How to Be a Happy Multipotentialite in a Traditional Career
Photo courtesy of Pedro Dias.

How to Be a Happy Multipotentialite in a Traditional Career

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Employment

The internet is a strange place. The onset of mass anonymous communication seems to have allowed humanity to let out all of its inner weirdness at once. Which makes it mildly surprising that the internet is also filled with great career advice.

However, most of the career advice out there is aimed at non-multipotentialites, so it mostly centers around old ideas such as the “career ladder” of ever-deepening specialization.

I think it’s fair to say that at Puttylike we often counteract this by focusing on the other side of the modern work story: non-traditional careers, people who juggle multiple income streams, those who hop from career to career, retraining, creating your own niche… all that good stuff.

But multipods, by our very nature, are a diverse group, and many multipotentialites are perfectly happy in more traditional careers, as you can see from many of the comments on this article.

And so today I’d like to draw what lessons we can from examples of happy multipods working with the more traditional career model.

Hold on. What Even is Happiness Anyway?!

Hm. The nature of happiness is probably a bit too big to tackle in a single post, so let’s assume that one necessary condition for multipod happiness is variety.

The assumption that multipods prefer to use a wide variety of skills and interests, or, at least, to constantly be stretched somehow, seems to be a likely reason as to why many of us are drawn to non-traditional careers.

These unusual career options may be the obvious place to find constant variety, challenge, and stretching, but they’re far from the only place. Inside the world of traditional careers, we have two main options for multipod happiness.

Option One: Make the Job Multipod-Friendly

In recent years, there’s been an increasing focus on workplaces becoming more agile (for example, check out this report on agile working in the UK, although be warned that for some reason they decided to add highly annoying page-turning sound effects!).

And if any group is ready to take advantage of this trend towards greater flexibility, it’s surely multipods.

Even large companies are starting to recognize the benefits of encouraging workers to pick up a broader range of skills and take on a wider range of roles. Instead of performing the same tasks every day, workers might spend a day writing a report, another day meeting a client, another day tinkering with client-facing copy, another day designing a product… To a certain kind of multipod, this could be work heaven!

Unfortunately, bosses are likely to be the constraint in making your role more multi-faceted. One obvious disadvantage of a traditional career is being constrained by the decisions of others. You may have to sell the idea of role-broadening to your boss.

If you’re lucky, your boss will intuitively understand that a happier employee (and a more knowledgeable employee with a broader skill set) would be a greater asset to the company, and they’ll be delighted to work with you in adding variety and challenge to your role. But there are always those bosses who prefer straight, well-defined lines, in which case you might be out of luck.

Of course, there may be other reasons for the lack flexibility at your job. Some roles simply don’t make sense if you broaden them. I imagine it might be frowned upon if a surgeon decided they really couldn’t be happy unless their love for composing Chinese poetry was indulged on the operating table.

In cases like these, there’s always option two…

Option Two: Specialize at Work, “Multipotential-ize” Elsewhere

We all know that work isn’t everything, and it certainly doesn’t define us.

Many happy multipods in traditional careers say it doesn’t matter that their job isn’t a full expression of their multipotentiality. They’ve found other places in their life to meet those needs.

This approach requires a broader mindset; you’ll have to look at your life as a whole instead of as a series of parts.

It may be stating the obvious that not every moment of our lives needs to be in service of every desire – or even could be – but I often need to be reminded of this. Sometimes spending even an hour doing something I don’t like makes my brain freak out: “OH GOD! I’M WASTING MY LIFE.”

But reminding myself to adopt this broader attitude helps to reduce this fear and allows me to compartmentalize. Sometimes it’s necessary to work on just one interest now to free myself up to play with other interests later.

(Of course, if you enjoy literally nothing about your job, this is a totally different calculation! I’m assuming your job can engage at least one of your interests, though of course sometimes circumstances can make even that impossible for a time.)

Compartmentalizing our work from our other interests is a completely valid route to happiness.

Secret Option Three: Change Your Use of Time

I know I claimed there were only two options, but there’s a hybrid option that may work for some: having a traditional career for a non-traditional amount of time.

Sweden recently passed a law mandating a six-hour work day, giving everyone much more time to balance their interests. While not all countries are so employee-friendly, it may be possible to ask to switch to a four-day week, or for some unusual hours.

If you’ve never considered this approach, it may be worth seeing whether this option could work for you.

It Comes Down to Attitude

The common factor among happy multipotentialites working traditional jobs appears to be their attitude. They are able to find (some) enjoyment in their work, while also scheduling time outside of that for personal interests, all while creating opportunities both at home and at work to indulge in as many passions as possible.

If you have a traditional career, whether out of either love or necessity, you’re very welcome in the Puttylike community. We’d love to hear more of your stories and to hear how we can help you live your multipotentialite life to the fullest.

Your Turn

Are you a multipod in a traditional career? How do you express your multipotentiality and find happiness? 

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.

39 Comments

  1. Gemma says:

    I can definitely picture multipods making good use of flex time, if it’s offerred by their company.
    Personally I’ve stumbled into the perfect job for me right now: mobile barista. It’s an early start, maximum 7 hour day but I get home earlier if cleanups finished, and leaves me the afternoon to work on my own projects

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Perfect! This is exactly the kind of mix I was envisioning – finding something that works for you, gives some stability, allows time for experimentation too :)

  2. Amy W. says:

    Thanks for the article, Neil! I’m new to Puttylike, and although, by definition, it’s impossible to shoe-horn multipods into a single category or two, I’m grateful to know that others run into the same problems as I do. And why. And how to address it.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I remember the amazing feeling of discovering Puttylike and feeling not alone anymore – you’re very welcome Amy :)

      • Diah says:

        Hi I’m Diah from Indonesia!

        I know how good it feels when I watched Emilie TED talks. Like for once I was accepted and there are people who have the same problem like me. Well living in such a traditional country with traditional view that everyone has to be a specialist to be success in life.

        Thanks guys! <3

  3. Matteo says:

    Each time I read a post here, I feel like at home. Thanks a lot for sharing!

  4. Cat says:

    I have just found my perfect multi-potentialite niche… Working in an Arts organisation. I am Head of Development(thanks to my wide portfolio of skills and experience) but it means that every day is something different, I get to be a master at lighting systems one day or writing copy another. Really is the perfect job to not get bored in. I am also autonomous and can structure my day and tasks as I like.
    This is the first time that I have felt like I belonged somewhere and can actually feel like I have found my forever job at last… been chasing that unicorn for far too long.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      This is reassuring – those perfect jobs for multipods do exist, we just may have to search for them a while (or spend some time creating them for ourselves – getting together all your skills and experience for example)

  5. Sarah says:

    “Sometimes spending even an hour doing something I don’t like makes my brain freak out: “OH GOD! I’M WASTING MY LIFE.”

    I can relate omg and thats the worst struggle of all. It even comes with doing things I like though “I can’t read this book for an hour I could be writing/learning how to draw/solving world hunger. I have to be productive” or “why should I learn how to draw its not my job I won’t do it for money so what’s the point you should be doing something productive!!” then since I can’t do anything I want to do and no way I’m doing something I don’t want to do I’ll end up spending the day watching tv or on tumblr. Its a frustrating cycle.

    I start a new job next month and part of me wants to just see how it goes and other parts want me to ask for a decrease in hours already. I can’t take 8hour workdays but I like the structure a traditional job gives you (you have to get up at a certain time, leave the house, interact with other people.) being an unfocused multipod takes a lot outta you.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Haha, this is so me. As ever, glad I’m not alone! Don’t feel too pressured to solve world hunger yourself though – gotta take some time for yourself as well as shouldering all the world’s problems ;p

      I seriously think that developing a better relationship with time is a huge priority, perhaps for multipotentialites in particular.

    • Jessica says:

      I stumbled upon this site a bit ago and, out of everything, this comment has made me feel more like “I’m not the only one” than anything else. While it’s been interesting to see that many other people have multiple interests and have figured out how to work them into their jobs or start side-jobs from them, that’s not even close to where I am. I feel much closer to this point in the process. I’m currently working a part-time retail job and taking classes for a second bachelor’s degree (after a two year stint with a startup that ended badly and then a bit of bouncing from one thing to another and dealing with family issues that came up) but I am always thinking this same way, even about the things I enjoy doing: “Why am I spending my time on this if I should be worrying about another skill/hobby I enjoy that could actually contribute to my career (whatever that ends up actually being)?” I am interested in my classes but, due to money and the fact that I’m not entirely sure I’m “interested enough”, I might be taking some time off this next term and getting a better, full-time job. Then, I get into the whole “I need money but this job that pays not enough to live off sounds SO interesting” debate with myself and I end up wasting my time on Netflix and Pinterest instead of making a decision on it.

      Anyway, all this to say, “it’s nice to really feel like I’m not the only one.”

  6. April says:

    This blog continues to encourage and inspire me. So thank you.

    I recently left a library job that I used to love (and for which I had a master’s degree) because it was using up all my energy and time, and no longer giving anything back. Now I have a slightly more boring, narrower job as a web editor, but I am easily able to leave it at work. Without stress following me home, I’m spending my free time working a side business with my husband. We have a small farm and I’ve been growing and selling flowers, and loving it. Because of that, and because these changes were my choice, I am much happier these days.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Yay, thanks April, I’m glad it resonated :)

      And I’m even more glad you were able to make changes and develop a routine that is better for you. I know what you mean about your choice being the important thing… sometimes I feel like I work more now I don’t have a traditional job, but it’s all “for me” so I don’t mind so much.

  7. Gustavo says:

    I already experienced the three options described by Neil and as result I could identify that, at least for me, happiness comes much more from the outcome of the work regarding recognition by the peers (or family or friends or overall society in some cases) than from my own perception. Of course, I’m very proud of many small and least-visible accomplishments that I know, from the top of my specialized knowledge (yes, multipods REALLY CAN be specialists) that are true accomplishments of skill and hard work. Yet what really makes me happy is to see that I contributed in some way to someone’s good. Even with very little bits of help.

    I’m a problem solver – almost by definition – so doing something only for ME is wondrously difficult, even taking care of myself. My motivation to cut my beard comes from my wife! So I clearly saw this effect when broadening (but not much) my scope of action when I was a manager in a chemical factory and received nothing but a “meh!” from peers and directors after trying to literally revolutionize the manufacturing applying many ideas and concepts I, as a multipod, retrieved from several areas other than mine. The problem was not the feasibility or cost – it was just a general lack of interesting in changing the “status quo”.

    It was as a ramp down to my motivation. Eventually I learned to manage this situation, but many times similar events happened. In this case, the environment was not friendly for a “multipod-like style of work”. Even being essentially a problem-solver in my role, what killed my motivation was the need to solve the problems in the way other people thought it was correct/better/required, not following my own mind. Or solving the problem that I ranked as the low-priority ones. Sounds familiar?

    So in the end I think that a “traditional career” is not the issue, but how we interact with ours peers, and how we are able to exercise our creativity and skills. As Neil said – It Comes Down to Attitude – but in my opinion, the key is the attitude toward people and the feedback you receive from them. It may create a ramp up, or a ramp down, and not always we can choose what ramp we’ll slide. Anyway, keep trying!

    • Emily says:

      Just wanted to say thank you for this thoughtful comment and for sharing your experience.

      • Neil Hughes says:

        Want to echo Emily’s thoughts here – great comment. Love the community here, so much accumulated wisdom :)

    • Clint Moar says:

      I agree Gustavo, getting the recognition from others and seeing their happiness after something I’ve done is my greatest take away. It may be that there just isn’t enough cheerleading going on in many workplaces. Staff just become numb to everything and as you say the “meh” attitudes.
      Thanks, Clint.

      • Gustavo says:

        “cheerleading” – what a great concept to develop at workplaces!

        You were deadly right when using this concept, Clint – I can say it’s a cultural trait of Brazilian people (I’m Brazilian) – we simply don’t know how to “lead cheers”, be on sports or work or personal life. We can be great fans of pretty much everything, but cheerleading is a completely different concept that most people actually don’t have in mind.

        I would love to find a book about this subject applied as a general attitude in life.

  8. Amanda says:

    Dear Neil and Emilie,

    Thanks for another great post. I’ve really enjoyed being a part of this community.

    Straight out of undergrad I leaped into a dance career, held a full-time job in sales to pay my bills, when back to school for a masters in nonprofit fundraising, worked as a fundraiser for the performing arts. During that time I went to yoga teacher training and started teaching yoga classes. Last year I decided fundraising and sales was not for me. Now I’m back in school pursuing my third degree in massage therapy (and will pursue a fourth degree in yoga therapy next year) to eventually open a yoga therapy practice.

    You must feel dizzy reading that paragraph, I certainly feel dizzy writing it.

    After watching Emilie’s TED talk last year and signing up for the weekly emails, I feel like I have found “my people”. Your blog posts have played an important part of accepting the course of my career and life. Thank you.

    Finally, congratulations on your marriage Emilie. Have a great time in Australia.

    Warmly,
    Amanda

    • Kristen says:

      Hey Amanda,
      I love your post and am happy you found the next step to your journey. I can really relate, I finished my undergrad in Spanish and Education with a minor in dance, but instead of going into teaching, I moved away from home to pursue a dance career because it was really my ultimate passion, and I started to act as well which threw another interest into the pot. As a dancer you probably have found that there is a shelf life and reality kicks in where you understand you need to do something further to provide for yourself financially and prepare for your future. Are you still dancing for enjoyment? I have considered going back to teaching but I truly love dance so much that I can’t imagine just leaving it or letting it have less space in my life. I am currently looking into going to grad school for dance so that I can hopefully teach in a college or that it will open up more doors. Anyways, it looks like we have a lot in common, I would love to keep in touch.

      With Gratitude,
      Kristen

  9. Catherine Chisnall says:

    Congratulations on your marriage! Its also fun when you phone your spouse up at work and they say suspiciously ‘who’s calling?’ You can say ‘I’m her/his wife’ and they are terribly apologetic and put you straight through! haha.

  10. Clint Moar says:

    Thanks Neil.
    This is a tricky one. I found myself getting to the “dead end” of my jobs and then had no option but to leave.
    I don’t like your #2 option, though that sounds like the “good enough job”.
    I’m strong on your 1st option because it sounds like the Intrapreneurship that I promote.
    Learn entrepreneurial skills while you keep your job.
    I’m trying to validate my idea over at IntrapreneurOnline.com.
    If I get enough interest I will roll this idea out fully.
    Thanks again.
    Clint.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Great, Clint :) I’m loving reading everyone’s responses and seeing how people lean towards one end of the scale or another – and then others make little changes to build their own ideal lifestyle. I think it’s all about making changes until we find what works for us, but it takes bravery and support and a community (and sometimes luck and the right circumstances) before we land somewhere we can be truly happy.

  11. Marijke says:

    I’m a school teacher 3 days a week.
    Monday morning or afternoon is for cleaning and groceries.
    1-2 hours a day is for violin practice.
    4-5 times a week, 45 minutes are spent working out.
    1 hour a week is for dancing class.
    The rest of my time is for whatever I feel like doing.

    I love my life.

    • Kristen says:

      Marikje,
      I have considered going back to teaching as well…. is your teaching job considered a .5? Do you feel like it is sufficient enough for your finances and ability to support your other interests?

      Thank you.

      -Kristen

  12. J2 says:

    Well done, Neil! It validates that I’m not alone, eh.

  13. Aram Boyd says:

    Neil,
    How did you know I’ve been pondering this all week? I’m in a traditional role that makes sense for me in many ways. It has variety, it plays to my strengths as a speaker and a trainer, I get to develop people and enjoy the satisfaction that comes with that.

    But after 6 years I’m getting restless, and the rigid hours are getting to me. I’m a Night Owl stuck in an Early Bird cage.

    I’m trying to be grateful for my day job and work on my writing and music outside of that. But it’s getting harder…

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Haha, Aram, I’ve been watching your thoughts carefully and planned my posts accordingly ;)

      But seriously I’m glad this post arrived at a good time for you. Hope you find whatever tweaks to your routine to bring you more happiness.

  14. Harald says:

    There is one problem with multipotentiality of subordinates and the (legitimate) view of their bosses. As a boss, you should encourage and enable the problem solving skills of the people you manage. Yes, that’s one side of the coin. The other side is that, as a manager, you need to keep in mind that people may become unavailable quite rapidly. They could quit, they could need being fired for whatever urgent reason, they might be crushed by a brick, die from a heart attack – you name it.

    These are the cases when a successor is needed. Thinking as a manager, it may seem better to arrange the tasks of your subordinates in a modular manner. If one person does too much and is responsible for too much then too much knowledge, ability, etc. walks out of the door if this person decides to leave the company. Thus, it may look like quite reasonable to keep the duties of everybody narrow and specialized. And it may involve a lot of courage, as a boss, to arrange your people’s duties otherwise.

    At least that is what I have discovered in the past twenty years while being an employee of different companies.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      This is absolutely true, Harald. Everyone is responding to their own incentives, and managers have to consider the bigger picture for their team and company, and a multipod making themselves irreplaceable could actually be a problem. I guess in that case it may be that we’re better off dividing our hours somehow, or perhaps there’s some other solution which works for all parties…

  15. Therese says:

    Being Swedish, I have to say I live in an employee-friendly country (most of the time), although the six-hour workday is not mandated yet. It is up for discussion regularly, but we are far from being there. Just had to make that clear (as I know my country from time to time can get put on a piedestal when it comes to questions like this which seems unfair sometimes since we have on of the worlds highest sick-leave ratios).

    • Neil Hughes says:

      That’s interesting, Therese, thank you. I saw an article which claimed it had started already but maybe I misunderstood, so thanks for the correction. Still, even the fact it’s being talked about puts you lightyears ahead of most places when it comes to work/life balance!

      I didn’t know about the sick-leave ratio either. Will update my mental model of Sweden :p

  16. EMA says:

    Wow! This would certainly explain why I feel bored at a job after some time of doing the traditional job and I start searching for a new job. I’ve also realized that the jobs I’ve enjoyed the most have been with start up companies where one wears several “hats” and every day can bring different challenges. Unfortunately there’s not much stability and had to get the traditional job. Now, after reading all these posts I finally understand and relate to several of them. I’m not alone!…Option one not very feasible in my current position, specially working for a “micro-manager” it’s like being in a box, no air, no light…I’ll try the other options, thank you!

  17. Jennifer says:

    I have always operated best with the idea of “give me access to knowledge and resources that will allow me to do my job, along with the freedom to apply and use them as I see fit.”

    I finally have managed to finagle my way into IT after years of it being just another side interest. I was careful how I approached it, as I knew call centers with a script would be an instant disaster for me. I am in IT support, but there is bo script. It’s like being a detective for computers. There is a HUGE variety of problems I see. Some are straightforward, some only so based on past experiences, some teach you those simple solutions for next time, and some have you digging into half a dozen systems and pages of documentation, online support, and research. Usually my favorite problems, because I tend to learn a lot while feeling proud of digging out a deep issue, then fixing it. Having the freedom to do that, not just expected to kick the problem to the ‘next tier’ makes me feel happy and satisfied.

    It can be stressful, but for the first time in a very long time, I feel like my work is actually benefiting me personally and teaching me things I want to learn.

    Not a dream job, but I feel like I am moving forward now, instead of stagnant and being passed by specialist peers who have years in their career.

    I am starting to slowly accept the happiness in ‘steps’ instead of looking for something ideally crafted. And seeing a career start from a mixture of cobbling together a number of interests and a calm but steady persistence gives me hope. I made it happen this time, and once I gain more skills here, I can wrap it up into something bigger and better next time I switch directions.

    A lot of people told me I needed to drop everything and focus on one thing if I ever wanted to get out of my rut. The only thing I needed to drop was the a-hole in my life that screamed that constantly in my face. It felt like years of trying to shove my star shaped self into the round hole, pounding it with a hammer until it only hurt me, but never did anything. No matter how hard I tried to make it work. Everything started to fall into place when I left that toxicity. I trusted myself and what I knew about myself, applied that persistence while still being me, and finally, FINALLY, took a step forward.

    I’m not going to sing any praises about hard lessons, because the gain doesn’t match the experience I went through. But I will say that there is always something that can be salvaged, even if that thing is just yourself. Standing up for your right to be happy and who you are, and trust that you know it better than even your closest loved ones, friends, and family. People mean well when they live happy lives as circles and just want you to be a happy circle like them. But multipods aren’t shaped like that, and filing down our tips just makes us… weird amorphous blobs. Unhappy ones at that.

    I think a lot of us will never find that perfect ‘one’ fit in our careers. But the journey as a multipod, taking a new exciting step each time, can be where the happiness is. Trying all the new things and finding something new and exciting each time is our goal. I think a life examined in retrospect can achieve that even if a single moment in time never held perfection.

  18. Marci says:

    This community was some of the best validation I’ve ever got. I’m not crazy, or flighty I’m just me:)

    I’m a proud generalist, who loves learning and solving problems and forever curious. It’s been a long time since I’ve left the corporate world and since then have created several careers and learned so many skills. (lawyer, actor, real estate agent, yoga, skin care)….and ya know, I’m probably not finished:)…I’m starting my own co.
    There were/are times the I wish I could work a job or least I was wired to want to do one thing but that’s not who I am.
    The biggest thing is to accept the journey and to enjoy the ride:)

    Thanks Emily for this community and congrats!!!

  19. Josie says:

    I literally found out I was a multipotentialite yesterday, and this site is amazing!

    I have a traditional (9 to 5, office-based) job, but have always managed to find myself in roles for which my many and varied interests (and resulting fluidity and lack of change-aversion) have been beneficial. Innovative, bleeding-edge businesses and large businesses prone to re-structuring are pretty good for multipotentialites, as is any job which requires you to know a bit about a lot of things (my first professional role in a complaints department was actually perfect for me).

    I also encourage people to put their hands up for any working group, special project or collaborative effort that pops up. It lets you dabble in something other than your day job on work time. Definitely stops my feet getting too itchy.