Why Compartmentalizing is Probably a Bad Idea

Once after reading a post of mine on Medium, HubSpot Cofounder Dharmesh Shah asked me an interesting question. Nice post, he said, but I'm just curious - why post this on Medium? Why wouldn't you publish on your own blog where you'd own the surrounding content and traffic? At the time I told him I hadn't really gotten around to building up my personal blog yet, and it was a one-off essay based on something I had been mulling-over that week. Posting to Medium seemed like the best way to get it up and out quickly.

That was a true, but not entirely complete answer. The complete answer includes what had been an attempt at compartmentalizing. 

I had initially written the post on paper. Half in a journal and half in a yellow note pad that also included notes from a team meeting and a budding grocery list. I briefly considered publishing it on HubSpot's blog, but the topic seemed slightly out of place. I had thought about using it to start this blog, but then blanched: Would that then set the tone of this blog moving forward and require every post to be on this one topic?

The truth is, creating scattered islands of content across the internet enables me to compartmentalize. I keep marketing posts on HubSpot. Career posts on Linkedin or Medium. Social impact posts on SpeakUnited. Prose on Cowbird, and so forth. Neat and tidy. 

The business world is a fan of compartmentalizing. Wharton calls compartmentalization a "Key Ingredient for Risk Taking."  There's even an article on Forbes that will teach you compartmentalization in five easy steps. Oddly, the first one is "Compartmentalize it."

All of that would be great.
If compartmentalizing weren't doomed from the start.

I was an English major as an undergrad. Not just any English major, no, the really obnoxious esoteric kind. The type who carries her books under her arms as an accessory, even though she's got a perfectly good L.L. Bean backpack with reflectors and zipper ornaments back home. I was ostentatiously academic.

Let me put it to you this way: I once made a comment in my honors seminar that there was a "distinct somethingness" to the way Molly Bloom's character held herself in James Joyce's Ulysses.  That's right, "a distinct somethingness."  I knew when I said it that it would elicit eye-rolls. It was a made-up word and an even emptier comment, but I loved the volley of discussion that happened around books in those classes and, truly, with the discussion tossed my way for comment, I didn't want the ball to fall at my feet. I wanted nudge the discourse forward, even if it required a peculiar, non-comment comment to do so.  That's how English major I rolled. 

When I graduated college, I found my way to marketing through a collection of different jobs in different industries. As is to be expected, each job added another set of friends, a broadened range of interest, and an adjusted way of looking at the world.  We often talk about things like this as chapters in one's life, in reality they're much less clearly defined.  Each experience blends into the other, and you're left with an utterly uncompartmentalizable perspective.  

Case in point: About a year ago now, I wrote a post about product marketing. In it I referenced a story from one of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard. Dillard's essays meant a great deal to me in college. They mean an even greater deal to me 15 years later. I referenced a story of hers to talk about an approach to product positioning. 

After reading the post a friend from my college years wrote me:

Now I know how Don Henley felt when he saw the Deadhead sticker on that Cadillac.

It was a playful allusion to Don Henley example of his generation selling out.

"Did you really think I'd grow up and stop seeing everything through the lens of Annie Dillard?" I wrote him.

"Of course not," he responded. "But I didn't totally foresee you growing up to be a product marketer either."

Ah, but there's the crux.  We are all sorts of things. All the time. All at once. 

It's not just that compartmentalizing is unsustainable.  
It's that it's also pretty limiting.

Purity creates paralysis. I've published precisely four posts on this blog in six months. I've drafted a half dozen more. The unfinished half dozen all share the common fate of not being "quite right" for this blog or any other outlet. They are messy, incomplete, and fated for another hard year of draftdom.  

But hanging on too hard to delineations can prevent you for completing thoughts to begin with or lead to some pretty narrow conclusions (e.g., "Step one: Compartmentalize it.").

There has been an interesting shift in the last few years in technology media. Outlets which once focused mainly on the specs and reviews of gadgets or tech companies have been evolving to not just cover the technology but to also report on the immersion of that technology into every aspect of our lives.  Part of that can be credited to how ubiquitous tech has become. Part, as Ricardo Bilton writes in his astute article on the subject, can be connected directly to the greater ad dollars gleaned from a broader, more diverse audience. But some of it has been a conscious choice by editors who believe a less compartmentalized telling of the story is a more honest one.

“Every story is a technology story; every technology story is a culture story,” Verge Editor-in-Chief Nilay Patel wrote in July.  And that means that there are no more clean-tellings of a story. There are fewer defined journalistic beats. To me, that seems like a promising direction. 


There's a term in astronomy called the parallax view. It's the effect, and I'm quoting Miriam-Webster here, whereby the position or direction of an object appears to differ when viewed from different positions, e.g., through the viewfinder and the lens of a camera. Now, you could keep all of those views distinct and think you have the clear definition of an object. You'd be wrong, of course. Alternatively, you could use every influence you have to gather as many vantage points possible no matter how convoluted outcome. Maybe the definition gets hazier or the metaphors get mixed, but you have that many more data points with which to understand the thing. And "understanding the thing" is a far better end-goal than compartmentalizing it. 

I have a notebook where I keep the first jobs or unusual hobbies of geniuses.  Italian physicist Fabiola Gianotti, she's also a renowned pianist.  Writer Kurt Vonnegut, he worked at a Saab Dealership. To this day the most interesting people I know are a blend and a product of many things.  If you compartmentalize yourself too much, if you prevent those many things from seeping into each other and muddying the waters a bit, you may forfeit some of the clearest insights possible.