Note: I wrote this story for Fast Company who published it in November 2015. It still resonates with me personally.
When Emilie Wapnick graduated from law school, she concluded that she did not want to be a lawyer. Instead, she started floating around, seeking to discover what she really wanted. She took an online course on how to start a business. The second module was all about choosing a niche. That assignment turned out to be highly elusive for Wapnick. “I was wracking my brain, making all these lists,” she says. “They all sounded great, but I did not want to focus on just one of them. And then it occurred to me that I never really did just one thing. I always made work through freelancing and by following my passions. What if not choosing a thing was my thing?”
The result of that inner discovery five years ago became the start of Puttylike.com, her now rapidly growing venture that offers resources for “Multipotentialites” (also called “Multipods”). These are people who simply cannot work in only one arena; they have multiple passions they might dive into with extraordinary zeal, often temporarily until their interests focus elsewhere. Or they have numerous finely tuned skills and hobbies, like the coworker who writes, designs, illustrates, takes photos, is a musician on the side, has a boat and motorcycle in the garage, and teaches yoga on the weekends.
The problem is, over time, they have frequently experienced a lot of anxiety, self-doubt, and feelings of purposelessness, as well as unfair biases from their friends, family, coworkers, and bosses. Many quit their jobs and become struggling freelancers because they don’t fit into a corporate structure that typically demands their alignment to work environments dotted by single-position specialists.
Overcoming Cultural Biases
They were the kind of children who could never answer the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question. Consequently, their parents often thought they were too scattered, irresponsible, or even lazy and unfocused. The cultural status quo kept pushing them towards the one-solid-career direction, only to repeatedly fail because they would become uninterested when following only one path, and often wind up getting bruised both psychologically and socially.
But there is nothing inherently wrong with Multipods. That’s Wapnick’s key message, and it has spurred many people towards successful and happier lives after they heard her speak about how becoming only one highly specialized entity does not inspire Multipods to be all 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, though well-meaning adults will likely chuckle and be like, ‘Oh, how cute, but you can’t be a violin maker and a psychologist. You have to choose,’” she explained in a recent Ted Talk that has garnered several million views.
She then flashed two pictures on the big screen behind her, one of clinical psychologist and therapist Bob Childs, who also happens to be 30-year veteran luthier, followed by Amy Ng, a magazine editor turned illustrator, entrepreneur, teacher, and creative director—both obviously highly successful among the historical pantheon of Multipods, including such luminaries as Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo DaVinci, and Thomas Jefferson.
Understanding How Multipotentialites Work
Before Wapnick hooked into her puttylike business in which she regularly speaks, coaches, blogs, and manages a paid subscription community, in addition to selling her book Renaissance Business, there was her active predecessor Barbara Sher, another multitalented individual who also came to the conclusion that her penchant for not choosing a thing as a thing could become a viable business, which she started in 1994 with her book I Could Do Anything If Only I Knew What It Was. She has since written several more books including, in 2006, Refuse To Choose: A Revolutionary Program For Doing Everything You Love.
In Sher’s world, Multipotentialites are “Scanners.” She explains how their behavior is unsettling to the people they rub shoulders with, and how they have been misdiagnosed as mistake-ridden. However, what our culture biases have assumed is a disability that Scanners must overcome is actually a gift. “You are the owner of a remarkable, multitalented brain trying to do its work in a world that doesn’t understand who you are and doesn’t know why you behave the way you do,” she writes.
Unlike Wapnick, Sher segments Scanners into various types:
Serial Master Scanners become highly proficient in many different areas and are considerable jacks of all trades.
Samplers get involved in numerous subjects but never become masters in anything.
Plate Spinners are incredible at multitasking.
Wanderers are very receptive to new people and new environments but lack direction in their own lives.
Double Agents have two very distinct fields of high passion and interest, and Sybils have so many interests that they are plagued by confusion and clutter.
Both Wapnick and Sher have devoted themselves to ensuring that whatever labels are applied, all is good. “You can only achieve your best if you do everything you love,” Sher explains. “A Scanner’s best choice is to ignore convention that forces her to pick and specialize.”
Wapnick tells Multipods to “embrace your many passions. Follow your curiosity down those rabbit holes. Explore your intersections. Embracing our inner wiring leads to a happier, more authentic life.”