Note from Emilie: This is a guest post by Mike Pumphrey.
I have a confession to make. I’m not a multipotentialite. At least not by nature.
Instead, I’ve trained myself to be one. Is such a thing possible? Can you learn to be a scanner if your natural temperament leads you to do one thing and one thing only?
I believe you can. And in becoming a multipotentialite, I’ve realized that not only is the multipotentialite life a more fulfilling one for me, but that it also offers protection against some of the challenges that life throws at you.
A Specialist’s Childhood
My parents tell me that I started playing the piano by the time I was five. My memory is a bit hazy on this, but what is certain is that music has been a part of my life since as far back as I can remember. I’m probably the only person I know who actually asked their parents for piano lessons.
I had a normal childhood that was punctuated by abnormal musical achievements: writing the theme music for my hometown’s centennial celebration, winning a school-wide music award, and being invited to audition at an exclusive music school in Philadelphia.
In high school and beyond, I changed tack slightly, moving from piano to guitar, playing in bands, recording my own music, and performing at venues in my area. It was rare to see me without my guitar. When I went to parties, people would always ask me to play for them. I was in demand.
All of this sounds suitably self-aggrandizing, but there was a significant dark side here. As great as it was to be known for something, it felt like I was known for only one thing. “Mike the Musician” was how I viewed myself and how I thought others viewed me. Yes, I got invited to parties and it was always fun to play at them, but did they just want me there because of music? Would they still want me around if I put down the instrument?
This feeling extended to my relationships too. It’s no secret that musicians are particularly appealing to some people, and I can’t deny that I took advantage of this. But living like this bred a kind of paranoia. Is this person interested in who I am or just in what I do? And who am I when I’m not a musician? Am I anything?
The Dangers of Doing Only One Thing
Things came to a head after a few unsuccessful years in New York City. I had moved there to go to school for audio engineering to try and “make it.” But I never felt like I was getting anywhere. The endless search for work and my attempts at getting a stable band together became so unsatisfying and painful, that they started affecting every aspect of my life.
Eventually, things got so bad that I couldn’t continue. I was sick of music and wanted nothing to do with it anymore. I put my instruments down. I even stopped listening to music. As terrifying as it was to finally find out whether or not there was a person there aside from Mike the Musician, I couldn’t avoid it any longer. As I learned, doing only one thing presents a huge potential risk to your identity. What happens if you find yourself unable to continue to do that one thing?
There are scores of stories of athletes whose careers ended quickly due to injury or circumstance (the NFL is euphemistically referred to as “Not For Long”). To develop your craft enough to become a professional athlete, you have to eschew a normal existence, so what happens when that craft is no longer relevant? If you’ve always practiced for seven hours a day and now you can’t, how do you fill those hours? Do you define yourself by your work? How would your view of yourself change if you were laid off or if you retired?
Losing one’s identity is an incredibly painful experience. It actually goes beyond pain and towards the surreal. At points during that time, it felt like I had ceased to inhabit my body. Getting out of bed stopped seeming like the obvious thing to do. I no longer had music, so it felt like I no longer had me.
Becoming a Multipotentialite
Gradually, perhaps due to the pragmatic necessity of needing to fill my days with something, I started looking around for what to do next. I’d love to say that there was one epiphany – a moment when I decided that diversifying my interests was a good move. But the honest truth is that I just started doing a whole bunch of things, without any thought to whether or not that was something that I would ordinarily do.
I volunteered at events that I had little experience with. I hiked up mountains that seemed too big for me to climb. I traveled around the world for weeks at a time, going to unfamiliar and scary places. I started a blog. I took an interest in personal finance and counseling and I started coaching. I signed up for a 200 mile bike ride, despite always having been picked last in gym class. Some things I tried once and never returned to. Some things stuck.
During this process, I came across resources like Puttylike. At first, I was intimidated and envious. These people have all these interests! They never have to worry about losing who they are!
But gradually I learned that the distance between me and others was only one of degrees. We are taught to focus in school, so why wouldn’t we be able to teach ourselves to scan? So I taught myself to scan.
Separating Interests and Identity
The trick to scanning, at least for someone like me, is to not associate any of your pursuits with your identity. If something doesn’t fit, well, that’s not who you are!
When you don’t define yourself using a single vocation or interest, your life becomes less about what you do and more about who you are. This is a much more tenable position to be in. After all, who we are is evolving. If we do this, we can take control of our lives instead of having our one thing control us. We cannot lose ourselves.
There’s so much more that I want to try. Why shouldn’t I take dance lessons, try my hand at gardening or farming, or start a new business? All of these pursuits are brought together by the overarching theme that is me.
Oh and, years after I put it down, I started playing the guitar again. I now play it when I feel like it, without any sense of obligation or stress. It’s just one of the many things I do these days and I like it that way.
Do you define yourself using your interests or your work? Do you find that separating your identity from what you do gives you the freedom to do more?
Mike Pumphrey is the author and curator of Unlikely Radical -a community site about money, travel, living intentionally, and other ways to stick it to The Man. He helps people heal their relationship to money, travel the world, and move forward. When not traveling, he lives in Portland, OR.