great beginning?

Are you feeling pressure to nail down that ONE THING you’re supposed to be good at? Maybe you’re meant to follow the path of a horizontal master instead.

Do your many interests hinder your next great beginning?


This episode’s Inspire Me quote comes from master of multiple disciplines, Thomas Edison:

“If we did all the things we are capable of doing, we would astound ourselves.”

If you look at Thomas Edison’s achievements, it’s astounding. Even more so, examine his to-do list and you’ll find such unrelated items as inventing a cotton picker, electrical piano, artificial cable and a “snow compressor.” Edison was a true horizontal master.

Leary and Armin describe horizontal masters as those who embrace their multiple talents and interests and find ways to manage them as a portfolio of engagements. While vertical masters deepen their expertise in a given area over time, horizontal masters are more integrative of multiple disciplines. You might think of a horizontal master to be a generalist and a vertical master to be a specialist; or, in the nomenclature of career coach Barbara Sher, a “scanner” or “diver.”

How do you know if you should be on one path or another? You’re likely meant to be a horizontal master if:

  • You have many seemingly unrelated interests.
  • You lose interest quickly or become anxious if pressed to go deep in an area.
  • You routinely feel scattered, disorganized, or lacking purpose.
  • You feel out of place and defective.

There are steps you can take to get down the road of horizontal mastery:

  • Embrace your design. You’re not any more defective than a specialist.
  • Find the commonalities and connections between your various interests. Leary talks about bumblebees and nuclear power plants.
  • Act on something. Often, multitalented people shut down their opportunities because they are afraid that to act means to choose something permanently.
  • Maintain margin. Build in times to assess and adjust your portfolio. Leary discusses his portfolio tool listed below.
  • Relax. Everything you do doesn’t need to find a nice, neat fit in your occupation.

The Challenge Me for this episode is to download Leary’s Personal Venturing template from the resource section below and complete that for your own ventures.

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2 thoughts on “026 Do your many interests hinder your next great beginning?

  1. Leary and Armin,

    Thanks for the thoughtful discussion on the challenge of many interests. It is encouraging to hear others struggling with some of the same challenges and the acceptance of ones own path.

    Some discussions in the start-up tech world have brought up the metaphor of a “T” shaped employee. By this they mean fairly deep expertise in one narrow area combined with very broad knowledge but at a fairly shallow depth. My own variation on this is striving for an “H” shape which I articulate as striving to spend enough time in 2 domains that one can be considered accomplished or even expert at both and then looking for the horizontal integration elements that enable you to connect domains that people don’t typically think of connecting.

    Now, if you do that multiple times it might start looking like “HHH”, My self-deprecating joke is that I only have about a 4 year attention span. Fortunately, one can generally make a lot of progress in 4 years. I have done this but I totally relate to feeling a bit like a stranger in society. When people ask what I do in a social setting, I laugh and tell them it is complicated, and may only tell them part of what I do unless they show genuine interest in the whole story. It often feels like too much work to weave it all together for them.

    Anyway thanks for your discussion this week.


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