On Being a "Multipotentialite"
Multipotentialite? A what???
Exactly. My guess right now is that most of you are only reading this post because multipotentialite is a weird-looking word and a smidge of curiosity has taken over.
Well, that's how I stumbled upon this particular TED Talk given by Emilie Wapnick called "Why some of us don't have one true calling." Actually, I didn't really stumble upon it because they have recommendations based on your history and preferences and...well, you get it. You can check out the link above to watch the video yourself.
I was drawn to this talk because the title immediately resonated with me. For the past decade, it has bothered me to not know what the hell I wanted to do with my life. Rather, I would go through cycles of sincere confidence that I had found my calling only to shift my focus elsewhere. Was something wrong with me? I wanted to learn everything! I wanted to do everything! Unfortunately, this behavior is typically characterized as lacking focus.
When I started college in 2007, there wasn't really an academic structure for students who hadn't figured out their life's mission yet. I still don't believe there is. In high school, we fussed over career "quizzes" that spit out a best-fit occupation but there was no support or education on building a career path that didn't have a single label. I remember literally running my finger down a list of majors trying to make one be right for me.
"Take your time exploring classes!" said no advisor EVER (at least not any of the ones I've encountered).
No. Time was money once you got to college and college equated success. Who cared if you didn't have your life planned out? It was time to pick something.
So I did.
Under the pressure of the scant fifteen minutes remaining in the orientation advising session, I picked Human Nutrition. Not because it was a life-long passion to understand how the body processes food. Nope, in the previous fifteen minutes I had somehow chalked up three reasons why Human Nutrition was what I was could spend my life doing.
First, I could stand learning about healthy eating. It's good stuff to know, I guess. Second, I thought I'd look pretty damn cute in a little white jacket with my name on it. Two excellent reasons to start your career on, right? (You should be shaking your head no.) And third, I sure wasn't going to be the ONLY one in the room to inform the advisor that I hadn't registered a major only to receive a look that meant to ask "Then why are you here?".
And there it was. I had picked what was supposed to be my life-long "passion".
Two semesters later, I picked again. Physics. A little later, I watched the Iron Man movie...and I picked again. Mechanical engineering. Then, computer engineering. Each time, I was convinced that I had found "the one" because each time, I went all in to learn everything I could about it. And each and every single time, I loved it. Until, I found another interest.
I continued this process all while watching my friends graduate in four, even three years, and I still didn't have things figured out. What was wrong with me? This is what hit home with Emilie's talk.
NOTHING was wrong with me. I am a multipotentialite.
You might listen to this talk and get a completely different message out of it. That's okay. Here were the three most important points that I took away from her presentation.
Starting at the Beginning...Again
Picking up new interests inherently means learning new skills. Learning a new skill means you go back to the beginning. You are a beginner most of the time and as you insert yourself into this new community you may try to converse with people who have dedicated their life to the craft and know A LOT more about it than you do. This is fantastic if you find a group willing to share their knowledge. It's intimidating when you are viewed as someone who decided to jump on the wagon seemingly overnight. In a lot of cases, that's exactly how it happens and that can screw with your self-confidence. For me, that mindset absolutely drains the self-confidence so here is how I have chosen to overcome this.
WHO CARES?! Seriously, who really cares where you are in your learning process? No sane adult should be judging a five-year-old because they don't know the Pythagorean Theorem (heck, they might teach that in kindergarten now). Instead, most adults understand that they will get there eventually and when they do, it will be just as great as those who have known it for decades. Even if you don't (because remember that many-interest thing), if you've moved on to something else, that's okay too. I will be the first to admit that I do not 100% have this down but recognizing it is a good step in the right direction.
Multipotentialite Super Powers
Switching between interests or being a "generalist" is not a commonly praised quality and it is typically characterized as a "lack of focus", having no meaning or purpose. We know this. But why does this seem to be the only point of view? Emilie lists three strengths or "super powers" that make multipotentialites just as valuable as those who prefer a single track: idea synthesis, rapid learning, and adaptability.
Innovation happens when disciplines cross paths (or something like that). Essentially, what it means is that no field is an island. Maybe we don't think about it but there is a reason why there isn't just one "How To Be Doctor" course you take before you can actually practice medicine. There are many disciplines such as mathematics, chemistry, physics, even language that make up that seemingly common label that is "being a doctor." I absolutely loved Emilie's example of Meshu, a company that makes geographically-inspired jewelry. It was born from the founders' shared interests in "cartography, data visualization, travel, mathematics, and design." When I first heard of them, I thought "well, that's a fantastic idea! Why didn't I think of that?" Here is why. Because I would have spent so much time trying to be either a mathematician, a data visualization specialist, or maybe a travel agent (that one made me laugh). It would have never occurred to me that I could pull the best qualities from those fields and make something entirely new. What a bummer, right?
Remember, I mentioned before that as multipotentialites, we get used to starting at the beginning, a lot. Our passion for the new subject, pushes us to dive all in, absorbing any and all knowledge available to us. And we do this, we dive in, over and over and over again until it's almost nothing to completely switch gears. Because we now live in an age where so much information is at our finger tips, that learning curve gets shorter and shorter making it easier to take on complex subjects in shorter amounts of time.
Do I really need to explain this? Those who have experience in multiple disciplines can jump into many different roles. Running Theory Beyond Design has given me the opportunity to constantly exercise this super power. I am not in the position to hire a team. Some days, I have to put my photography skills to use. Other days, I am a web designer/developer. I am my marketing department, my accountant, and my sales team. The practice of constantly learning allows me to jump into whatever I need to be to run my business and I'd say that, alone, is a pretty useful quality.
"Embrace Your Inner Wiring"
This one seems like a good note to conclude on. Don't force yourself to be something you aren't! There is no one right way to be. Unfortunately, however, the concept of the multipotentialite (whether you use that word or not) has long been regarded as unfavorable and it's time to put a stop to that. Emilie points out that whether you have one interest or a thousand, everyone has valuable strengths that are even more powerful when made to compliment each other. So cut the judgemental crap. Be you and do THAT to the best of your ability!