Can you remember the first time you were asked that unavoidable life question: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’
What was your answer? A firefighter? A doctor? A hairdresser? Maybe a barrister? (Elle Woods definitely did wonders for early noughties law school sign-ups!) Or what about an actor?
It’s a question we’ve all been forced to ponder since very early childhood, and comes to the forefront as an ‘adult’ when trapped in well-meaning but inane small talk at drinks parties.
What used to be a topic of excitement, full of unstoppable dreams and possibility, can turn into an anxiety-inducing existential crisis in just a matter of years! And this is by no means because of a lack of options, but thanks to an overwhelming array of them.
If, as widely suspected, choice is one of the modern world’s main causes of stress, there are fewer places this manifests more than in the countless career paths we’re privileged to explore today.
In her TEDxBend talk, ‘Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling’, Emilie Wapnick reflects, “While this question inspires kids to dream about what they could be, it does not inspire them to dream about all that they could be. In fact, it does just the opposite, because when someone asks you what you want to be, you can’t reply with 20 different things.”
Let’s be honest, the declaration ‘I want to be a helicopter pilot AND a jewellery designer’ may be met with a fond chuckle when you’re 5, but it’s more likely to be a skeptical eye-roll when you’re 25.
Emilie believes this is because “The notion of a narrowly focused life is romanticised in our culture. [There’s] this idea of destiny or one true calling…but what if you’re someone who isn’t wired this way?” She continues, “What if there are a lot of different subjects that you’re curious about, and many different things you want to do?”
This was me. Hell, this is me. As someone who has a constant complex about attempting to fit in everything they want to experience in their lifetime, the term ‘slashie’ rose to prominence to accommodate folk like us (you know the type: Art Director/Craft Beer Brewer/Organic Candle-Maker). Yet it now not only seems to be frowned upon, but also doesn’t account for those who jump, one at a time, from one passion to another.
Well, thankfully, Emilie has coined a term for those of us with more than one dream or path of curiosity – the ‘Multipotentialite’.
However, this notion is actually not new at all. Even though your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents may have remained in one vocation for 40 years, their ancestors, only a couple of centuries back, were total ‘Multipotentialites’. Ever heard of a Renaissance person or a polymath? Having multiple interests and disciplines was highly idealised before the industrial revolution streamlined us all into silos. And the qualities that were celebrated then are even more relevant today.
Emilie highlights three main strengths of a multipotentialite:
1. IDEA SYNTHESIS
Have you noticed how innovation almost always sits at the intersection of fields? Multipotentialites have the strong ability to combine their knowledge, experience and interests from two or more fields and see solutions that others rarely can.
2. RAPID LEARNING
Mulitpotenialites are natural absorbers, recurrent beginners – au fait at being uncomfortable and learning things for the first time. And each time they change role or profession or environment, it’s clear how transferable (directly or indirectly) the skills acquired from their prior chapter have been.
The ability to morph, pivot and shift to meet a given situation is one of the most important requirements for entrepreneurs. In fact, Fast Company identified it as the single most important skill to develop in order to thrive in business (and life) today.
So, moving forwards I am planning to take Emilie’s lead, own my ‘multipotentiality’, have fun with it, learn from it and be completely honest the next time somebody asks me, ‘So, what do you do?’.
But, if none of this sounds like you at all, there’s no cause for concern either. Chances are you’re a ‘specialist’: the kind of person who just knew the one thing you were born to do from the moment you left the womb. And, dear specialist, thank goodness for you too because (as most co-founded businesses will attest to) the best teams are usually formed of a multipotentialite and a specialist working together; each playing to their own innate wiring.
Perhaps the bottom line is simply this: to thine own self be true.