Ives—the quintessential multipotentialite—waxed philosophical about how unrelated things can fit together to enhance a life. “Orderly reason does not always have to be a visible part of all great things,” he wrote in his Essays Before a Sonata. “An apparent confusion if lived with long enough may become orderly.”
There’s an old proverb that goes, “Duos qui sequitur lepores neutrum capit”—“He who follows two hares catches neither.” Perhaps that’s so, but he who chases two hares can at least have a great time trying, which can be more important in a good life. Many of my graduate students in public policy and business administration have a strong background and interest in subjects unrelated to their academic discipline. My advice to them, based on the truths above, is to not abandon either one.
The interests don’t have to be alike. After all, Ives didn’t catch two hares—it was more like a dolphin and a rhinoceros. In the 1970s, many social scientists believed that this kind of dichotomy was hard or impossible—that “right brain” creative talent and “left brain” analytic ability generally didn’t overlap. But modern brain research shows that activity on the sides of your brain is similar, regardless of your personality. You might have a much greater interest in music than insurance, or vice versa, but your brain is not wired for one or the other, and there is no reason the same person cannot do both well.
From the July/August 2014 issue: Secrets of the creative brain
That’s not to say one person can necessarily make a lot of money chasing two hares. My students often point out that pursuing a dual career might put them on a lower earnings trajectory than throwing themselves single-mindedly into just one thing. Research on the subject is limited, but it’s very plausible, and not everyone has the luxury of choosing lower pay. Still, you might be better able to afford a dual career than you imagine: Some economists and investment planners believe that many Americans overestimate how much money they need. Lots of research—and human experience—shows how easily wants become needs, resulting in the relentless pursuit of maximum income, which won’t make you happier.
If one of your interests has no earnings potential at all, you can still pursue it with passion. This was the case for Ives, who made little money as a composer and once remarked, lightheartedly, “If [a composer] has a nice wife and some nice children, how can he let the children starve on his dissonances?” In this case, you can pursue an avocation in a serious way—in other words, work hard and play hard. Research has found that a high level of commitment to a hobby makes leisure time significantly more satisfying.
Read: Stop keeping score
Your interest can also take the form of serious study, whether or not formal classes are involved. My father, a mathematics professor, was every bit as absorbed in his avocational interest in fossils and human origins as he was in his professional career. New hominid discoveries were as likely to be dinnertime conversation as Fermat’s Last Theorem. He never made a dime off his Neanderthal pals, but they lit him up like nothing else, and he knew as much as many paleoanthropologists. He was as likely to abandon the hobby as he was to quit his job.