Ask Yourself This Question to Find Your Overarching Theme
Photo courtesy of Kevin Dooley.

Ask Yourself This Question to Find Your Overarching Theme

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Multipotentialite Patterns

As a keen Puttylike-reading multipotentialite, perhaps you’ve heard of the concept of the overarching theme (also known as your Why)– a central concept that links together all of your interests, however disparate they may seem on the surface.

Sometimes the multipod life can feel a little random and unplanned. Discovering an overarching theme can reveal an underlying order that was there all along, and this knowledge helps to plan our future too.

Sounds great, right? Sadly, these themes aren’t always obvious or easy to spot, and many multipotentialites get hung up on figuring theirs out.

Which is why I’d like to mention that finding an overarching theme is not a necessity. It doesn’t make you deficient, weird, or a failure as a multipotentialite if you really can’t figure out what drives you deep down.

We’re all free to happily jump from interest to interest, or meander between careers, simply doing whatever seems most fun at the time, if we so wish.

But if we do want to find a theme, to help with discernment, to put on our business cards, or just for fun, how do we start to search?

A Bird’s-Eye View and a Question

As we get older, it becomes easier to take a long-term view of our life history, and to recognize patterns. Sometimes others can spot these patterns more easily than we can, and having an outside view without all the clutter and confusion of analyzing our own history can be helpful.

I bet many multipotentialites have experienced moments of huge insight into their deepest motivations, only for their friends or family to say, “yeah, we knew that all along.” Thanks, guys!

But when we get stuck and outside views and long-term patterns are invisible, here’s a question that might be useful:

What is it that you would you like to fix?

You’ve been made the supreme dictator of the universe, so what do you do? What’s your first instinct about what you’d change? Do you cure all disease? End homelessness? Reduce wealth inequality?

I don’t want to limit your options to do-gooding! Maybe you’d prefer to fix your own bank account to have lots of money in it, making your overarching theme “acquisition of wealth.” Being honest about your motivation is the best way to find what truly drives you.

Figuring out what you would fix first if given the choice can be a huge clue to your theme. Let’s look at a couple of examples from right here at Puttylike.

Example One: Emilie

It’s clear that Emilie wants to create a world in which generalists are as equally celebrated as specialists, which is why she created Puttylike and the Puttytribe, gave her now-famous TEDx talk, and is currently writing a book about multipotentiality.

She’s making those changes out of the desire that grows out of her theme.

(Response from Emilie: Hey Neil, hey multipods! I actually think my personal overarching theme is broader than this. I think it has to do with helping people understand that happiness and wholeness comes from featuring, rather than hiding, the things that make us unique. My work around multipotentiality is really just one manifestation of this broader Why. You’ve definitely hit the nail on the head for the overarching theme for Puttylike though. :)

Example Two: Me

If I’m going to pose tricky questions, I should probably be able to answer them myself, right?

After thinking about this for a few minutes, I think I would wave a magic wand to make everybody feel accepted and comfortable in themselves without either guilt about it or judgement of others’ different choices.

I’m not sure of a pithy way to describe the theme that this change points to, but I have long believed my theme to be about self-knowledge and how that helps us each create a better world, so at least my answer ties in!

How has this expressed itself in my life? I can see the motivation right from my choices of study through to my recent creative projects: writing a book about anxiety, giving a TEDx talk of my own, and helping to build a welcoming community here at Puttylike.

Go with Your First Choice

Don’t second-guess yourself or judge your decisions. It may be that you have an immediate answer, but then find yourself thinking, guiltily, “Maybe I ought to be ending all war, or homelessness, or…”

Naturally, given the choice, I’m sure we’d all love to end war, homelessness, inequality, disease, etc. But for some of us, those things will be the first things we think of, because they’re the issues that truly drive us. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be drawn to other things first.

There may even be selfish desires at the heart of our overarching themes. That’s cool too; we’re not all saints! (Realistically, probably none of us are entirely perfect…)

Don’t judge yourself; just ask yourself what you want to change, and see if it helps you figure out what’s driving you. And then use that knowledge to help plan your next steps.

Your Turn

What is it you would like to fix if you could? Let us know in the comments!

neil_authorbioNeil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at www.walkingoncustard.com and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.

37 Comments

  1. Iraide says:

    I love this article!

    I think my overarching theme is related with creativity and humor, alongside with communication and words.

    I feel like a “wordy Mary Poppins”, because I like to write funny articles, I love puns and having fun with words, paying attention at the lyrics of songs (specially at the multilanguage version), writing monologues, reading about writing, creating writing prompts, languages and now that I’m going to work as a German and literature teacher for a while I’m looking forward to making the learning process entertaining, playful and creative. :)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      “Wordy Mary Poppins” would make a great title for a business card ;) I love the mix of words and humour – will have to check out your website and some of your work for sure :)

      • Iraide says:

        Thank you, Neil! :) All my work is in Spanish but as a scanner you might want to learn a new language, so you’re very welcome! ;)

        • Neil Hughes says:

          I’ve banned myself from learning any new languages until I get better at the ones I speak, but luckily Spanish is already on the list so I will check it out :)

    • Jen Butler says:

      You sound fabulous.

  2. Lisa says:

    I’d like to change inequality.

  3. If I let myself deflect from my first answer, I would say “give everyone common sense” (because it’s way less common then the name imply)

    But my first answer, and I think that it does bing together the things I am most pationate about, would be to give everyone on earth Empathy. To have them automatically, instinctively see the n degree of consequence of their actions and words toward others and to have the imediate skill to imagine themselves in the other person’s shoes.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Wow, what a powerful and interesting drive! I hope you succeed ;)

      I’m glad it ties together some of your other passions… can you see how it ties into any of your concrete projects, or future dreams?

  4. tulpoeid says:

    Come on, the answer assigned to Emilie was the narrowest and most limited example in the post! Yes, I know that she commented already, I’m just saying :)
    Other than that, thanks for another great article…

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Haha… absolutely! I’m glad she commented to clarify – I wondered as I read between the lines of some her posts if I was being presumptuous in using her as an example.

      (Of course, if I’d been trying to write journalistically I’d have simply asked her, but the underlying point I was making was about the link between themes and actions, which I knew would remain intact even if I interpreted her theme too narrowly. I’m very happy to have been corrected as I love the concise way she expressed her theme – I think it demonstrates perfectly how we can grow in understanding of ourselves. I hope someday to be able to express my theme so eloquently!)

  5. Katie says:

    You know that old BASF tagline, “We don’t make things. We make things better”? I think that’s me. I am at my best when I’m helping someone else to reach their goals. If I could do work that 100% involved someone saying, “Hey, Katie, can you help me research x?” or “Hey, Katie, I need to plan this, can you help?”–that would be so great!

  6. Jen Butler says:

    What is it that you would like to fix?

    People thinking they’re mucked up just because their insides don’t match people’s outsides.

    People wanting to hide their messiness and instead act like weird Barbie and Ken dolls.

    People numbing out with drugs and foods in order to ignore aforementioned messy gooey insides rather than embracing said goo toward bringing their dreams to fruition.

    SOOOOO…

    I’d fix the fact that people try to be normal rather than make their own definition of normal. And if that definition includes wearing faery wings and a turkey hat while going for a run, then do it. Embrace that inner weird.

    My approach now is to, y’know, unabashedly share my own awkwardness. Share my insides with people. In hope that it offers some space for them to do the same.

    I desire to do speaking engagements and use my humor and weirdness to impact people that way, but I’m not sure how that’ll happen. I just know that it will.

    I’m going to stop avoiding work now.*

    *go read more articles and secretly create doodles

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I love this! It resonates with my own desires to a ridiculous degree :) :)

      • Mariam says:

        LOL, this is mine as well. I think I’d fix the desire to show off and just this pretentiousness that everyone has. I’d want everyone to show their true self and not be ashamed of it. There are just too many God damn clones walking around… Going off of that, I would fix this inability in people to experience joy and live in the moment. I would make it way easier for people to access their inner child, to be able to have fun without getting wasted or drunk or whatever. To actually play on playgrounds because it’s fun. Don’t judge me because I think there should be adult sized playgrounds, LMAO.

  7. Susan says:

    Most of all, I want everyone to be happy! I know this starts with me. I can’t *make* anyone other than myself happy. I can’t think in anyone’s head other than my own, but I can infect them with my happiness vibes! :-). So my mission is to be as happy as I can, and infect others with it, give others “permission” to be happy. Joy and happiness are what we’re all ultimately after. All other desires flow from these. Everything else we think we want is because we believe we’ll be happier in the having of those things/situations/relationships/conditions.

  8. Sami says:

    I think more and more I want to change the narrative–like, we live in this world that bombards us with all this bad news and it makes it look like everything is crap, while all these wonderful advancements are happening and being ignored: so I curate awesome news. I write books that I want to read, instead of forcing them into some idea that someone has decided is sellable. I journal, and I’m starting to get to the idea that journaling can be about rewriting your own narrative to make it make more sense, to help you be the person you want to be. I like to save old skills that people have decided aren’t needed anymore, because they totally are needed still! It’s all about the Big Story.

    • Olivia Davis says:

      Hi Sami
      I want to change the narrative too. Stories are so powerful, more than we realise, and they contain all of our unconscious assumptions and lots of guidance (overt and subliminal) about how we should behave and how things ‘should’ be.
      I love the sound of your awesome news – totally awesome, and so needed. Where can I get it?
      I also journal and want to write stories that change our cultural conversation about gender, work, consumer culture … I will when I get the time!

  9. Baz says:

    I’ve read through Emilie’s book, Renaissance Business, several times. The topic of the overarching theme is a very powerful one. With that said, I think your question “What is it that you would you like to fix?” is a great (might I even say brilliant?) way to kickstart the process.

    For me, I’d most like to fix/address/help with the issue of overwhelm that creatives face, working with them to create their own tools to deal with it so that creativity and productivity remain intact. I come from a Zen background and so my focus is starting with sitting in silence each day and proceeding from there.

    I think that multipods still searching for their overarching theme would do well to devote some time (and silence) to this important question.

    • Doug says:

      Baz,

      I completely agree. Neil’s question is brilliant. I had to find my notes from Renaissance Business to see how my answer to “what would you like to fix?” compared with all the interests I listed.

      My answer is actually a lot like Cindie’s below. I want to help streamline the process of people finding what they need – be it information or resources. Kind of Google and Amazon rolled into one.

      I think I would add to that – I want to provide a way for people to make more informed decisions. Providing information even when people don’t know they need it.

      Thanks Neil for the great article!

  10. I’d like to give people (especially myself) permission to enjoy the process instead of worrying so much about where we are going to end up- to stop judging our perceived lack of progress and celebrate what’s happening right where we are, even if (especially if?) it looks like a giant mess.

    It might not be business card material. :-) I loved the article, Neil.

  11. J2 says:

    Gah! You’ve inspired me to look inside myself to answer my Why. Answer: Because I’m CURIOUS. About everything. What a weight off my shoulders! Now I want to go out and keep working on a world that chooses Acceptance over Tolerance, and has no clue what Hate is.

    Next week I’ll probably want to work on a world with even MORE flavors of ice cream. Puttylike!

  12. Tami Barkai says:

    I would like to let everyone really see and feel the beauty, the poetry of life which exists around us, inside us and outside.

    Eveb=n the beauty that lies within our sadness and fears.

  13. What a wonderful article. I believe this idea of the overaching theme is really important.

    Personally, I would love to help others stop feeling bad on the inside, ashamed of themselves, and anxious for who they really are. Fostering peace within is important to me, (probably because as I Highly Sensitive Person I feel things way too strongly!)

    I deeply believe that when we know ourselves, when we understand that each of us is different, that we are not wrong but we have different talents and different natural wiring than other people… we can stop the inner struggle, the suffering, self rejection, anxiety and shame we’ve felt.

    Finally achieving a sense of inner peace is key WHY for me.

  14. Tina says:

    I have yet to answer this big question, but this article reminds me of two supplements:

    Laura Berman Ted talk on finding your “yolk”: http://youtu.be/wfNX1cHk-fE

    Career conversation cards from School of Life that I’m thinking of buying, with big questions that really explores what truly matters: http://www.theschooloflife.com/shop/100questionswork/

  15. Cindie says:

    It´s very difficult to figure out but all my interests are related to understand WHY and how things work and use that knowledge to solve problems. I love learning, I love exploring new topics, I definitely love problem solving. I´m open-minded and curious.

    But here´s my idea: if I were the dictator of the world I wouldn´t magically solve every existing problem. It would be silly because every problem has a cause, and if I just fix the symptoms I don´t fix the cause. Let´s say I will wake up tomorrow very fit with a perfect body (would be awesome!), without working on the reasons why I don´t have that body now. In a few months I will be at the starting point because I keep the same bad life-style(cause). It would be also a boring world and people wouldn´t have all the benefits they get when they succeed in solving problems by themselves and going through a process of positive change.

    I think I would rather connect the right people with the right information. In this way they know the solution and they can start the process of change and finally reach their goal. I believe there is always a solution- even to solve huge problems- but people is just unlucky or not enough open-minded to really see it and try it.

    Here´s a list of my interests:

    -psychology / neuroscience
    -dog behaviour / etology
    -personal growth
    -design (ux,co-design,information design and so on)
    -serious games
    -writing (articles, guides, etc)
    -healthy eating /eating disorders
    -manual work and DIY
    -language learning
    -drawing (illustration= more useful)
    -reading and learning about all that stuff & more :)

  16. Erin says:

    Empowerment. I want everyone to know they have the power, the right, and the obligation to do what they love.
    This means lots of educating, healing, community and creative work for me.

    • Erin says:

      I read Renaissance Business several years ago. This is the answer I came up with then, and it’s my gut answer to this question now.

  17. Liz says:

    Katie! Where have you been all my life? I make things better all day every day. I give people business ideas, life advice, articles, you name it. The last business plan I gave away, my client (just kidding, I don’t charge a fee) asked me what makes me tick. I answered Quality Control. I’ve thought about it quite a bit since that day. And again today after reading your post. I don’t know how to sell the most important thing: ME! But I would definitely love to be doing this one thing for a living …

  18. Thank you so much for Puttylike, and for all of you wonderfull multipods!! I feel so much “at home”, reading newsletters and comments here!

    I have a big “rescue-theme” in my life, working as an ICU-nurse and as an educated psychotherapist in my spare times, icon-painter and in to mindfullnes meditation.

    I guess human nature and suffering is my drive – trying to do just a little something..

  19. Cynthia says:

    Hi!
    My first thought was “make people feel comfortable and confident in their bodies”

  20. Inspired hearts free minds – is the tagline I’ve been using. I’ve spent all my life in between the battle of the mind (depression) and the heart (dreaming big things), and I love to correct our broken thoughts and set our hearts free to dream again.

    Even though I can do in-depth studies, few would/do read them. I’m learning that telling inspired stories (not to preach a message but to let the lessons I’ve learned leak through the stories) could be a better way of reaching people.

    One neat thing, as a Storyteller, ALL my passions (being a Barista at a coffee shop, a salesman at a Tire Shop, a server for restaurants, a banker at a bank) can all inform and inspire the stories I tell. Should be an interesting journey… it’s just starting, we shall see.

    Darrell G. Wolfe

    Story Teller | Writer | Thinker & Mutlipotentialite at darrellwolfe.com and dgwolfe.weebly.com

  21. Maryske says:

    The first thing that came to mind was that I wanted everybody to be able/allowed to live wherever they want. But that may well be due to the new job with refugees I just started, for it feels way too narrow.
    The next thing was “Make this world a better/happier place”. That would be covering quite a bit more, including my more artistic side. Though I’m not quite sure where (for example) my love for learning languages and my intense and lifelong interest in names (first names and placenames mostly) would fit in there.
    Still, overall it seems quite adept. Especially if I can do it in a way that helps others reach their goals. Like what I’m doing now, as a teacher. LOL Liz and Katie, seems we’re three in this niche!

  22. The Velvet Bulldog says:

    Of course what I WANT to fix is: social inequality in all forms, famine, excess, etc… But what I NEED to fix is me. For ages I’ve been trying to find the things that “stick” – the right type of job, the right type of relationships (platonic and romantic), the right type of self-care, the right level of giving and outreach. Being a Multipotentialite makes finding things that stick very difficult, and I find that having a broad skill set, rather than a deep skill set works against me. It feels limiting because I don’t get ahead – patterns of starting and stopping reassert themselves. So how does a Multipotentialite pursue a theme of consistency? :-)

  23. Hi Neil,
    I finally got around to reading this. I love questions like this.

    Putting it positively: I want to help people to understand the world, to help them imagine it (which very much and perhaps foremost includes other people) complexly. That’s one reason why I love models, concepts and theories.

    Coming from the fix-it, wand-waving angle: I would make people less ignorant, more curious, more open.

    Which prompts a follow-up question: How do you make people curious? Or perhaps better: How to re-ignite their natural curiosity? Give them permission to be curious?

    Now I just have to get out of my way and actually do something about it :-)

    Thanks for asking this question of us.

  24. Nora says:

    There are so many things I would like to fix: changing the way industries package products to purely use recyclable or made from receylced mataeral packaging. Stop the “throw away” culture and return to fix things or repurpose them. Change the way we build, use more sustainable products (over 25% of landfills in NA are from construction). Make healthy food cheaper and more affordable, end homelessness, create affordable spiritual retreat centres for all people to rejuvenate and recharge. And there is more… the problem is where and how to start. I get quite overwhelmed and I question why do I have so many things I am equally enthusiastique about changing.

  25. Catherine says:

    What a fab question! Mine would be something to do with relationships…hm…I must think harder…

  26. Olivia Davis says:

    Dear Neil
    this is a beautiful piece, and a beautiful question. I have found it very moving to read everyone’s responses. The more I am in the puttytribe the more I feel that I’ve found my home and my people.
    I think my ‘why’ is that I want to make my time count for something, to make a contribution to the world. I would sum it up thus: to be all I can be, and help others be all they can be too.
    Reading this has prompted much thought about overarching themes and I have bought Renaissance Business and started working through it.
    For a long time I have thought that simply being myself wasn’t enough of a contribution, but I’m so inspired by the way you are letting your authenticity shine through. Maybe I can start doing that too :)
    Olivia

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