Career Hybrids

Article written during a client contract which I can share here. I’m usually interested in hybrids across the board, i.e. spaces, organizations and people. In this case I was asked to focus on hybrid careers.

Chances are that if you’ve heard the term “hybrid” in the last few years, it was in reference to a car but you could very well have also heard it for a company, a creative agency, a retail space or even a person. But what is an hybrid?

“A person or group of persons produced by the interaction or crossbreeding of two unlike cultures, traditions, etc.”

It is entirely unoriginal to say that our times are changing fast. Unoriginal but true, and in this setting we seem to be witnessing a great explosion of new combinations and mixes. An almost Cambrian like explosion of ideas and new products and services, whether virtual, electronic or more classically physical. It’s then no surprise that this would also happen to what people do, what kind of work they take on and what kind of hobbies and passions they cultivate, often before “going pro” with those same skills.

We all know people who have jumped from one career to the next. The professor who goes to work for a startup, the mechanic who opens up a restaurant, the graphic designer who launches a line of pickled produce or the lawyer who moves to Mexico and starts giving surfing lessons. An interesting bunch for sure, but are they all hybrids? For some, certainly; the graphic designer turned pickler uses his design chops in the creation of his visual identity, his flyers, his kiosk at the market and all of it enhances his brand, his reach and makes the pickler side much more viable and operating on a tighter budget than if he were outsourcing. For other cases, not so much. Certainly they make for interesting discussions and tales. Certainly, having found their passion they might become successful and well accomplished but it often requires more of a jumping ship than coming up with an innovative combination.

When you start looking at the lists and descriptions of jobs companies consider hybrids and if you look at the stories of many freelancers, actual hybrids who have truly mastered two types of jobs, bridged two (or more) domains, and work at a newly created intersection, you see something popping up again and again; you see IT, you see the internet. You see people having seized on something brand new, which often makes them the first to master it, they become the go to people.

I spoke with Jon Husband about this recurring theme of IT and the internet. Husband coined and defined the term and concept wirearchy which “is about the power and effectiveness of people working together through connection and collaboration.” It’s an important lens through which we can see how the network changes society and how it enables deeper and global collaboration. To him “it seems clear today that hybridization (of knowledge, talent and credibility) is a phenomenon directly related to the cross-fertizilization and multi-directional and multi-disciplinary application of analysis, response, energy and talent that is increasingly apparent in a connected world.”

Going back to definitions of hybrids, we see that “[i]n some species, hybridization plays an important role in evolutionary biology.” Knowing how quickly computers and the internet have arrived in our lives, how quickly they have become so vital, it seems hybrids were the quickest to evolve. They are the ones adapting organizations to a connected world. Where hybrids are often presented as making choices and picking a direction (and they do), they are also products of a context as much as a series of choices. They are “going with the flow,” integrating changes around them, adapting, evolving.

For many, it is not computers or the internet which affects the job itself but it has proven an important part. This “newly” all encompassing library, those newly available networks of peers from across the world, have let hybrids soak up new knowledge, new interests, have let them discuss, challenge, fail, try again. The connectedness isn’t necessarily part of their job but it has been, in a very real way, their teacher, letting them transform into new and innovative combinations. Again, context as much as choice, where they uses plentiful opportunities for learning and jump ahead where others might feel overwhelmed.

Another recurring factor seems to be not their own wider range of interest but its absence in others. Phrases like “I was the only one interested in…” or “she seemed to be able to work with every department” are common place. The person learning about the new printing process or the one at ease discussing deliverables with the designer and the programmer or with the architect and the carpenters. Kyle Wiens posited that ours is an era of specialists; “[d]octors specialize, lawyers specialize, academics specialize, mechanics specialize … just about everyone professionally specializes. The more deeply you specialize, the more money you’re likely to make.”

All well and good but specialties, silos—especially when “enforced” through years of education and training—can turn to isolation, ignoring other disciplines and becoming somewhat sclerotic. In a fast moving complex world, isolation can quickly cripple an organization. In such a context, someone who’s curious enough to learn about other specialities and then actively manages to build bridges, to adapt to silos, to punch through and connect them, not only finds new creative outlets but also becomes invaluable.

So how do people who go with the flow, adapt and evolve then behave outside of work? Often in much the same manner, integrating new learnings, observing the world, adjusting and taking action accordingly. For many, that means understanding the extravagances of our consumerist society and often pushing back, it means being at ease in networks and communities, finding much more reinforcement and information within their “tribe” than within media discourse. It means coming up with their own measures for success, exploring ways of doing business, ways of living, finding where they can mould the commonly held ideas to their liking, shape their present and their future.

Although some hybrids fit (and accept) corporate criteria and are well rewarded for theirs choice of job, many hybrids are, by taste or by context, constant floaters. Freelancing from gig to gig and adjusting as they go. As Greg J. Smith—a teacher, writer/editor as well as designer and developer hybrid—explains, for many rejecting consumerism is both a principled and economic decision; “…this idea of not owning things resonates with me. Once again, it is partially economic but I really have very little use for car ownership or dicey overvalued urban real estate. Sure I can’t afford them but I also recognize I don’t need them.”

Being able to flow between contracts, jobs and even careers gives them confidence and opens them up to other areas in which to explore change, other places where learning and evolving can help them in finding the best fit, their own model for living and working. They build on their ideals and those developed within their tribes, finding support and validation within their found communities and peer networks, globally, not simply in their immediate surroundings.

Hybridize or be downsized

Turning to Job Husband again; “with more information in the world today, with instant access and widely-spread overlapping social circles afforded by interconnectivity, with more relaxed social standards and greater diversity, with an ongoing emphasis on expression of one’s voice and less certainty than ever about gainful employment…I think I find it surprising that relatively few people are involved in being a hybrid of one sort or another, or more.”

With hybrids being largely born out of the socio economic context and the ever-present network around us, they are a form well adapted to the opportunities and challenges of the world, they might not always have chosen that state but they are adapting and making do, which certainly makes for a better position than the growing number of people downsized and rationalized out of a job.

Whether it’s by seeing opportunities or by feeling a crunch on their field of work, hybrids are multiplying.