On Multipotentialism

“The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

It was the middle of the Canadian winter, my car would not start, and I was going to be late.

At -25oC, mechanical failure was the motif of the last week. This morning was no different. I had uselessly shovelled my way to the dead car, and not wanting to waste any more time, I ran the remaining 2 km to my lab through the snow.

It is difficult to arrive at a job you hate in good spirits, especially after almost falling through a snowbank next to a highway. As I aired out my wet socks in the breakroom, I began to question my career choices. Before, my research had purpose. In comparison, industry benchwork felt hollow and mundane.

I left that job shortly after and plunged into career uncertainty.

A period followed of unabashed exploration into new areas I hadn’t considered before. I dove into public speaking. I created perfumes for a First Nations art project. I joined the local library and exposed myself to customer service. I taught myself programming and IT, and then spent two years as a computer service technician. I even landed a paid gig playing piano at a local café.

Through these experiences, I developed a range of skills. But the longer it went on, the more I felt I was betraying my roots. My formerly clear path became tangled and the future shrouded itself in a fog of uncertainty.

It’s Time to Choose

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

Emilie Wapnick poses this familiar question in her TED Talk. She identified our societal trope of the “one true calling”, that if we just find our specialty — some established job that we are uniquely equipped to do — that our life plan will materialize before our eyes. For those who are unhappy in their career, it would mean they have not identified their true calling. But could another possibility exist? Could some people find the model of one career — coupled with side hobbies — unsatisfactory? Wapnick’s speech spoke to me. It identified a pattern of behaviour that I have seen in myself: that of obsessive interest in and deep research into a new endeavor, followed by a period of disillusionment, before repeating with an unrelated topic.

Wapnick coined the term multipotentialite: someone with many — often unrelated — interests and skills. On Puttylike.com, Wapnick notes that multipotentialites struggle with:

  • Finding work that incorporates their diverse skillset,
  • Defining themselves by one role, due to its incomplete description of their abilities,
  • Their need to explore being at odds with a clear career direction.

I felt these describe me.

Throughout my life, my interests are strongest when I am the one to choose them. As a child, my favourite books were encyclopedias. I enjoyed turning to a random page and riding the curiosity train wherever it led. My teenage years included interest in video games, drawing and painting, taking fixed-wing aircraft and piano lessons, along with teaching myself basic Parkour. After completing a certification in group fitness instruction in my early twenties, I decided to complete my science degree. I gave up volunteering in the local emergency services to make time for my studies, yet another avenue for skill building. I still continue to work casually at the local library, and recently have picked up modelling in Blender.

I realize that while I do centralize around several core interests, fitting myself into any one career or lifestyle box is scary. But why is that scary? At its core, the difficulty could be a mismatch between what we want out of life and the feeling that we must be what others want us to be. Is the uncertainty of this unorthodox path worth it?

There is good news for people like us. Multipotentialites have what David Epstein calls range. In his book, he outlines case studies that demonstrate how an individual’s cognitive flexibility is a key factor in their success. Wapnick and Epstein both agree that a generalist is uniquely suited for idea generation, adaptability and original insight. In the dynamic modern world, this interdomain skillset gives them an edge over the specialist.

Coming to Terms

The moment of silence before a presentation. The hum of a projector. Two classes in one room.

It was 2017, and my industrial chemistry class’s final project was an inter-departmental collaboration. For the past two months, I had consulted with a team of business students, combining a chemical technology proposal with a business plan. It was my turn to give the science part of the presentation. Science undergraduates, not yet in the throes of graduate school, might not be expected to have a confident presentation style. I was different: I was also a Toastmaster. Thanks to that outside public speaking experience, I fit right in alongside my business student colleagues. We ended the presentation to vigorous celebration, our point clearly communicated. The room had bought our idea.

Looking back now, this moment was a great example of the power of professional overlap. Technological feasibility aside, an idea is only worth as much as its implementation. If those with resources cannot be convinced of its potential, it won’t happen. The class project was a theoretical exercise in collaboration, but it was a good lesson in the value of interdisciplinary sales.

These days, having seen Wapnick’s speech and read Range, I have the mindset that every new experience will aid my overall adaptability. Having seen the inside of multiple industries, I have observed that those within every industry believe that theirs has some difficulty not present in others. Sure, the specific day-to-day parameters may change, but the skill ceiling within any industry is infinite. With that in mind, whatever new skill, career change or exercise scares you, don’t be afraid of it. Just learn what you need to know to break into it.

Over the years, I have seen both straight shooters and meanderers who are unhappy with their positions. For every multipotentialite worried that they don’t have a clear job history, there seems an equal number of people who wish they chose something else.

The multipotentialite’s value is adaptability. Knowing there is a community who does not fit into the traditional career makes me less inclined to believe there is something wrong with me. In a society that stresses specialization, let us be aware that there are alternatives. As Marcus Aurelius said, “Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature’s delight”.

Acknowledgement to my friend Krystal Anderson-Gosselin for her contributions to this piece.