Excerpt from the book “One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success” by Marci Alboher. Reprinted with permission.
Chapter 1: The Slash Mind-set: Begin, Improve, Reinvent, Repeat
I’m drawn to computer programming because it involves solving puzzles and the beautiful abstract understanding of complex things. It’s what I spend a lot of my free time reading about. But after a while that work can feel arid, and I get really excited to get back to the theater where I work with people, telling stories, bouncing things around. But rehearsals are all vagueness and uncertainty, with all of these egos. And after a while of that, it becomes compelling to go back to a place where things are clean and simple. With the programming, even though I have collaborators and clients, in the end there’s a sense that’s just mine. There’s something really nice about just solving a problem in my head that doesn’t depend on if the paint color works, everyone remembers their lines, and the audiences like it. Basically, if I weren’t doing both things, I’d get bored and antsy.
-Dan Milstein, computer programmer/ theater director
Dan Milstein, thirty-nine, moves between his work as a computer programmer and a theater director with elegance. By pursuing his multiple passions, his career nourishes him. But like most slashes, he has built his unique career over time, tweaking it as he goes along. When he spoke the words above, he was at a resting place, observing what was working to keep him in balance for that moment in time. Milstein’s approach is an appealing way to think about a career, and about a life.
Milstein was always interested in lots of things. As a high school senior he took math classes at Princeton University at the same time as he edited his school’s literary journal. When he arrived at Yale, he focused his coursework on math and computer science but gave all his free time to the theater. “Yale was the ideal creative home for me,” he said, “the sort of place where all these high achievers would give thirty to forty hours a week above their coursework to some extracurricular activity. And the people who thrived were those who ran things on their own, which turned out to be perfect training for a life where no one gives you a job and tells you what to do.”
He toyed with graduate school and was even offered a fellowship that would have paid for continuing his education in math and computers. But the computer department wasn’t where his friends were, and such a focused course of study didn’t seem like it would be satisfying. “It just didn’t feel like a full life,” he explained. Milstein also had a hunch that he might no longer be the star performer at the next level and that only the stars in academia had control over their lives. “I guess I didn’t love it enough to think that I’d be satisfied doing the work if it meant living anywhere I was offered a job.”
For several years after college, Milstein had a period you could easily refer to as floundering. He settled in Boston and got a job in a coffee shop, working the late afternoon shift so that he could devote the mornings to writing short stories. The writing didn’t take off. “It was a period of lots of self-doubt,” he said. “I wasn’t sure if I could consider myself an artist, yet it was so compelling to me to be an artist.”
Around the same time, he decided to use his computer background to get a day job that was more likely than his job at the coffee shop to pay off his student loans. He tried his hand at various jobs in the computer field and was disenchanted by a lot of what he saw-people who had become experts in doing one thing and were paid to do just that one thing, and jobs in tech support that weren’t at all creative and where the staff looked universally unhappy.
Slowly, the tide began to change. It was the early nineties, the heyday of the dot-com boom, and programmers were sought after. Gig after gig materialized for Milstein, often through his coffee shop contacts. In one instance, he was literally hired off the street when he ran into a friend who brought him aboard a startup. “You know HTML. Come with me,” was the basic pitch. Around the same time, Milstein abandoned his attempts to write fiction and turned his attention to the theater, from which he had drifted since his college days. Once he began directing plays, he knew he had found his creative home.
At his day jobs in the technology field, however, Milstein grew tired of worrying that his bosses would catch him on the phone stealing time to manage crises with the plays he was working on. He also realized he needed to work for and with people who valued the end result of what he did enough so that they didn’t care how many hours he worked each day or where he did the work. Fortunately, work was so plentiful that Milstein realized he could be employed quite well without a “job.”
He partnered up with a buddy and began a consulting business. Fast forward to today. He’s working about thirty hours a week on programming (largely dedicated to a business he’s helping to create) and up to sixty hours a week on Rough & Tumble, a theater company he founded-although the hours in any given week can vary wildly. The income split between the two hardly reflects the way he spends his time (he makes about $1,000 a year from his theater company and about fifty to a hundred times that from his consulting work). He identifies equally with each.
One of the reasons Milstein’s setup works for him is that he is in control of both aspects of his life. In his artistic life he writes, directs, and produces what he likes to call “theater that doesn’t suck.” On the theory that theater should be accessible and fun, Rough & Tumble’s plays involve physical comedy and often employ innovative approaches to language and expression. (One play I saw was an improvised Austin Powers-type caper in which “blah blah” was the only utterance by the actors-it was still possible to understand everything happening among the characters.)
Having two fully developed careers may sound like a recipe for workaholism, but Milstein is as passionate about his time off as he is about his twin vocations. For years, he took summers off to travel, and he’s always made time for ultimate Frisbee and other hobbies. His philosophy is that being well-rested and well-rounded is part of what makes him excel at his jobs.
Milstein believes he wouldn’t be a good fit for a client who would be impressed by how overworked he is. “There’s a certain culture in programming where managers think they are doing a good job if everyone is working overtime,” he said.
“After being a programmer for ten years I’ve learned that is sort of a big lie. The most productive team is the one that closes down at five every day and has a clear head in the morning to see their way through problems. It’s more like an art form than building a house. If you have a problem with a novel or a play, the solution isn’t necessarily to write more pages. Often what you’re doing when you’re working on a novel or a play is looking for that burst of insight. And you won’t get those unless you are fresh and unstressed.”
Whether or not they are actual entrepreneurs like Milstein, serving as their own boss in their various endeavors, most slashes show an entrepreneurial streak at the heart of their stories. These are the kinds of people who are not satisfied to rest once they’ve achieved competence or milestones in a given field. They are inherently curious, eager to engage and immerse themselves in a multitude of areas. The notion of finishing up one thing and moving on to the next doesn’t seem to exist for these folks. Instead, it’s about building a complex identity, adding a new layer with each slash. Milstein’s choice to abandon serious scholarship in computers is also emblematic of slash thinking; by keeping computers in his life in a less academic way, he was able to make room to pursue other things that are important to him. Sometimes removing yourself from the fast track, or just slowing down a bit, is an ideal way to allow another passion or vocation to flourish.
Mary Mazzio, forty-four and an Olympic rower-turned-lawyer/ filmmaker/mother, can’t remember a time when she wasn’t pursuing multiple interests at once. She attributes it to an unusually high energy level. “I was a slash to the tenth in high school and college and always wondered if that would lead to mediocrity,” she explained in her signature rapid-fire speech. When she recited the list of activities she pursued in those years-ballet, elocution, cello, piano, tennis, swimming, “anything you can throw a lesson at”-she attributed it to her Italian-American dad and Irish-American mom: “They wanted to produce children with a higher pedigree, almost to an obsession.” Mazzio didn’t disappoint.
She went to law school directly after college, where she had dedicated a lot of time to rowing. During a semester in France, she joined a local boat club, and after law school, while working on successive fellowships in Yugoslavia and Korea, she found her way to rowing communities, training among (and often coaching) the best of each country’s female rowers.
Back in Boston, Mazzio began to work as a real estate lawyer in a large firm. By then she knew she was a good enough rower that, with proper training, she could compete in the Olympics. She pursued both her legal career and the rowing (with a lot of support and accommodation from her law firm), and in the summer of 1992 she rowed in the Barcelona games. She didn’t take home a medal, but that experience gave her the validation that she was a serious athlete, and it gave her a sense of commitment that has traveled with her in all her subsequent endeavors.
After the Olympics, Mazzio put aside the competitive oars, but the promise of a full-time legal career didn’t appeal to her. “I was a lawyer, but I never thought of myself as only a lawyer, which seemed so narrowly defined,” she told me. At the time, she was spending a lot of time on pro bono work, helping displaced tenants get their homes back. It was gratifying at first, but after a while she felt she was hearing the “same stories with different faces.”
“I got so depressed, I just felt like I wasn’t making a difference,” she said. “That prompted me to think bigger, about how I could impact change on a larger scale. I had always been profoundly moved by film ever since I was a little girl. The power was so overwhelming in a way that made you think.”
Within months of returning from Barcelona, Mazzio enrolled in an MFA program in film and began studying “on the sly,” taking mostly evening classes or daytime classes during a time slot that could be disguised as a long lunch. (She feared that if the firm’s partners knew she was studying film, they would question her commitment to the law and it might affect her chances of being promoted to partner.) “I had the best secretary at the time,” Mazzio told me, switching to a workingclass Boston accent. “‘Mary is so busy,’ she would say, protecting me from anyone who wanted to bother me.”
She began writing screenplays with the goal of bringing new kinds of female characters to the screen. “I always thought the women in the movies didn’t look like women I knew,” she said. “They were gorgeous, but bland, insipid, and two-dimensional.” Mazzio wanted to write about the women she knew, women who were “irritatingly smart,” but who might have big thighs or be cranky with their periods from time to time-“basically real women with their whole range of characters and emotions.”
Mazzio made some progress on the road to being a screenwriter. Several of her screenplays bounced around Hollywood and Mazzio had a series of meetings with the bigwigs. “All this stuff happened and then, in the end, nothing happened,” she explained. “I kept feeling I was so close, but I wasn’t really close at all.” Concluding that the Hollywood odds were not in her favor, Mazzio took matters in her own hands. Ultimately, it was a true story-about a 1976 revolt by female rowers at Yale- that turned her into a filmmaker. She developed the idea in her classes, stepping up her work on it while home with her second child on maternity leave. “I was itching to get out of the house and those film classes were the perfect escape,” she said.
Mazzio’s legal background and connections came in handy during this period. Being a lawyer (and a female athlete) provided expertise in the film’s subject matter, Title IX, the law enacted to bring equality to women’s sports. And through her business relationships, she found both the technical experts and financial backers to get her film off the ground. Using contacts and knowledge from one career to build another is a common slash technique.
Having a supportive husband, who always encouraged her and who shared her philosophy on things like having a full-time nanny even when she was working part-time, was also very important to her being able to pursue her many passions. As she put it, “My husband knew I wasn’t the type who’d have a home-cooked meal on the table every night.”
Mazzio’s maternity leave got her through preproduction on the film. By the time she returned to work, the film was in the middle of production. She had an inkling that her days as a lawyer were numbered. With two young children and two fullblown careers, Mazzio knew she was at the edge. “If I didn’t make a change soon, something would suffer, not the least of which would have been my health.”
Once the film was aired and press coverage began, Mazzio realized that she could resign from the law firm, the post she was holding on to to hedge her bets. As a filmmaker and a mother, she had as many slashes as she could handle, and because she runs her own production company she can control her schedule more than she could as a lawyer.
Leading a slash life often requires shedding a slash to make room for something new. For Mazzio, rowing and the law had run their respective courses, but each remains a fundamental part of who she is, as a mother, a filmmaker, and an entrepreneur. She’s made films about athletes, mothers, the law, and even the intersection of these various themes. Her legal skills serve her well as a filmmaker.