Deb Elise Refutes Benjaminicus

The worst advice I ever got was never to get a puppy, and never get a dog around Christmas. This advice was from my husband.  I ignored it, and on Christmas Eve nine years ago, my husband and I brought home nine-month-old Riley, our first-born.  You can see him in yesterday’s News Flash.

As for bad career advice, the worst I ever got was well-meaning, but wrong.  The giver was the head writer of one of the more popular Saturday morning Saved By the Bell clones.  We’ll call him Benjamin.  Ben was young, he was loud, he was smart, he was funny, and he had created and was running his own TV show, all of which made him very cool.  He’d also hired me as his staff’s writers’ assistant, which made him even cooler.  He liked my writing, and promised to give me my first staff job on his show (didn’t happen — long story).

Ben was also taking a continuing education course in Greek Mythology, and liked to spout kernels of wisdom from the gods.  We started calling him Benjaminicus.

Benjaminicus – not in reality, but in spirit

I looked up to Benjaminicus.  So when he said some words of sage advice for me, I listened.  I was all over the place at the time.  I was angling to be Benjaminicus’ newest staff writer, I was still “acting,” and my closest friend from college and I had begun Dial Us for Murder, a truly awesome mystery party business. (The site is defunct with lots of broken links, but it’s like looking at the Colosseum — you can see how cool it used to be.)

So Benjaminicus’ advice?  “You do too much.  You need to focus on one thing, and do that one thing well.  Then you’ll succeed.”

Benjaminicus wasn’t the first person to spout this advice.  I’d heard it before and since — not always directed specifically towards me — a million times.  If you want to succeed, specialize.

I understand in some cases there’s merit to that — it’s probably very difficult to be both a top brain surgeon and a prima ballerina.  But Benjaminicus wasn’t talking about that, he was referring to things within the same basic family.  Don’t be “a writer,” be “a sitcom writer” — the best sitcom writer in the world.  Shut out everything else so you can give laser-focus to the one goal in your sights, and you’ll achieve it.

For me it’s the worst advice in the universe.

I love taking on diverse projects.  It has saved me in lean times (somebody had to write everything this guy said, right?), and it has opened up fun opportunities that might otherwise have passed me by.  I’ve written television, internet, books, DVDs, travel guides, talking toys, educational guides, and of course the awesome mystery parties.  I sometimes imagine that I know what’s going to happen next, but I’m almost never right, and I find that crazy-exciting.

What are your thoughts on this one?  Do you like to play in a lot of different arenas with your writing (and/or your life in general), or do you find things flow better when you keep your focus narrower, but absolutely crystal-clear?

~Deb Elise

13 Replies to “Deb Elise Refutes Benjaminicus”

  1. Bill Gates and others have said that specializing is dead – it’s the worker who can learn several new jobs in a lifetime who will succeed in the new economy (such as it is!) I agree – from factory labor to sales forces, little is the same from even 10 years ago. Learn, grow, adapt or get runover. Even in medicine – man, you go to specialist and all they see is that one organ, not how the entire body functions in concert. When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Today you have to be the entire toolbox.


    1. I like the medical example. A specialist is great… but they can take you down the wrong path if they’re not looking at the whole system.

  2. The business book THE DIP also touts the same level of focus, explaining how “well rounded” leads to “not successful,” claiming that those who become great do so because they focus on one thing.

    I honestly don’t think that’s healthy. Sure, you might be successful at that one thing, but all your relationships turn sour and you can’t function in a social setting (and you’re unhappy).

    I “focus” on about six things in my life, one of which is writing. I do spend a lot of time on it, but I write a vast variety of things, from blogs to plays, YA novels to poetry. Some days I can only write one kind of thing, and other days I flit from project to project to stay motivated. I vote for variety…

    1. Totally with you, Shakespeare. One of the fantastic things about writing is there’s so much room to play and not specialize. I often see writers pigeonholed into something specific — like “TV writers” who have trouble selling a feature because they’re not seen as “screenwriters,” or writers from one genre raising doubts when they attempt another. We’re writers — we don’t sit down to create a specific genre of story (if we’re creating from scratch and not for an assignment), we sit down to create a story, then we see where it lands when we’re done.

  3. My father once told me that a sign of true genius is a desire to explore many things. I’ve clung to that as an excellent excuse for distraction.

    I think there’s some truth to specializing leading to success, but I also think that as writers, the more we do and learn and try and research, the richer our writing will be.

    At least that’s what I keep telling myself. 🙂

    1. Definitely — the wider our experiences, the more we can bring to the table in our work. Sure, that might be just one more excuse to get up from a nagging scene and eat a bag of Fritos (oh wait — that’s not widening our experiences, that’s just me dealing with a nagging scene) or go for a fabulous hike with friends (much better), but I also believe it’s true.

  4. I purposely chose to attend a liberal arts college for the opportunity of being exposed to diversity. Having admitted last week that I’m curious, it would be impossible to focus or specialize…not to mention restricted and boring!

    In other words, I agree with you and Eleanor. 😉

    1. Here’s diversity — I’m thinking of taking a UCLA extension course on Personal Finance, about which I know NOTHING! It’s not a passion of mine (clearly), but I feel like I should have some competence in the subject, and at the moment I just don’t.

      I’ll let you know how it goes!

  5. I started out as a reporter back when small papers required you to know how to write and do page layout with equal skill. Long after I left that world behind, the writer/designer skill-set came in unbelievably handy in the marketing realm. Employers trying to decide whether to hire a writer OR a designer rub their hands together with glee at the thought of hiring someone who can do both. I actually ENJOY doing both since it keeps me from getting bored with one or the other.


    1. That’s key — the more you can do as part of your job, the more likely you are to have fun with it, since the job changes all the time. Bizarre analogy — Jeff Galloway, Olympic Marathoner, teaches runners to do walk/runs — a certain amount of time running followed by a certain amount of time walking (I do a 5:1 ratio when I do it). This keeps you using slightly different muscles, so your legs never get too tired and you never get burned out doing just one repetitive thing.

  6. I agree whole-heartedly. If not also for income reasons, but for mental health reasons! 🙂 I so love varying the work I do. While I do keep it to magazines and blogging, you wouldn’t believe how diverse my topics. Just turned in a story about sexual health and am now turning to my American Baby column. Oh, and fiction switches things up beautifully for me. Lately, I’ve been viewing my fiction time as playtime! xo

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