How many careers should you have?

How many careers should you have?

Forging a rewarding career while still finding the time to do what we really love doing is what most of us strive for.

But as anyone harbouring both professional and creative prospects knows, a crunch moment typically arrives, necessitating a 'one or the other' choice.

Lawyer Kaman Tsoi has struck compromises that allow him to indulge his passion for music.

Lawyer Kaman Tsoi has struck compromises that allow him to indulge his passion for music.Credit:Eddie Jim

Roman Krznaric wrote about this collision of imperatives in his 2012 book How to Find Fulfilling Work. “For over a century, Western culture has been telling us that the best way to use our talents and be successful is to specialise and become an expert in a narrow field,' he says.


But “our culture of specialisation conflicts with something most of us intuitively recognise ... we each have multiple selves.”

Melbourne-based lawyer Kaman Tsoi knows better than most the difficulty of juggling competing passions. With a deep love of music that includes producing records for some of Melbourne's early hip hop artists, he was not prepared to reduce music to a pastime so he could exclusively pursue a career path well known for long hours and consuming work.

As a result of some clever negotiations, Tsoi now works three days a week as a Special Counsel with international law firm Herbert Smith Freehills. That gives him time to produce records, do a regular on-air shift at Melbourne independent radio station Triple R and, of late, prepare to launch his own record label.

“It was a decision I made pretty early on in my career,” Tsoi explains. “I had come across someone in another law firm who was doing fashion design and costume design and he was working part-time. I thought, 'now here's a way that I could possibly do the legal career but still find time to do what I really love doing'.”

For Tsoi, the 'one or the other' question was successfully circumvented by simply being true to himself. He remained resolute that even while trying to get a foothold in the rough-and-tumble world of corporate law, his career in music would not slip by the wayside.

“I guess I was never somebody who ever really came into this with a burning desire to be a partner in a law firm, or anything like that,” he says.

“At the time it was pretty unusual for a junior male lawyer without family commitments to want to come along and work part-time. But full credit to the partners I was working for at the time, they were very open-mined about it. We did it as a six-month trial initially and it sort of became a permanent arrangement from that.”

While Tsoi's earnings as a lawyer undoubtedly make it easier for him to pursue his passion for music, his profession is notorious for expecting practitioners to work long, strenuous hours.

His example shows there is an alternative to spending our working lives being funnelled into a narrow field, and that success needn't be defined by our exploits in a single discipline – something that is especially relevant now that we are being asked to work longer.

However, with workplace flexibility on the rise and many people citing work satisfaction as the key ingredient they look for in a job, the obvious question is, why does the idea of forging a single career remain so dominant?

There are many reasons why working one job is preferable to two; by and large, most of us think any reduction in hours – and therefore productivity - will greatly reduce our value to an employer.

However, Dr Justin van de Ven - a Senior Research Fellow at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research - maintains the relationship between productivity and value is often overstated.

"This relationship between productivity and wages is a nice theoretical story and I think it does probably apply if you've got your own business; but when you're talking about the population in general and particularly large corporations, the relationship between productivity and pay becomes much less tight and there are good reasons to suppose that that's actually not what's driving it at all.”

Dr van de Ven says the ability to successfully negotiate remuneration or conditions is not simply determined by quantitative factors, but qualitative ones as well. “The most interesting of these issues really boils down to 'what is your bargaining position?'” he says.

This, he says, is largely a question of reputation, which can be affected by many things including the knowledge you hold and the relationships you foster – possibly even your personality type.

“There are all sorts of things that go into a reputation ... productivity is one of them, but there are a lot of other things that go into an individual's reputation which enables them to establish a place in the productive world,” Dr van de Van says.

The choices Tsoi has made between music and law have worked out well for him, but there are still times when he reflects on what could have been if he had chosen to solely pursue a career in music.

“I could either be some sort of international superstar playing stadiums around the world, or equally I could be sleeping in the gutter having burnt out all of my passion for music by being forced to depend on it for an income.”

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