January 20, 2020

With all of our tech, why are we still so short on time?

In the technologically advanced first world, we somehow still haven’t reached this expected utopia when it applies to our mix of work and leisure. With all the time-saving resources at our fingertips, why do we still feel starved for time?

Three theories on time starvation

Writing for the Atlantic, Derek Thompson offers three theories of why Americans are finding themselves short on time. Unsurprisingly, they all relate to work and society has been here repeatedly throughout history:

  • Better technology = higher expectations: Inventions like automated washers and refrigerators meant better standards for cleanliness and food preservation, but meant more time re-invested in buying more clothes (larger loads) and more trips to the supermarket for fresh produce.
  • Class and status maintenance: our fear of downward social mobility through a loss of status, class and future income means we are constantly working to ensure we and, if we have or decide to have children, that they don’t face the same.
  • The powers that be, set the standards: the government sets policy, policy sets the workweek, bosses set the workload. All of these are carried out independently of technological improvement or stagnation.

Thompson also explains that underlining a similar discussion on the lack of time is the ongoing push and pull between Self-Helpers and Socialists (or put another way, individualists and collectivists). The former believes everyone has the ability to “solve their problems and can reduce their anxiety through new habits and values” while the latter holds that “all modern anxieties arise from structural inequalities that require structural solutions.”

Contentment needs to follow

For those who already enjoy a degree of financial stability but still find themselves feeling starved for time, there is at least one answer: contentment. We have to ask ourselves if we’re okay with what we have or if we’re okay to “do a little worse than the Joneses” if it means having more free time and the freedom to actually enjoy it.

Technology has both the power to make our lives easier but also to put us ahead in the race; how we use this power is up to us. For instance, if you found both habits and technologies that accomplish your main work in half of the time, what would you do with the remaining half saved? If you feel compelled to fill that half with a new task and then used the same means to halve that time, you’re left with some extra time yet again, albeit significantly less to allocate to leisure.

And what about our status? Are we comfortable with the social cost of no longer investing time and money in the same activities as our peers or worse, suggesting new ways of doing things together that might be seen as boring or dumb? If you feel your personal relationships wouldn’t survive downgrading the elaborate network of time-consuming image maintenance, this might also be able to explain those feelings of time starvation.

The Takeaway

Regardless of what causes the anxious sense of being without enough time, it’s important to realize that society has been here before through history with each major shift in culture or technology. To be fair, there will always be people who want more and will happily do more to get that.

But for those where the ‘want’ isn’t coming from a deep-seated conviction and more from of a more pervasive case of FOMO, it becomes what’s been called time famine. Without honestly addressing our own personal intents and actually pushing back against culture with our decisions, that famine risks starving us before we realize we’ve already had our fill.

January 19, 2020

Making It Up 112: Forming new habits and the decade in fashion

On Making It Up 112, Charis and Eugene talk about how to form new habits and, specifically, how to maintain good financial habits. They also discuss the past decade in fashion, including the topics of media fragmentation, online fashion, and democracy in fashion.


00:03:25 New habits
00:22:49 Decade in fashion


January 16, 2020

So you're curious? Turns out there's just something "wrong" with you.

We’ve always thought of curiosity in a certain way that implies a rational process. But a recent study by a team at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research suggests that our curiosity comes from failures in that very rational process, what could be considered mental errors.

The Slot Machine

A study by a team at Inserm (French National Institute of Health and Medical Research) has shown that most of these choices are not motivated by curiosity but by errors caused by the brain mechanisms implicated in evaluating our options.

  • The Setup: around one hundred subjects played a slot machine-style game where they chose between two symbols representing uncertain rewards.
  • On the Left: The left-hand symbol won them money previously, so choosing this implies exploiting known options.
  • On the Right: The right-hand symbol hasn’t been tried recently and implies exploring uncertain options.

The researchers recorded the participants’ brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging. They found that the same brain regions that activated when the participants explored uncertain symbols were the same ones that activated when they committed errors of reasoning.

Why this is important

“This finding is important, because it implies that many choices in favor of the unknown are made unbeknownst to us, without our being aware of it—our participants have the impression of choosing the best symbol and not the most uncertain, but they do it on the basis of wrong information resulting from errors of reasoning,” team leader, Valentin Wyart said in a statement.

In other words, the results of this study lend at least some evidence against the more popular hypothesis that curiosity is a more rational process where we seek out stimuli that will help us weigh our options and make better choices. It potentially adds another theory as to why we’re curious which include:

  • Curiosity-drive theory: we desire coherence and when that’s disrupted, exploring and making sense of this undesirable certainty gives us back that coherence. For example, “I have to find out the truth about what happened.”
  • Optimal-arousal theory: this theory suggests that even without the presence of uncertainty, people are looking for the just the right amount of mental stimulation from simply exploring. For exampe, always trying new things.
  • Integration of the reward pathway into theory: this theory ties the desire and seeking of new information into our reward centers where we assign value to new information as reward. For example, “t his book could help me get ahead.”

The Takeaway

While the study does imply a lack of rational control over the curiosity that might lead us to some incredible discovery (history is replete with these kinds of accidents), it doesn’t explain the case for all of us.

After all, we’ve likely experienced curiosity due to some mechanism described by the other theories mentioned, and there is acknowledgment of different types of curiosity prevalent in different people and situations.

Regardless of how we decide to interpret the study, we could simply take it as a good thing: Even if it’s actually the result of a glitch in our brains, if we tend to willingly explore the unknown and that means there’s something “wrong with us” then it’s a fault we’ll embrace along with our many others.

January 13, 2020

Small audio big change — the impact of headphones and small speakers on our music

With listening experiences now emphasizing the small and the intimate, how does that factor in how music is produced now? We take a glimpse at how the prevalence of headphones and small speakers have changed music.

The Small Speaker Effect

Nowadays, we bring music with us everywhere we go and it’s not hard to find at least one friend at a gathering who brought a portable Bluetooth speaker. The ubiquity of not just these personal speakers but also the even smaller ones we find in laptops, tablets and smartphones means music production is catering to lower common denominators.

In a Quartz article by Dan Kopf, he notes some of the key technical impacts:

  • Drivers: Drivers are the key component of sound devices that emit audio. Quality varies, but it’s safe to not everyone is an audiophile and therefore uses cheaper headphones with lower quality drivers. Further, integrated speakers in a laptop aren’t usually that great simply because there’s no impetus to improve on them.
  • Highs/Lows: Because of the limitations of lower-quality speakers, they can’t accurately reproduce the treble and bass (high and low frequencies) that were mastered in the studio. The result is unpleasant and harsh sounds.
  • Reduced Dynamic Range: This means songs are mixed with less dynamic range, and that music production involves testing with smaller speakers such as on smartphones to see if the sound is still perceived as loud or present.

The Podcast Effect

The rise of the podcast as well as listening for therapeutic effect has emphasized privacy and a sense of intimacy around our listening habits, which of course, means a greater role for headphone and earbuds. In an article for The New Yorker by Amanda Petrusich, she points out some of the effects on music production, which again, cater to the needs of the listener:

  • Performance: he notes Selena Gomez and Billie Elish’s tendency to sing closer to the mic almost as if whispering (not unlike ASMR, cut less potentially creepy).
  • Lyrics: the cultural emphasis on the personal narrative means songs might be trying to make “one-on-one” connections between artist and listener. Petrusich notes the highly personal, introspective and confessionary lyrics of Drake and Kanye and wonders if headphone-centric listening encourages certain music genres.
  • Privacy: In a similar vein, she references former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne (who wrote How Music Works) on how certain music genres encourage headphone usage because well, no one necessarily wants to blast their overly emo, offensive or sensual music tastes for everyone to hear (and judge).

The Takeaway

Unsurprisingly, music as a medium is going through shifts directly impacted by the way we experience the world more privately, through smaller personal devices including smartphones. This isn’t too unlike the decision to stay at home and watch certain genres of movies while we’re only willing to go to movie theaters for big epics.

But aside from just being a matter of personal preferences (to which the music needs to adapt, as it always has), there are, of course, negatives that include the real physical dangers of constantly tuning out the rest of the world as well as early hearing loss for both listeners and the people mastering for headphones.

Yet, on the other hand, headphones could simply be a necessary adaptation in an increasingly noisy and distracted world and as mentioned before, can invite us to look inward (which isn’t always a bad thing).

Unless you’re an audiophile, you might not care if the sound of music dramatically shifts as long as it sounds fine and gives you what you need. But just like the risk of going through life wearing rose-colored glasses, there is something to be said about spending too much of your day with a drastically altered soundscape in your ears.

January 9, 2020

The Darker Side: Malevolent Creativity

We commonly think of creativity as a purely positive, enabling quality, but can it be used in a way that’s explicitly harmful? We unpack the idea of malevolent creativity and how it manifests in today’s world.

What is Malevolent Creativity?

To understand what malevolent creativity is, it helps to set out a few terms:

  • Malevolence: the intent to harm people
  • Imagination: involves generating sensory experiences (though not strictly “seeing”) in varying degrees of vividness that aren’t real,
  • Creativity: the ability to produce original ideas out of other ones using that very imagination.

Taken together, malevolent creativity relies on the imagination to come up with new ideas that are explicitly meant to harm people when executed. In a paper on the subject, researchers David H Cropley, James C. Kaufman, and Arthur Cropley describe it as: “Such creativity is deemed necessary by some society, group, or individual to fulfill goals they regard as desirable, but has serious negative consequences for some other group, these negative consequences being fully intended by the first group.”

How it manifests today

While blatant examples would include the aforementioned cons or new, more efficient weapons for use in war, malevolent creativity is of particular concern when channeled through the power of online media, especially at a time when it’s never been easier for the average person with an internet connection to create and distribute media on their own.

To understand how bad this could get, it helps to look back to 2012’s Innocence of Muslims, a film by convicted fraudster Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (who is actually Mark Basseley Youssef, who also initially claimed to be an Israeli magnate named Sam Bacile). Over the course of the production and into its release and promotion (both on and offline), stakeholders were repeatedly misled as to the film’s content and intent, with actors having their lines dubbed over in post production to contain anti-Islamic messaging. Despite the abysmal production value, the notoriety behind the film and its deliberate positioning as a legitimate feature film retelling the life of the prophet Muhammad triggered violent reactions throughout the world, resulting in protests and deaths.

Unfortunately, the same sort of provocative and malevolent creativity is just as pervasive in 2020’s divided societies — it’s just that it rarely presents itself as blatantly as a definable “work” as the above film as we’d associate with an author or artist. Instead, it’s a mindset where imagination, intelligence and technical skill — all in differing amounts depending on the creator — to do something negative to someone.

In these cases, the products of that malevolent creativity, whether it be crappy memes, shoddily re-edited videos, fake news, or technically polished if defamatory Photoshop jobs. And if it’s none of these types of throwaway content, it’s bits and pieces of text or voice dropped off at different corners of the Internet — all of which have neither helpful intent of critique nor the finesse of satire, but are often disguised as such. To griefers, trolls and bigots, their invective is, despite how unrefined it is, still about finding innovative ways to cause damage to those they interact with and it’s sadly been working.

The Takeaway

Make no mistake, we aren’t saying that all creativity and its products should aim to inform, inspire or entertain others. It’s also perfectly fine to create with the simple aim of expressing yourself and even using it as the very solution to the negative creativity we apply to ourselves (such as catastrophizing or self-loathing). And to be sure, your work could also strive to draw attention to an issue, criticize ideas or people, or just not sit well with the sensibilities of a certain audience.

Those are all perfectly valid reasons to keep on creating and creating good work at that. But for those who create with the express aim of building bridges between people, now has never been a better time to double down on that goal. Malevolent creativity (and the malevolence that catalyzes it) is still not as widely understood or researched as benevolent or positive creativity, but at least one study, titled “Why Social Threat Motivates Malevolent Creativity,” gives some evidence to what we’ve believed for a while:

  • We all have imaginations we use to picture things good or bad.
  • Many people use their imagination to create new things.
  • We are motivated to find solutions to fulfill purposes or solve problems we perceive.
  • Motivation increases with a sense of urgency.
  • Urgency can be shaped by our perception of threats, which can also be shaped and misinformed.

In short, when we perceive there’s a fight to be won at this moment, that can get our brains working in ways that find solutions to benefit us at the expense of others; the harder we think we have to fight to beat someone, the more harmful our solutions can become.

January 6, 2020

How smart airports are going to become more than transport hubs

Few of us would count the airport as a place to spend any longer than necessary. Airports are due for an overhaul that doesn’t just keep passengers there, but brings crowds of non-travelers all the same. We take a glimpse into the not-so-distant future where, both the appearance and role of airports will evolve to accommodate a world constantly on the move.

How they’ll evolve as airports

In an article for Skift by Sean O’Neill and Brian Sumers, they give a comprehensive overview of how airports will evolve in the near future. A key aspect of this transition will be underscored by several technological improvements that are meant to improve the passenger experience:

  • Passenger recognition: biometrics such as facial, iris recognition and passenger profiles might help to cut down on the importance of physical travel documents and the time it will take from arrival at the airport to boarding. Further, the use of Blockchain tech could make it easier to securely share information between parties.
  • Accessibility: Improved sensors allow airport admin to keep better track of the site-by-site situation and track passenger flows, improving their ability to allocate resources such as motorized carts and eventually self-driving electric wheelchairs, which have been tested at Tokyo Narita.
  • Bag processing: Computed tomography (CT) technology, will allow for improved baggage scans where passengers don’t need to remove liquids and laptops. London Heathrow has been trialing the technology since 2017 and is expected to install the equipment across its terminals by 2022. Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and Orly use the French postal service to send home prohibited items for passengers.
  • Green: Many airports are currently focused on boosting their energy efficiency, with particular attention paid to self-sufficiency. Beijing’s recently completed Daxing International Airport expects to derive more than 10% of its energy supply from renewable sources.

How they’ll become more

Of course, bringing airports into the future isn’t just motivated by the need to prepare for the increased number of passengers when air travel is slated to double by 2035, driven by the Asia-Pacific region. A lot of that change involves harnessing the economic potential of everyone that steps off an airplane entering a given airport.

Previously, airports had to play primarily to airlines, their principle tenants and some who might not always be about making things cheaper or easier for passengers. And of course, there’s the matter of keeping the airport structure itself maintained and profitable. These factors combine to make the idea of building and expanding airports to become destinations in and of themselves serious consideration, especially with all those people and potential dollars flowing through their gates.

Singapore’s chart-topping Changi airport is already leading the way with Jewel, a massive retail and entertainment complex that opened in October, 2019. Similar expansions such as at Hong Kong International Airport and Qatar’s Hamad International Airport are underway. And even if an airport doesn’t involve remodeling, a number in the U.S. are giving “terminal tourism” a shot, wherein they allow non-traveling visitors through security checkpoints to meet friends and family — or just walk around (and hopefully, buy something in the process.)

In short, these approaches to diversifying income sources means added stability for airports amid financial uncertainty for their airline tenants.

Next Step: Aerotropolises?

While we’ve only been talking about passengers, customers and similar visitors thus far, it’s important to mention that even with the advent of smart tech, airports will still take a ton of people to run them for the foreseeable future and these staff might start moving closer to their workplace.

Urban HUB talks about the transition from airports that were until now built on the periphery of cities or far from them to airports that are self-contained cities in themselves. In his book, Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, John Kasarda envisions a future where the urban core of such cities would be the airport itself. That said, reconciling the needs of positive and profitable passenger experience and the obvious security requirements for such an unabated flow of people will take time.

Still we’re excited to see the possibility of airports evolving into gathering places that draw non-passengers to them. Given that these airports are bringing in people from many different places, we can expect a lot of opportunities for meaningful connections, exchanges, creative projects and new facets of culture yet to be formed. Give it a few years and dropping “anyone wanna grab dinner at the airport?” in the group chat might not seem so weird.

January 2, 2020

Making It Up 111: Shawn Stussy x Dior and Charis’ new podcast “To Bring Back”

On Making It Up 111, Charis and Eugene talk about the collaboration between Shawn Stussy and Kim Jones for Dior’s Pre-Fall 2020 collection. They also discuss “To Bring Back”, Charis’ new podcast, and air episode one. You can listen to “To Bring Back” on iTunes, Spotify, and your preferred podcast apps.

January 2, 2020

Can AI eventually free us from beauty bias in hiring?

It’s an unfortunate reality, but research provides evidence that employers (and many others) give preferential treatment to people they deem more physically attractive. Could the comparative objectivity of AI actually be a solution to Beauty Bias?

Lookism, The Beauty Bias and the Halo Effect

We’ve found time and time again that a candidate’s “qualifications” for a job do not represent all of the factors for why they are chosen or not. Employment discrimination remains a problem as perfectly qualified candidates might be passed over for gender, race, age and class (or simply because another candidate shares a similar background as the person hiring them).

But in an article for the Harvard Business Review, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic notes one another important bias surrounding selection of candidates, which is lookism. Lookism means that candidates are favored or rejected based on physical attractiveness. Of course, this doesn’t just mean someone’s face and hair but extends to other criteria including tattoos, obesity and attire.And it doesn’t just stop there. Research supports the idea of a “Halo Effect” wherein people with positive qualities such as attractiveness are also assumed to be smarter, more confident, trustworthy and likeable, among other qualities. Here’s how that’s reflected in the studies cited by Chamorro-Premuzic:

  • Higher grades: Due to the Halo Effect. Attractive students are deemed more conscientious and intelligent.
  • More call-backs: attractive candidates got more than unattractive or no-photograph candidates.
  • Higher salaries: 10-15% higher for above-average beauty in the States.
  • Hiring and Firing: Less attractive employees less likely to be hired and more likely to be fired.

Can AI offer a solution?

With all these human biases that are both troubling for us as a society and potentially costly for industries (because good-looking people don’t necessarily mean productive or effective people), could a non-human help us?

We’re actually optimistic that AI could play a role, but with some very important caveats, especially with regard to that system’s training. Otherwise, we risk making the problem even worse. As Chamorro-Premuzic warns: “If we teach AI to imitate human preferences, it will not just replicate, but also augment and exacerbate human biases,” as we’ve seen in the past where discriminatory training data leads to discriminatory outcomes that impact people.

While some more infamous examples of AI used for hiring leave a lot to be desired, Chamorro-Premuzic, together with Frida Polli and Ben Dattner, point out in another article that AI is in many ways more accountable than we are because it’s easier to monitor an AI’s decision making and track its biases: “That’s why it’s easier to ensure that our data and training sets are unbiased than it is to change the behaviors of Sam or Sally, from whom we can neither remove bias nor extract a printout of the variables that influence their decisions.”

In short, AI can help to find the right people for the job more efficiently assuming it’s properly trained and used ethically by the hiring organization. Those factors considered, we wonder if it then becomes as simple as just not teaching AI to recognize certain physical attributes as attractive or not — or maybe teaching AI without any images at all (though that might be too simplistic).

But perhaps the biggest impact AI could have isn’t just solving the beauty bias, but the entire Halo Effect that bias generates. Chamorro-Premuzic suggests AI could function as “a diagnostic tool to predict someone’s likelihood of being deemed more effective in the business based on their perceived attractiveness.” Given that the Halo Effect unduly influences certain metrics that could throw off an AI (such as performance reviews, salary history etc.), accounting for someone’s physical attractiveness could help the hiring process a bit more.

The Takeaway

We’re only just scratching the surface of how the comparative teachability and objectivity of AI offers another solution we could defer to when we still fail to get things right. Still, a start-up might not have a mountain of applications to need hiring AI to sift through (and it might never), but that doesn’t mean those AIs and the problems they’re meant to solve won’t involve us later.

Lookism is easy to think of as benign compared to other discrimination based on other federally protected categories like race, sex, national origin or religion. After all “you got it, or you don’t,” right? But in giving this type of bias a free pass, we unwittingly permit similar prejudicial mechanics that draw false equivalencies between a person’s character or competence and a factor that they have little to no control over be it age, race, gender, or sexual orientation, for instance.

Even in the creative industries, where we might assume a “natural” respect for diversity and tolerance, we can still see instances where we’d assume the best or worst of someone based on their looks — the only difference is we might be cool with their tattoos (or lack thereof) but not the brands in their outfit.

In the past, many of our analyses covering AI have been of the cautionary type, where we warn about the dangers of AI threatening our way of life from its impact on the veracity of our media to its ability to displace us and other creative workers.

But we’d posit a more optimistic way for AI to be involved in shaping the lives of people being hired for massive companies where applications have to processed at scale. In this scenario, people with nearly identical qualifications and experiences are given a shot at a job without being rejected for something as arbitrary as a name, much less what they look like.

December 19, 2019

How the new gig economy law impacts other freelancers

The future of work is in the process of being defined with a new series of developments in California. The flexibility of freelancing (naturally with all of its downsides) is now being rewritten and redefined, which may limit those who are somewhere between being free enough to contribute a substantial amount but aren’t considered valuable enough to some companies to go full time.

What happened?

Vox Media recently let go hundreds of California-based freelance writers and editors that used to cover sports for its SB Nation blog network. The reason? Compliance with California Assembly Bill 5 ( commonly known as AB 5). The law, which goes into effect on January 1, 2020 was originally meant to target ride-share giants such as Uber and Lyft, forcing them to treat their contracted drivers as employees with the appropriate benefits.

The bill does have larger ramifications beyond drivers, however: It would also apply to writers and potentially affects other knowledge and culture workers, according to Jori Finkel. “The law already carves out many exceptions for particular professions, including accountants, real estate agents, insurance brokers, doctors, dentists, lawyers, engineers, private investigators, salespeople and commercial fishermen,” she explains. “In the cultural sphere, architects, graphic designers, grant writers, and fine artists are identified as exempt, as are photojournalists and journalists who contribute fewer than 35 times a year to a particular company or publication.”

The gist of AB 5

AB5 is meant to give protections to contracted workers who don’t receive the same benefits for the amount of work they do relative to regular employees, such as minimum wage, worker compensation, insurance, paid vacation and sick leave.

In 2018, the Supreme Court of California ruled to impose stricter requirements for the classification employees, which gig workers were previously excluded from. The court made a 3-part test (known as the ABC test) where employers had to prove that their workers were properly classified as independent contractors under these conditions:

  • The worker is free from the control and direction of the hirer in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of such work and in fact
  • The worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business
  • The worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed for the hiring entity

This newer test doesn’t apply to jobs falling within a select number of categories. That said, even after passing ABC, the hiring party might have to demonstrate they’re classified properly under the Borello test, an older standard.

Flexible Freedom vs. Structured Protection

Some supporters say that aside from the protections offered above, the bill would prevent the state from losing billions from payroll taxes the contractors and companies hiring them do not pay. Comparatively, opponents say it would increase labor costs by 30%, which would be passed on to customers while reducing service and flexibility for workers.

Some believe that the bill signals “the death of the gig economy.” Brittany Hunter, for one, emphasizes the difference between employment and contracting, the backbone of the highly developed gig economy, which was never meant to be a traditionally structured sector.

Ultimately, it’s challenging to assess whether the bill is good or bad because it depends on how we think the parameters should lie with respects to work:

Protection versus Exploitation: Similar to how tax avoidance is legal and tax evasion is illegal, many companies will likewise try to legally limit how much they have to pay to benefit from the services of a worker. But of course, the sometimes ambiguous nature of contract work, especially how it unfolds in the relatively recent gig economy, means there’s room for exploitation, which is what drove some of the need for the legal protections offered by AB 5.

Structure versus Flexibility: Arguably one of the big draws to remaining a contractor is the flexibility that the over one-third of Americans have used to build or supplement their incomes. For some, the lack of commitment of a formal employment contract means a lack of the same benefits and protections, but also the lack of obligations like minimum working hours or for some, the need to even work at all.

Quality versus Quantity: By making it more expensive to employ people, in theory, fewer people will create output for the media industry, this means less content, and perhaps worse content if freelancers played a crucial role in driving certain facets of a business. Alternatively, this could increase a reliance on passionate but unpaid workers, which of course, isn’t a good look for any industry.

The Takeaway

Vox’s move to cut writers showcases how compliance with new laws largely meant for one segment of an industry (the ride-sharing and maybe food delivery aspect of the gig economy) spills over into creative work.

The law offers protections in the form of structures that both employer and contractor (or employee) have to abide by. But when companies that benefit from the gig economy “take it out” on contracted workers to adhere to laws, it can mean less freedom (and work) for those who don’t want or need the protections of those regulations. But more crucially, it puts yet another stressor on workers who can’t secure more permanent jobs and are in the gig economy out of necessity.

This is bound to raise questions as to how much or little intervention is needed in the free market that produced the colossal gig economy we see today, especially depending on whether we view gigs as a symptom of today’s widespread job insecurity and the need to work for life at all costs or the key to being our own bosses and shaping our own careers free from bureaucratic corporate jobs.

December 16, 2019

A Creative's Dilemma: To Declare Multi-Hyphenate or Not?

Now that our side-hustle(s) have gone full-time, what meaning does “multi-hyphenate” have for creative careers? We look at how several titles could indicate both an interest in building a career in a lot of things or the need to cling to several lifelines at once.

Moving away from specialization

In her article for The Outline, Nikki Shaner-Bradford summarizes the transition away from assembly line-style specialization (“Fordism,” in honor of Henry Ford) as aligning with our transition towards an economy based around knowledge, information and the production of content.

As to whether being a multi-hyphenate is a good or bad thing, let’s look at some possibilities as to what the term implies:

  • Specificity: By including fields that capture the scope of your capability and expertise, being a multi-hyphenate provides another branding differentiator that can help prospective clients immediately understand the breadth of your skills. In an era that emphasizes the personal brand, embracing being a multi-hyphenate communicates exactly what you’re good at and who you are — a three-word resume for the 280-character world.
  • Survival: The flipside is that, depending on who sees the title, being a multi-hyphenate could be seen as both an outcome and symptom of the gig economy, one where people need multiple side hustles to make ends meet. In this case, the forward-facing image of an assured multi-hyphenate rests on an undeclared base of useful and interconnected talents, but which are all rigidly aligned towards getting paid work.
  • Ownership: Where you’re able to make a living from your talents and assuming your strike that much sought-after work-life rhythm, the best case scenario for a multi-hyphenate creative is being able to make enough money from something you love without burning out.
  • Insecurity: Because there are just so many “full stack creatives” (remember that word?) the catchall multi-hyphenate identity may be a means of compensating for the fact that when we all do largely the same type of work, we might not have a particularly unique selling point.

As Shaner-Bradford puts it: “The rise of the “multi-hyphenate” has ironically eliminated the need for any specificity at all, instead implying a complex creative identity grounded in a jack-of-all trades ideal that conflates production potential with individual worth.”

Employability and passion entangled

The reality of the multi-hyphenate is complicated because the prevalence of the term alone is the product of a culture that both encourages multi-hyphenates to do what they love and penalizes them for doing it by under-recognizing and under-valuing their work.

Furthermore, not all multi-hyphenates get to benefit from the term, as Shaner-Bradford points out: “the term inherently privileges certain skills over others, particularly those of knowledge workers who often hold secondary degrees, and idealizes a form of labor that becomes absorbed into personal identity, diminishing work-life balance and generating further barriers to worker solidarity.”

This is true when you take a look at the litany of plausible multi-hyphenate titles you could see nowadays where the aforementioned “three-word resume” tells a story but doesn’t give a complete picture of a person. Compare terms like photographer-neuroscientist-writer, DJ-model-yoga instructor, and filmmaker-blogger-podcaster — the combination of titles, the order and the fields they stem from all give a different impression depending on who reads it.

The Takeaway

Financial insecurity and uncertain futures mean that many creatives are constantly evaluating and preparing for near eternal employability. Granted, upgrading skill-sets and constant training are a reality in any profession, even a specialized one, but it’s a question of whether monetizing certain skill-sets is out of desire or survival.

It’s up to the the multi-hyphenates themselves (which include a lot of creatives) to define what the term means to them and the rest of society. One way to see how much the multi-hyphenate title is weighted toward your personal identity, your career or both is to ask yourself: would I still call myself this even if weren’t working on a project at the moment or didn’t have a client lined up?

For those who don’t want to  declare themselves multi-hyphenate, what’s the alternative? MAEKAN’s Charis Poon finds usefulness in describing the nature of your work in actions as opposed to titles, which allows you to factually and specifically communicate what you do (regardless if you’re being paid to do it or not) without limiting yourself to the connotations of a given role.


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