Tony Bourdain can teach us a lot about finding your core. And making the perfect beurre blanc. Photo: Sifu Renka
I once saw an interview with polymath academic George Steiner. He’s written on a range of topics and he was asked what field he thought he really belonged in. ‘Fields are for cows,’ he replied.
I too am suspicious of the idea that you have to specialise so thoroughly that you only do one thing. But how do we balance doing interesting work in a number of areas, without spreading ourselves too thin or presenting a confusing message to potential clients? Nobody wants to be seen as a jack of all trades, master of none.
The key is to find that core of your personality that remains consistent, however differently it gets expressed. Especially if we work in creative endeavours, this seems to me to be the real goal of our working life.
Exhibit A — Anthony Bourdain
Let’s start with an example of how this can be done well. Anthony Bourdain is a chef, writer (Kitchen Confidential is so good), TV presenter, publisher, and (it turns out) comic-book creator. Across a wide range of activities and a number of years, he ties it all together by offering a consistent unapologetic version of himself.
“I write, I travel, I eat and I’m hungry for more,’ says the introduction to his No Reservations TV show, and his outspoken, energized, cynical and committed tone in the show is recognizable instantly in his writing.
And when you hear he’s going into comic books, you know what to expect, even if you’re surprised that he’s doing graphic novel work.
Bourdain’s attitude is backed up by his ability, of course. He’s knowledgeable and skilled across the areas he works in, but it all chimes with his personality.
On a corporate scale, moving into new areas is known as brand extension — Calvin Klein make clothes, but also perfumes, home interiors products, sunglasses . . . they’ll tell you they’ve distilled the essence of the brand, and then carried that into whatever new endeavours they’re embarking on.
So how do we do that ourselves?
Where Subject, Tone and Medium meet
And on a personal level, you similarly need to establish what the essence of your personality and offering is — your brand. I used to think this was a process of decision-making — you could sit down with a pen and paper and choose some plausible version of yourself to present to the world.
Now I see it’s less about decision and more about discovery — whatever you decide won’t work unless your heart’s in it — your created version might contain elements of yourself in it, but unless it’s authentically you, it won’t guide you in your work. Even if it fits a gap in the market and calls for you to use your skills, if it doesn’t really chime with you, it will be a thin jacket that won’t keep you warm over time.
The other risk is that you’ll morph yourself to be whatever you think people want you to be. Photographers often fall into this trap — one day they’ll decide that boudoir shoots and one group of pre-sets is for them, the next it’ll be family photography with a different pile of Photoshop actions. It’s clear the photographer doesn’t know themselves well enough to work what they really want to shoot — no wonder potential clients are confused.
One useful way to think about this is this diagram.
Right there — where Tone, Subject and Medium meet — that’s your core. There are lots of things you could cover as your subject area — for Bourdain it’s rooted in food. And there are lots of media you could use to explore this — music, street art, photography, blogging, PhD theses. And there are lots of tones you could employ as you’re producing the work. Bourdain’s is outspoken and darkly funny, Clavin Klein’s upscale, preppy but approachable.
Once you know where you’re rooted, you can move around a bit. Some moves would take you out of the intersection of these circles — for Bourdain, a comic book still works, but a ballet might stretch the tone (and subject matter too far). Or if he kept the tone and media the same, but was suddenly doing a show on quilting, then the subject matter’s gone too far.
Storytelling as my MO
So how does this consistency work for me? I help organizations with their internet presences, do commercial and family photography and write stuff for magazines, blogs and newspapers. I used to keep these elements separate — not telling the web clients I could write, for example, or not telling either I photographed things.
But I realised that what all these elements shared a commitment to storytelling — communicating sometimes complex things in a way that is both entertaining and informative. Documenting reality with attention and skill — across different media, but with subject matter and tone that tie it together.
So with the family photography work, I don’t pose the kids or seek to prettify things. I chase them around (ideally in their own environment) while they do the stuff they’d normally do. How else should I tell their stories accurately?
And the same is true with the website strategy work for organizations. I don’t do cheesy slogans or vapid marketing sites — I help organizations tell authentic stories about what they do and how they do it. In all the work I do, I try to be wry, smart, thoughtful, enthusiastic and warm. Not because I think that’s what sells, but because that’s who I am.
And the subject matter has something in common, too — working for non-profits, creative professionals and families there’s a basis in creativity, children and compassion. Creating written content for the Folk Art Market that helps artisans improve the lives of their families through their art, a commission to photograph a pair of brothers, or a website for an architect might not seem to have much in common, but for me they make sense.
I’m deeply impressed by photographers who seek out difficult subjects and shoot them bravely — like Joe Arnon’s moving series on a drug addiction in Denver, but that’s not me.
Having a sense of what fits you in tone and subject matter makes it a lot easier to know what work you should say yes to, and what you shouldn’t.
If you want to keep paying the rent, you might have to take some jobs that are outside your core subject matter, tone or medium areas, but your best work will be done at their intersection. So go look for your centre.