Multipotentiality Didn’t Change My Life… It IS My Life
Photo courtesy of paul bica.

Multipotentiality Didn’t Change My Life… It IS My Life

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Work

Note from Emilie: this is the first post by one of our new Staff Writers, Neil Hughes. Neil is a big-hearted, hilarious, and inspiring multipod from the UK, and I couldn’t be more excited to have him on the PuttyTeam. I think you’ll really enjoy this…

**

Several years ago, I went for a walk. Not a fun, leisurely walk. A serious walk. For serious thinking. I was unhappy, but I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong. I needed time to think.

Was it my home? I doubted it. I’d just moved to a lovely cosy house with some of my favourite people.

Was it my relationship? This seemed unlikely. I was dating someone wonderful and all was well.

Perhaps it was my job. Ah. This could be it.

For a few years I’d been working full-time as a programmer. It wasn’t bad by any means. My colleagues were pleasant, the work was often interesting, and I was comfortable. You’d think there’d be no reason to be unhappy… except…

There Was That Itch

I’ve had a powerful need for variety my whole life. As a child my least favourite question was “what do you want to be when you grow up?” It felt like it hid a message: “We need to permanently fix you in place, so how should you be labelled?”

While growing up I resisted the pressure to commit to an imagined future career. I fought to keep my options open for as long as possible.

After four years at university, studying physics (and nothing else, argh!), I lurched in the opposite direction, and became a youth worker. After two years of that, I lurched away once more and took a job as a programmer; it was my first “proper” job. This scared me! But it wasn’t about the work. It was the feeling that I’d finally chosen my fate, and that it was now inescapable.

Even so, I liked it. For the first couple of years, the challenge of learning the business and developing my skills kept me interested.

But it wasn’t enough. I resented the feeling of having been boxed off, as if the world had sorted me into the pile marked PROGRAMMER, and that the end of the journey had been reached.

I tried to let off the pressure by exploring other interests outside of work – languages, evening classes, performing standup comedy – but it didn’t solve the dissatisfaction of just one of my interests taking up nearly all of my time.

And So, on This Day I Walked

And thought. I stopped in a cafe and wrote: What do I WANT to do?

For a couple of hours, I created an imaginary dream routine. Maybe I could program for one or two days each week. I do like it, after all. Perhaps one day could be spent writing those books I’d always dreamed about writing? And I love to teach… maybe I could tutor maths or physics?

Slowly, I planned a life that actually balanced my need for routine against my need for exploration. It was thrilling.

After I’d finished I looked at my plan with a rapidly sinking heart. It was surely impossible.

I Didn’t Know Anyone Who Lived like This

The concept of a “portfolio career” had never entered my world. Everybody I knew had a job, or was looking for one. I couldn’t see the possibility of getting paid for even ONE of these activities, let alone ALL of them.

As I walked home I decided to forget it and just look for a new job instead. Maybe that would scratch the itch. It didn’t.

Two years later I was on the other side of the world. Somehow I’d ended up enrolled on a master’s program in an Australian university.

Even by my usual standards, this was a crazy development. The new job had failed. Eventually, the same deep dissatisfaction had led me to move on. I’d become interested in counseling while living in Australia, and after some curious enquiries I found I needed to apply immediately, or wait twelve months.

So I enrolled without taking time to think.

Unfortunately, it felt wrong as soon as the program began. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it (I did, very much!) but spending two years focused on just one subject didn’t seem like the wisest choice I could make.

This was a Familiar Feeling

And once more I escaped to write and think…

An idea developed. What if I did some programming for a day or two a week? Alongside some writing? And some tutoring? I could even study part-time for a master’s. Once I qualify as a counselor, I could mix that into my weekly routine too!

I had long forgotten about that day in the cafe on the other side of the world. But I suddenly recalled it in a flash. I had reinvented my idea from two years before! This time, the idea didn’t feel quite so impossible. This time, I was determined to try.

Quickly, my determination turned into anxiety. Surely I can’t make this work. Unsure how to deal with it, I turned to Google: “career lifestyle doing everything.”

I Discovered that I was Not Alone

It turned out that multipotentialites Are A Thing. And immediately, I found that a community existed to help me figure out how to actually put together this crazy career. I was overjoyed that there were others who somehow balance multiple projects across diverse interests. Maybe it was actually possible to be a generalist in a world seemingly built for specialists!

Discovering this community didn’t change my life; it confirmed it, and allowed me to embrace it. I am a multipotentialite.

This excitement has remained with me ever since. I’ve plunged into life as a freelancer, writer, comedian, and more. Even when it gets difficult, I know I’m finally doing what I want to be doing.

It took me many years to uncover and fully embrace this side of myself. And now I dream of helping to build a world where multipotentialites are understood, celebrated, and even encouraged.

This is my multipotentialite story so far.

What’s yours?

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.

26 Comments

  1. Sami says:

    This is so great! And it’s a lot the way mine went, too–that dissatisfaction, that wandering around thinking, that flash of hope and the confusion of how to make it work…But I’m figuring it out too, and I love these reminders that other people are here with me!

    Thank you for telling your story!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thanks Sami :) It’s oddly reassuring to know that I wasn’t alone on the journey, even if I didn’t know it at the time..!

      It’s so good to be understood. Hope you are surrounding yourself with people who get you and help you to figure it out even further :)

  2. brigid says:

    hi neil,
    thanks so much for your well expressed article. i really resonated with this line
    “Slowly, I planned a life that actually balanced my need for routine against my need for exploration.”
    i was always wondering why i needed a routine type job and also my metaphysical work too and how they worked together in my head…you put it so well.
    happy days multipotentialiting!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      It’s tough when we have these seemingly-contradictory goals, isn’t it? Routine vs novelty is a big one for me… too much of one and I crave the other! Glad it’s not just me ;)

  3. Karen says:

    What a fantastic bit of writing, Neil! It sounds all too familiar and comforting to know there are others out there with a similarly complex path. And definitely laughed out loud at the Google part: “career lifestyle doing everything.” :) Thank you so much for sharing!!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Haha :D I’m glad it got a laugh! I kind of felt silly as I did it, but then my jaw dropped as I found Puttylike and the rest was history…

  4. Anneri says:

    You know when you write LOL but you actually just chuckle soundlessly…
    Well none of that silliness happened here, I seriously just laughed out LOUD at this
    ““so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.”
    HAHAHA! Classic and so me.
    I really enjoyed this article Neil, hope to hear from you more!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Aw, thanks Anneri :) That means a lot, really.

      I’ll be writing here more often so I hope you enjoy the future articles too! (Will probably write about our shared procrastination problems at some point, so I’ll let you know if I figure out how to solve it once and for all :p)

  5. Sylvia says:

    Enjoyed Neil’s piece. I’m a middle aged multipotentialite and have been so for as long as I can remember. I enjoy diversity and enjoy the fact I have many skills;
    Radio Presenter, University Lecturer, blogger, freelance social work consultant, and the rest – I also regularly volunteer –

  6. Gray says:

    Wow, great post. One of those “I thought I was the only one!” type of posts, since I’m a guy who learned video editing and web design while earning a degree in Dance and now teaches performance, blogs, and writes. I remember my daughters struggling when their friends asked “What does your Dad do?” because it didn’t have an easy answer.

    I wish I’d come up with a list like that – but really, I didn’t have to, because I have that kind of life now. It’s nice to give it a name.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Yes, that’s exactly it! You feel crazy for a while as you do your video editing/dance/web design combo, and then suddenly you find out there are others in the same boat. Giving it a name is such a relief.

      That’s fantastic that you’re living that life now too. It helps to know others are making it work and so the rest of us can too :)

  7. Albert says:

    I am still on my own journey, after discovering this blog only a few months ago. As I write I am preparing to move to the Seattle, WA area from the Bay Area, CA with no job guaranteed waiting for me there. It is a scary chance to take, like you had going halfway around the world, and I am feeling doubtful and unsure if this is the correct path to take.

    But from what I learned about multipotentialism is that it is scary trying a new place or career or hobby, but it is far scarier being put into a position of staticness, of one where you have a single label. You did not want to be just Neil Hughes, Programmer but something not just your job label. If mine was just a job label right now it would be “Office Clerk” and as much as I hate that label I am using it to its fullest just to have a job.

    Thank you for your article, and hope to keep reading more of your here at Puttylike!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thank you Albert :) I know the feeling – a couple of times I’ve quit everything and headed into the unknown and each time it is incredibly scary.

      And you’re SO right – it is in some way worse to be static and trapped than moving and scared!

      I’m sure you’ll create some great opportunities in Seattle, good luck :D

  8. Maryske says:

    It’s like reading my own story – only you’re a few steps ahead of me in already having realized this multipotentialite dream of a portfolio career.
    I discovered this website a few days before I was offered a job that – after four months job search – would save me from going broke (again…). So excited as I was about finally finding a place for people like me, with a lot of helpful advice as to how to manage your life like that, I could do little else but accept that job for now.
    But the relief of being safe again on the financial side for a while lasted but a few days. It soon turned to a distinct sensation of feeling thoroughly trapped. A month later and the job started, it still feels that way.
    I may work as a teacher and having done so for most of the past 10 years or so, I really don’t identify with the job. I don’t see myself as a teacher. Nor did I ever see myself as a geographer when I studied that. It was fun, fascinating and everything, but I couldn’t see myself actually *working* in that field. Teaching primary at least has the advantage of a variety in subjects, but the level is such that you seldom learn anything really new. Nor does it leave you the energy to really delve into something in your spare time. I’m trapped. At times I almost desperately want to get out. The question is – how?
    Being a true multipotentialite (the very first identity I’ve come across in my life with which I can actually identify myself!!), there is a million things I want to do. Believe me, I’ve applied for dream jobs in other sectors as well, but the general response is that either I lack the proper qualifications, or I’m overqualified… It’s utterly frustrating. And I really hope that with the friends and advice in this community, I’ll be able to find my way out of the labyrinth. Soon…

  9. Neil Hughes says:

    Ah Maryske, I feel what you’re saying so strongly. I know the feeling exactly – excitement/relief at having a job, but with this nagging shadow of “oh god, now I’m trapped”. (In fact, I’m working on a post at Puttylike about exactly this, so you may be interested in that when it goes up!)

    It is very tough to find a path from ‘here’ to ‘there’, particularly when we’re still figuring out where ‘there’ even is or what it looks like.

    But I’m glad you feel comfortable with the multipotentialite identity, and I hope we can all help and support you to build a life that taps into all your interests a little more. As you say, it’s hard to do while maintaining financial security. Sounds like little steps might be the way forward for you for now!

    Thank you for sharing :)

  10. Nancy says:

    I just turned 55 this year and I’m still a multipotentialite.

  11. Stuart says:

    Hi Neil,

    I just found this site, after searching the phrase “I’m interested in lots of things but don’t know what to do”! This is the first time I’ve heard the term multipotentialite but it’s good to know it’s not just me.

    Like you I’m a programmer, and have been for nearly 10 years. But I’m also a guitarist, composer, beer maker, runner, astronomer and coach. I don’t want to program for the rest of my life, but I have a family so that makes decisions more difficult.

    I hope through reading more of this blog I can get some inspiration on designing a more fulfilling life, one that doesn’t feel stuck, frustrating and contradictory.

    Thanks.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Fantastic Stuart :) I’m so glad it’s not just me that finds support by googling such phrases!

      That’s an awesome set of interests, and I hope you manage to take some little steps towards fulfilment while still making great choices with your family in mind. Support is definitely here for you!

  12. Day says:

    Oh, Neil! I love how you tell the story; especially how you got so excited twice over the same idea. Brilliantly told, and easy to relate to.
    I am just now in my fifty years of life realizing I might be able to do what I like to do. Exciting times!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Hah, yes, it’s funny how these ideas keep coming back to us, isn’t it? I guess deep down we know what we really want, and hopefully we can find a way to take small steps towards making it happen!

      Thanks so much, I’m so glad you enjoyed the story :)

  13. Christina says:

    Hi Niel, I just like you. Call it a kinship. Cheers!

  14. Dee says:

    Amazing….you just told my story!

    I studied Architecture and have been advised to get my license. To do that, I have to be under a registered Architect for 2yrs.

    I graduated in 2007 and I love designing, I even got involved in supervising construction so I thought why not?…..and then I remembered the feeling of being in a box during the 3months I spent with an Architect right after graduation, I didn’t want that!…..and then I thought it pays most of my bills, why don’t I sacrifice myself?, I still couldn’t bring myself to do it!

    WHY?

    I remembered I wanted to sing, write, teach, design clothes, shoes and bags (mind you, I have taken courses in all these at different times in the past), what would happen to all these dreams if I got stuck in an office?

    I had been advised over and over again to stick to one thing….the more I tried, the more interests I developed. (I recently took a beginners’ piano class….hehehe)

    In trying to convince myself to do the office time, I felt more and more depressed.

    I decided to pray for direction. I told God, you put this in me, so you have to show me a way out! I said i wasn’t going to be overwhelmed anymore, I trust you.

    Then I find myself writing down all my interests….then I come up with ‘a plan’….then I am checking my twitter account and I find Emilie’s talk in TEDtalks…..then the website….

    All this happened over the last few days and I just discovered this site….thanks for sharing!

    No longer will I wonder what to answer when asked what it is that I do.*wink*

  15. J says:

    Holy crap… Reading these replies made me shit myself with excitement. Then reading Dee’s almost made me cry.

    The last three nights I have been tossing and turning in my bed thinking I was doomed to be alone and will never find a sustainable and happy life.

    I can’t tell you how many different hats I’ve worn and in how many different fields I’ve worn them. It goes back to high school when I built computers for my dads colleagues, helped different school organizations with whatever they wanted to work on and being leads in plays to being 3 different section chairs for 3 vocal parts in choir, to sports medicine for the football team, all the while being a leader at my church.

    If you asked me why I did what I did I’d tell you it’s because it’s what I wanted to do when I grow up, but to be honest I did them for the experience and for the people I got to spend time with.

    I have always liked the feeling I get from seeing people reach their dreams. It didn’t (still doesn’t) matter to me what the discipline. If you came to me with a dream I would (still will) do everything in my power to help you do it. And if it was fascinating as hell, I would want to do everything in my power to do it with you.

    The question that I’ve always asked in some way or another is how to get along in a world that rewards specialization? I’m still asking… Though, it now seems I have a way of articulating it.

    After high school, I’d done everything from throwing events, to being a program director for an oldies station, to nannying, to running HR for a private equity firm, to business development for a startup or two, leads in plays, improv coach, instructor, entertainer, digital designer, brand ambassador just to name a few and usually never one at a time.

    Of all these jobs, I always felt lucky to have them but never confident in knowing why I was doing them.

    Neil, what you and Emilie are up to is greatly appreciated! Thank you!!!

    I’m going to keep reading and really hope I can get some guidance and support in this new found community.

    -J

    P.S. Megaman is a multipotentialite.

  16. Dina says:

    Thanks for the fantastic viewpoint. I’ve struggled lately with the same types of inner battles- doing what I want (many things) vs. what I feel I “should” do (stay in one job doing one thing for as long as possible). My SO is someone who could do the same thing every day, eat the same three meals, and never bat an eye. He has no idea what I mean when I talk about all the things I’d love to do. His response is the same as most people’s- “just pick one”. It’s so refreshing to find a community of people who understand!!

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