Joy of the hyphen: Having different skills in your portfolio has many benefits

The multi-hyphen life is about investing in yourself and finding a balance between passion and paycheck. Photo:

I’ve had a pretty eclectic career since I started working long ago as a Mathematics teacher in the distant mists of the past. Did I want to be one? No. I succumbed to pressure from my father, who insisted that a government job would give me security.

I caved in and accepted the teaching job. I remained there for a dozen years, growing increasingly restless and unfulfilled. To assuage my need for new challenges, I joined a real estate agency to sell property after school hours.

When the owner of the estate agency offered me a job as a recruitment and training manager, I jumped at the chance and quickly learned the ropes.

Barely two years later, I was approached by Andrew Wong, the editor a property pullout, to join him as a writer. Had I written professionally before? No, but I had always wanted to, so I accepted the job. I had knowledge of the property market and I had the language skills, so I figured I could wing it and learn on the job.

I remained in journalism for a decade, moving on to another major newspaper and later, to a business weekly, where Surinder Jessy gave me the opportunity to write for the lifestyle section she headed. During that period, I did a practitioner certification course in Neuro Linguistic Programming. That’s when I felt the stirring to do something more purposeful with my life.

I was at that time in the most enjoyable phase of my working life. I told myself I would be silly to walk away from it, but my heart was telling me that I needed to make a difference in the world by using my skills as a trainer.

Sheila SingamSheila SingamAnd so, I left the world of journalism to become a corporate trainer with a company. A couple of years later, I left to start my own outfit.

Hearing of these career changes (which mostly happened after a decade on the job), an uncle of mine called me a “rolling stone”. I replied that I might be a rolling stone, but I was gathering loads of moss.

Fast-forward to the pandemic – I found myself taking courses on a variety of subjects, from innovation and Design Thinking, to journal therapy, storytelling and art. Why? Just because I wanted to, and had the time as there was no work! Some of those subjects appeared to have no relevance to my career, and yet they all did, because everything we learn strengthens neural connections in the brain.

I like to think that everything I have done has helped me evolve over the years into a person of multiple skills – what is today sexily named a multi-hyphenate.

I’m far from unique in that respect, though. The global Covid-19 pandemic has seen the emergence of many such as I who had to pivot in innovative ways and diversify their skill-sets to find new ways to earn a living. Many of us have learned a valuable lesson: not to put all your eggs into one basket, but to find new ways of doing business and making money.I don’t have to look far to find multi-hyphenates around me. My friend and fellow trainer Gurit Kaur, for example, put her baking skills to work and started making and selling old-fashioned cakes to get some income. My Pathway business partners, Alleena Abdullah and Fong Lai Lyn, have a passion for cooking and can do gourmet-style catering for a party upon demand.

Sometimes the hyphen doesn’t even have to be a side hustle or additional career – it can simply be a passion that doesn’t necessarily lead to a paycheck. That’s how my own side hustle as an artist began. It started as an interest, developed into a passion and today, is a small business with a purpose where a portion of the proceeds is channelled to a cause.

In her book, The Multi-Hyphen Method, Emma Gannon says that, “We need people who can change skills at the last minute, people who are open to trying new things, people that in a corporation might possibly be in the process of becoming redundant, and then someone within the company can say, ‘You know what, you actually have so many transferable skills. Why don’t you come over here and try this job?’ I think there are so many positives to having different skills and being flexible and adaptable.”

I totally agree. I did not share my own journey as a boast about how skilled I am, but simply to show that everything you have learned or done is a part of your experience and can be a back-up plan or add another dimension to your life, whether you choose to monetise it or not.

The multi-hyphen life is about investing in yourself and finding a balance between passion and paycheck, of being able to pivot that passion to a paycheck if you want to. Me, I’ve found that it has given me to courage to step into new arenas to do things and vastly raised my confidence.

I’m happy to call myself a trainer-coach-writer-artist-innovator-storyteller. Who knows, I might continue to add hyphens like stand-up comic or pastry chef or poet to that list one day. As long as it is taking me to a place of fulfillment, who cares if anyone calls me a rolling stone? What about you... what hyphens would you like to add to your name?

Sheila Singam is the founder of development consultancies Human Equation and Pathway. She keeps learning lessons from life and sharing them through her work. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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