Octopus/The Weekender

In the old economy, you could pick up a single skill or learn how to a single task, and that could be your career for decades. It was not uncommon for someone to have the same job from the time they graduated from high school all the way up to their retirement. But times have changed. People switch not only jobs, but entire careers on a regular basis. It pays to be versatile, right?

That is the prevailing school of thought, but it may or may not be completely accurate. As much as we value versatility, as much as we want to have as many skills as possible and do as many things as possible, this might not be the right strategy. Instead, it’s quite possible that you will gain the greatest success by being the least versatile.

The Octopus

Take a look at the product above. It’s simultaneously marketed as “The Weekender” and as the “Octopus.” Originally made in 1983, it’s a singular product with eight different functions. It’s a radio, a stopwatch, a flashlight, a time zone indicator… it’s even a camera.

From what I can gather, it wasn’t exactly a resounding success. Now, this is utter conjecture, but I imagine it didn’t any one of its eight functions very well. It was versatile, sure, but it wasn’t particularly useful.

Hollywood Stars

Trying to “make it” in Hollywood as an actor really isn’t all that different from being a freelancer. You have skills, you want to get hired, and you typically work on a project-to-project basis. It helps to be versatile, because you can then be eligible for a wider range of roles and projects. However, that’s not how you achieve the biggest success.

Instead, it’s about taking what you already have, being who you already are, and crafting it into a specialization wherein you are indispensable and irreplaceable. This is the point that Ricky Gervais once brought up. The best and most successful actors aren’t really the ones that take on a huge variety of roles; they’re the ones who just offer up variations of the same persona.

Consider Jennifer Aniston. She is “Rachel” in every movie, even if the specific circumstances are different. Steve Carell is effectively the same “character” in every movie too. You could argue that Tom Hanks does the same, whether he’s in the army or he’s alone on a desert island. Woody Allen and Bob Hope were much the same.

Versatility Still Counts

Different people find success with different strategies. If we go back to the example of Hollywood actors, there are many great actors and actresses who take on remarkably different roles. And they do very well for themselves. Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump is pretty different than when he was sleepless in Seattle.

The multi-function “Octopus” may not have done well, but our increasingly multi-function smartphones are increasing in popularity and complexity. Swiss army knives still have their place in a world where we can get dedicated knives, corkscrews, and bottle openers. You just have to be careful not to become the jack of all trades and the master of none.