From social media bios that declare expertise in a specific niche, to the way search engines reward us for “owning” particular topics or keywords, the modern professional world loves to signal that depth matters more than breadth.

But breadth and variety are essential in making our work enjoyable and sustainable. I’m not just talking about how to sustain your work on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis—though a week of work that includes a range of subjects and tasks may often be more stimulating and less depleting than a week that consists of grinding away at the same kind of thing, day after day.

Variety is also essential to sustaining professional success over a career and lifetime. Without variety, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut; when you work on a range of topics or project types, you’re almost guaranteed to keep learning and growing. And at a time when so much about the future of work is profoundly uncertain, it never hurts to have a few different arrows in your quiver.


Life as a lane-straddler

My own work is unusually eclectic. In the past ten days I’ve published Wall Street Journal stories on using tech to improve our marriage and on why it’s better to archive files than to delete them; I’ve spent hours and hours huddled over a spreadsheet with a colleague, writing and debugging formulas for our work on the annual Forbes list of the World’s Most Influential CMOs; I’ve started working on my presentation about hybrid work for an upcoming women’s leadership conference at Bay Path University; I’ve drafted a content marketing plan for a corporate client; and I’ve drafted a new Wall Street Journal story based on my exploration of generative A.I.

This eclecticism often puzzles or surprises friends who have more clearly defined careers, and I won’t lie: Even after many years of working like this, it’s still a little hard for me to answer the simple cocktail-party question, “So, what do you do?”

My usual answer is “I’m a writer and speaker”, but that’s the kind of answer that leads to more questions. Put another way: It’s the kind of answer that starts conversations. And those conversations, which may journey down the path of talking about hybrid work, or about writing practice, or about favorite Excel formulas, mirror what is both the joy and challenge of a highly varied professional life: You never know where it’s going to take you.


The monotony of remote work 

As I’ve watched professionals and organizations struggle with the pain involved in embracing hybrid and remote work, it has struck me that this kind of professional variety may be the antidote to their struggle. After all, a lot of what’s hard about remote work is the monotony—and frankly, it’s what’s hard about 9-to-5 office life, too! It’s so easy for each day to blend in with the next, to grind away in an endless series of interchangeable video calls, or to let ourselves be diminished by the relentless sameness of shuffling between the kitchen and the home-office desk.

Particularly in the early days of Covid, this was one of the biggest complaints about remote work: It’s so isolating! It’s so monotonous! Even though the world has now opened up in ways that make it easier for us to change settings or see colleagues, anyone who has a lot of focused work to do may spend a lot of time staring at the four walls of their home or home office.

Introducing some eclecticism into our working lives can counter this monotony. Alternating remote days with office days is one way of mixing it up; so is alternating between deep solo work (which is much easier to do in the relative quiet of a home office) and work that is profoundly collaborative (and ideally tackled face-to-face in the office.) And as I recently wrote in my ode to tedious work, another way to get variety is by embracing rote tasks as an essential and even valuable part of our working lives.

But there is also great value in broadening and diversifying the topics and type of work we do, even though we live in a world that tends to lionize deep, narrow expertise over breadth and eclecticism. There’s a lot of truth in the saying that “a change is as good as a rest”, and when you’re working on a variety of topics, or doing types of work that use totally different parts of your brain or skillset, rotating among different tasks or projects can be as refreshing as taking a break from work altogether.


Variety breeds discomfort

If you’re used to working in one area, or doing a type of work that you know you can do well, broadening your workload to include a wider range of projects or subject areas can initially feel very uncomfortable. You’re stepping outside your comfort zone and into a topic or type of work that other people know a lot better than you.

But that discomfort isn’t a drawback—it’s the point. Getting comfortable with being outside your comfort zone is a core emotional and intellectual competency that allows you to fearlessly wade into new subject areas and that teaches you to be humble when you’re not the know-it-all in the room. As long as you’re only comfortable inside your wheelhouse, or maybe reaching a tentative toe into a closely adjacent field, you’re limiting your capacity for growth and innovation.


A forced learning curve

To fight the urge to stay inside your zone of competency and expertise, embrace opportunities to work on subjects or with toolkits you know nothing about. The steeper the learning curve, the more you will have to learn—and the more you will get to learn. I learned how to build websites when I took on my first web development project for a client…and then spent months working incredibly hard to build the expertise and skills that would allow me to deliver what I’d promised.

It helps if you have one area of your working life that lends itself to these sorts of exploratory projects. For me, that tends to be either freelance writing (pitching stories on topics I’m curious to explore) or web and social media development (setting up some little website or social media presence that lets me learn a new set of tech tools or explore a new topic). If it’s easier to explore a new topic in a more structured or defined context, consider joining a committee in your organization that’s outside your usual area of focus, signing up for a Pecha Kucha or Ignite event where you’ll need to present on a topic you don’t currently know about, or signing up for a course in a different field.


You are your own thread 

When you try out this kind of exploration, don’t worry if you can’t see any obvious connection to your main area of work; let your curiosity or passion guide you towards what you want to take on. As long as you’re guided by sincere, authentic interest, you can trust that there is indeed some point of connection: you!

Figuring out the underlying thread or connections among your interests is a big part of what makes eclecticism so fruitful. It’s a process of self-exploration that lets you understand what you’re really keen on in your core work, and what you’re ready to set aside.


Depth vs. breadth: the rematch

My own ability to learn from exploring a wider range of interests has been deepened by the experience of abstaining for eclecticism for an entire year, when I focused entirely on remote and hybrid. Committing to a core area of focus has reframed and enriched all of my other “off-topic” projects: Whether I’m playing with GPT, researching top CMOs or nerding out about file management, I’m always thinking about how the evolution of work will affect and be affected by the topic I’m exploring.

That’s not to say I’m ready to become a long-term specialist…or to commit fully to my intermittent generalism. Of all the kinds of variety I enjoy at work, this is one of the most fundamental: The ability to shift back and forth between diving deep and searching wide.

This post was originally featured in the Thrive at Work newsletter. Subscribe here to be the first to receive updates and insights on the new workplace.