“What do you want to be when you grow up?” – This question has haunted me since childhood. Even as a kid, my answer usually consisted of some sort of elaborate schedule of part-time jobs (craft store owner by day, actress by night, vet on the weekends is one version I remember). I knew instinctively that the question should elicit a feeling of unlimited possibility: as an 8-year-old you can say “president” or “rocket scientist” without anyone batting an eye, really. But for me, it always felt limiting. Can I really only choose *one* thing to be?
I did not get closer to the answer when I got to high school, in fact, the clear-cut answers of some of my peers freaked me out. Any time I tried to commit to one path, I felt like I was neglecting other parts of me, all while feeling immense guilt when my interest fled and I got enamoured with a new field to pursue. I went to university and graduated without ever finding my one true calling, and I am now technically a “grown-up” who still has no idea what she wants to be.
Of course, this has always caused me some anxiety, but I didn’t even realize how much until I came across the concept of multipotentiality in an enlightening TED Talk by Emilie Wapnick (award-winning author and founder of Puttylike, a community for multipotentialites) titled Why some of us don’t have one true calling. It resonated so much that throughout the video, I felt like a weight I didn’t even realize I was holding had been lifted off my shoulders. Wapnick describes how some people have interests in many, often very different fields, but no one true calling or speciality. These individuals are multipotentialites, sometimes also called multipods, polymaths, multi-hyphenates, Renaissance people, or in more boring terms: generalists.
Jill of all trades… master of none?
Imagine my relief, learning that what I always thought was indecisiveness, laziness, or simply a lack of outstanding talent in any one field, was actually a completely normal thing that many others have experienced!
However, the more aware I became of multipotentiality, the more I realized: our society is pretty much built for the specialist.
Let’s consider the figure of speech “Jack of all trades, master of none”. The expression that rather unfavourably describes a person whose knowledge, while covering a range of areas, is superficial in all of them (and that I feel personally victimized by), has been in use since the 18th century. From asking children what they want to be when they grow up, to choosing one speciality as a university major, or career advice like “find what you are good at and stick to it”, we are raised – albeit benevolently – to be specialists. Especially for a career-minded individual, finding a niche and becoming an expert in your respective field is the be-all and end-all of professional success.
If you’ve ever been called a “jack of all trades” though, don’t fret. You’ll be pleased to know you are in good company: according to Phrases.org.uk, the first published mention of actor-turned-playwright William Shakespeare called him a “Johannes factotum”, which is essentially the 16th-century version of “jack of all trades”.
The special skills of generalists
In spite of all of the above, as Emilie and a growing number of think-pieces suggest, there is inherent value in being a polymath. In her TED Talk, Emilie identifies 3 multipotentialite superpowers:
First up is “idea synthesis”, or the ability to combine insight from multiple fields to create something new. An eclectic mix of skills and experiences is the breeding ground for innovation. A similar sentiment is expressed in David Epstein’s book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, which notes that diverse experience and interdisciplinary thinking boosts problem-solving. The book even made Bill Gates’ 2020 Holiday Booklist, and in his description, Gates credits the success of Microsoft to generalist colleagues who applied breadth across domains to their work.
Secondly, multipotentialites (ironically) specialize in rapid learning. When they get interested in a new field, they “go hard”, immersing themselves fully and attracting new information like a magnet. Rapid learning is among the top soft skills right now. After all, in this digital age, the ability to learn and adapt quickly will come in increasingly handy. Just think of the ever-evolving social media platforms, NFTs, or the “metaverse” – the digital environment accessed via VR headsets that is the future of the Internet according to Mark Zuckerberg. Last summer, a tweet went viral about a guy who listed “Googling” as a skill on his CV and got an interview. If anything, this story shows that how you think, and how well you find the necessary information is becoming more important than what information is already in your head – in fact, research suggests that by 2025, learning agility (knowing how to learn and what to do when you don’t know what to do) will be the most in-demand soft skill for employees. Furthermore, as Emilie points out, multipods are used to being beginners and having been beginners many times with a range of experience, they rarely have to start from scratch.
The third multipotentialite superpower is adaptability.
This makes economic sense: climate change, digital and technological advancements, globalization, or changing demand from consumers and from workers all challenge businesses to adapt to quickly changing circumstances, and employees who excel in this will be in high demand. But adaptability also comes in handy on a personal level. Many people struggled with the changes to personal and work life brought on by the pandemic. We had to adapt to working from home, digital classrooms and endless Zoom calls, and many faced lay-offs as businesses most affected by the new normal went bankrupt. Those with many different areas of interest and multiple talents fared better: they could handle the changes better mentally and if necessary, could pivot professionally and switch careers.
Navigating work as a multipod
So, what if TED Talks, opinion pieces, or Bill Gates says multipotentialites are useful, if culturally and as a society we still worship at the altar of experts? After all, C-suite positions are hardly open to generalists (Forbes) and specialists enjoy better pay and less competition (Indeed).
The most important lesson: don’t force yourself into a career path just because of societal pressure. Whether you have had a calling since you were at kindergarten or you’re a true polymath, follow your inner wiring to find a fulfilling job – and remember, that job can change over time. Especially in this day and age, one can design a career that combines multiple special interests. Instead of fitting one job title, you can create your own “career puzzle” – a flexible work-life consisting of multiple strands of projects, interests, and income – according to podcaster-journalist-author-speaker-lecturer Emma Gannon in her 2018 book The Multi-Hyphen Method. The book offers a framework for those who want to take on multiple projects, whether that’s a day job and a side hustle, different freelance ventures, or other forms of flexible working. While I came across a lot of criticism about Gannon’s book, a younger me would have felt reassured by the message that a career, as well as an individual, can contain multitudes.
Moreover, we don’t exist in a vacuum, and our strengths and weaknesses can be complemented by others. Emilie suggests that the best teams combine the breadth of a multipotentialite and the depth of knowledge and laser focus of a specialist – so whichever you are, the best advice is to find the people with whom you can do your best work.
Finally: societal norms are slow to change, but they do change. Recently, people started adding a new line to “Jack of all trades, master of none”, expanding it with “still better than master of one”. There’s no evidence that this is the original full quote, but it’s a nice addition that acknowledges the usefulness of generalist knowledge in modern times.
So, fellow multipotentialites, know your worth, your strengths, and if the job listings don’t fit you, know that you can create the career that you’ll find fulfilling. As Emilie says, not fitting neatly into a box can be a beautiful thing.
Written by Eszter Sólyom.
Eszter is a recent graduate of the University of Aberdeen with an MA in Business Management & International Relations. She is a creative, ever-learning feminist, and an avid reader. In her free time, she works on her podcast “Nem azért de…”, in which she discusses politically and culturally relevant, often debate-inducing topics in Hungarian.
Illustrated by Juli Jásdi.