Horizontal skills can be brought to bear on many different pursuits and disciplines. A high level of creativity and problem-solving skills as well as a will to learn can bring a genius a long way towards entering a new field. There are, however, many details that don’t translate easily or at all, such as memorization. These details must be mastered separately for each field. Charles Ives, one of America’s greatest composers, ran an insurance company in New York. In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize for his groundbreaking symphonic music, he developed insurance actuarial tables some of which are still in use today.

These are feats in seemingly completely unrelated fields. Ives’ attention detail, his problem-solving skills, and his creativity led him to write both compositions and business tools that stand the test of time. Not to mention his success as a business owner. Although this may not be enough to qualify Ives as a Renaissance Man, he demonstrated an ability to cross over disciplines. The types of creative hybrid thought that can happen due to work in multiple fields shouldn’t be underrated. There are many such examples of advantages in multi-classing.

There is a certain sense of repetitiveness that can set in when you’ve been practicing the same field for many, many years. Learning something new helps to allay the ennui and gives one something to be excited about once more. It can renew one’s sense of wonder and make everything seem fresh again. It also provides a new set of challenges so you can feel like a beginner once again and tackle simple challenges easily before moving onto the more complex problems in a field. In a word, it’s fun. There’s the matter of study of the new field.

Depending upon the result you desire, you can approach different fields differently. Here is the range of approaches from an educational standpoint

  1. Years of formal study of the field
  2. A combination of formal study and self-teaching
  3. Completely self-taught

There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. Formal study provides a solid foundation putting you on similar footing as others entering your field. You are imbued with all of the skills, and understanding, and assumptions, and traditional habits as well. Assumptions require work to correct and replace with discovery. Habits require work to correct and replace with original technique. The more self-taught you are, the more you’re discovering for yourself and developing original technique. Self-taught pupils, on the other hand, can exhibit insufficient technique and their understanding of the field can be less thorough than their schooled peers. You see the tradeoffs.

Painter Francis Bacon couldn’t draw and was self-conscious about that fact. Drawing is often touted as a necessary foundation of painting and there are plenty of examples to support this: Van Gogh, Degas, Delacroix, etc. Somehow Bacon still does extraordinary work. I suspect it is his imagination that pulls him through. It certainly isn’t his painting technique, which is coarse and inconsistent. But his resulting imagery is dazzling, without formal schooling.

You’ll find the change must easier if you can find ways to leverage your existing career before you undertake a new one. Perhaps there are disciplines in common? Similar foundational classes? Or perhaps the same schools teach both fields? Look for individuals that are known in both fields. In short, seek commonalities and leverage them. (In my book I cover the drawing of parallels between disciplines.)

Expect to make some mistakes in your new field. If you really must multi-class, do it with gusto or not at all.