The Dogged Defense of Mastery, and the Fear Lurking Behind it
Photo courtesy of Lee Cannon.

The Dogged Defense of Mastery, and the Fear Lurking Behind it

Written by Emilie

Topics: Confidence, Featured

Some people get really angry when they hear my ideas. Now, I have no interest in forcing specialists to lead multidisciplinary lives. Specialists should indeed specialize because it’s who they are. Multipotentialites, on the other hand, should not.

We should all design our lives in a way that meshes with who we are, and not prescribe our approach to other people who may be wired differently.

And yet many specialists seem to take the idea that you can do many things in your life very very personally.

Why So Defensive?

It’s possible that many of these critics are multipotentialites in their hearts, and feel resentful because they have long denied their plural nature. Perhaps they feel as though they had no choice but to adhere to the Specialist Life Plan. They knew no other way.

If it is possible to live differently, then you are forced to ask some hard questions. If doing many things is both okay, and possible (as evidenced by others who are doing it), then I must have the power to do so as well. But if I am not choosing to do so, what does that say about me? It says that I am choosing to stay put. That I can no longer blame anybody else for my circumstances. A very hard thought to digest. It is much easier to believe that things are out of your control, that life is hard, and that you are stuck.

(And yes, I realize that for some people life IS hard. But if you are reading this right now i.e. have regular access to the internet, a roof over your head, etc. then don’t disempower yourself and others by playing the privilege card. Too easy.)

Accepting responsibility for your own happiness is really scary. It might change everything, force you out of your comfort zone, place you in the line of criticism, failure, humiliation. It will certainly make you vulnerable.

But it will also lift you to new heights. It will give you a sense of purpose and excitement about being alive. The more empowered and impassioned we feel, the more of an impact we can have on others and the more we can improve the world.

Deeper Reasons for Resistance: a Jab to One’s Identity

Of course, not all of the resistance from specialists comes from would-be multipotentialites. Another reason that some specialists are so bothered by the notion that doing many things is okay, is that they have built their entire sense of self-worth around being an expert. Their expertise is not just what they do, but who they are.

It makes sense. We are brought up in a society that says that you are what you do. That you are your job, or your medium.

We are taught that we all have One True Calling, and that we must find the one thing that we are or could be the best at, and devote our lives to it. This is how we gain significance. This is what makes our time on Earth meaningful. When you take this approach, find your thing, and aim to become The Best in one area, you are taught to grant yourself status, confidence and most importantly a sense of identity.

Now if someone comes along and questions all the work you put in, all of the commitment and dedication, and years of focus, that criticism might go to the very core of who you are.

Of course I have no intention of questioning anyone’s sense of self-worth. But my ideas might be interpreted this way, particularly by someone whose identity is wrapped up in doing one thing very well.

Why do Specialists get so defensive…? tweet-this

The World I would Like to See

I mean no criticism toward the specialist path, only the imposition of it on the rest of us. My aim is to provide an alternative model for those of us for whom the dominant paradigm does not work.

I want to see a world where the smart kid with the background in theater, music, and writing, isn’t disqualified for the internship at NPR because they haven’t had years of radio experience.

I want to see a world where law firms see a class called “History and Sexuality” on your transcript, and consider you to be a stronger candidate because you have a greater understanding of the human experience.

I want to see a world where artists aren’t discouraged from pursuing their work, and where we aren’t threatened by acts of curiosity and exploration after the age of ten.

Your Turn

Have you faced resistance when trying to explain the concept of multipotentiality to others? Why do you think this is?


  1. Margaux says:

    Hi Emilie!

    What I’ve noticed of those around me is that becoming a specialist is a means of climbing the ladder. We all have to start somewhere, goes the thinking, and for many people, it doesn’t really matter where you start so much as where you end up. Many people don’t think too hard about what they’re really good at or what they’re really passionate about. They just want to be successful, have a big house filled with a lot of stuff, and be able to send their kids to private schools. They might think more along the lines of: “I want to make 6 figures by the time I’m 30. I’m not good with numbers, so cross off chartered accountant. I don’t like talking to people, so cross off salesperson. Blood makes me queasy so cross off cardiac surgeon. I can’t do layups, so cross off pro basketball.” Etc., until you get to, “I like money, and I like excitement so how about investment banker?”

    Then, while studying it, they get sucked into it, and just learn more and more until they’re a specialist at it.

    People who are focused on general upward mobility, aren’t necessarily passionate about the work they do so much as what it achieves. Or, this has been my anecdotal observation.

    And I’m with you on hiring well-rounded people—there has to be a number of these people in any organisation. But, you have to admit there must be more risks in hiring someone who has various interests than someone with an arrow straight career vector. If you’re NPR’s HR manager, you’re going to suspect the eager multipotentialite is far more likely to move on to something else in 1-3 years than someone who is into broadcasting for life. Would you rather spend time and money training someone who won’t be around in 5 years, or someone you think will likely grow into bigger roles and challenges within the company down the road? It’s not unlikely for a multipotentialite to stay and move around inside the company, too, or for a specialist to jump ship for a better job elsewhere, but when you’re hiring, I can totally see why one candidate may appear to be a better investment than the other — depending on the job role in question.

    Hey, I’m one of those people with a problematic résumé, so I get the short end of that stick all the time. Even within my own team at work, I want to stop doing my current job and move into something else, but my team leader doesn’t understand the wholesale abandonment of my former (specialised) occupation. It’s not easy to explain, either. Non-MPs just don’t get it. They think I’m only frustrated with particular problems related to my role, but no, I’m just ready to start something else. It’s the “starting” and “else” that is what I need, and not “less frustration.”

    • Emilie says:

      Hey Margaux,

      Thanks for your comment. Those are very good points. Upward mobility really isn’t something I’ve thought a lot about. Maybe because I have two professor parents and was never really exposed to that environment. But it certainly does explain a lot. Kind of sad.

      And yeah, I hear you on the hiring thing. It depends on the job though. I much prefer to work with people who can handle a range of tasks– like whatever I throw at them. And will also be looking to create new initiatives and start new projects within the company. I think the NPR internship is only a short period of time, so it really shouldn’t be an issue. Project-oriented work is great for multipods. Fair point though.

      • Jim G says:

        I recently had a discussion with my boss concerning specialists in our workplace. She insists that everyone should know everything, and our jobs should be interchangeable. I said that a soccer team does not put in the star goal-scorer as goalkeeper, that would be inefficient in regard to the team’s common goal; defeating the opponent.Perhaps the best answer is to analyze the goals and put the best suited for the task-at-hand into the game at the right position and at the right moment. Our roles as multipotentialites gives us the flexibility to play many different games, although not necessarily every position on the team.

        • Jim says:

          “Our roles as multipotentialites gives us the flexibility to play many different games, although not necessarily every position on the team.”

          Outstanding way to put it Jim G (and a real strong name ya got if I say so myself haha). But I completely agree… Just being a multi doesn’t necessarily make one the best fit for EVERY job, even within one company in a single field. Like everything else, I believe there are a vast number of factors that determine anyone’s success or failure in one particular position (multi or not). I believe that some positions are actually likely best suited for those with one overwhelming primary interest that is essential to thrive in said position or field. I think we may get too caught up in thinking of a “job” as a rigidly defined skill, when in fact I believe every position is unique… That’s to say for a given job; a skill set is required, there are different workplace environments, different co-workers and bosses, etc. At times even us multis fail to remember (or realize) exactly how interconnected everything is if you really look at it.

          I’m going to go out on a ledge and say that I think every human being is a multi, but each individual to a different extent. Exactly how many “types of potential” so to speak exist? Who knows, that is a question I don’t believe that modern science has provided us with a concrete answer to. Like many things, this is likely a subject that can be broken down and looked at from an indefinite variety of microscopic to macroscopic levels. The closest thing I can relate this to is Howard Gardener’s Theory of Multiple intelligences (which many experts criticize as contradictory to the traditional definition of “intelligence” without adequate supporting evidence to be widely accepted). This theory breaks intelligence into sub categories: musical–rhythmic, visual–spatial, verbal–linguistic, logical–mathematical, bodily–kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and possibly existential/moral.
          While this is not a widely accepted theory, I think it and the traditional concept of intelligence may not be mutually exclusive. However I am not yet well educated enough on other current research in subjects such as psychometrics and “g-Factor”, so I welcome everyone’s input!

          Anyways, my point being that each individual likely has varrying levels of each intelligence-type in our own unique combinations. This makes each person more or less likely to thrive in at a given job. Even still, I believe there are still many other things that factor in as well. Whatever the reality might be, I hope we’re all able to find a position in which we are able to thrive!

        • wScottSh says:

          Like with most everything in life, the reality is a balance somewhere between the two extremes.

          I like Valve Software’s approach. They advertise that they look to hire ‘T’ shaped people. Someone that has a deep passion and skill for one thing (an amazing 3D artist, for example) that drills down further than the average person. And then the top of the T is all of the other skills that that person is interested in (bussiness, dance, animation, programming, economics, etc).

          It’s the best of both worlds then. The flexibility and stability of a non-specialized multipotentialite, with the deep focus and stability of a specialist.

          Granted, it’s a long and path to get to where you’re considered a powerhouse ‘T’ shaped person, but that’s cool. Good things sometimes take a lot of time.

  2. Adrijus G. says:

    Have you read book Mastery by R. Greene? It seriously blurs the lines between the specialist/multipotentialite thing. I doubt both exist actually. Best specialists always are multipotentialites because that’s how they get to be original – by taking something from other industry/niche etc and bringing it to their specialty.

    DaVinci, ultimate multipotentialite started to be interested in science and biology because he wanted to become better at painting (understanding anatomy and face muscles would give him more realistic paintings). That’s why he expanded into other things too.

    And another thing, ALL people have many interests. No one has only one interest in life.

    • Emilie says:

      I haven’t read Mastery, but I’ve heard a lot about it. I actually agree with you. Many people who look like specialists actually draw from other subjects. And I agree, everybody has more than one interest, it’s just a matter of how you organize your life. Whether you embrace your many interests in your career or whether you choose among them and focus on one field to the exclusion of the others. It’s largely a matter of how you see things.

      • Wow, amazing post Emilie. Wonderfully written and totally needed to be said.

        I always wonder why people are so adamant about defending the status quo; the status quo is doing fine, it doesn’t need defending!

        As if we just needed to be taught “how the world works”. Ok, well, if that’s the case, then let us tell the world how *we* work, because we’ve heard enough of the former.

        It’s not that multipotentialites disregard logic or reason or the dynamics of business (an argument made whenever people try to use the tried & true example of hiring multipotentialites vs. specialists for long-term positions), it’s that we see a need to challenge conventional wisdom.

        We test the status quo in an effort to change habits, conceptions & meanings.

        Because then you are on your way to changing work environments, the way employers hire and the way companies define themselves and how they relate to their people (for the better). Then you get happiness, increased productivity and then a renaissance. What would that look like?

        What is a ‘big’ role? What is ‘growth’? For who’s benefit should companies exist? It’s necessary to question whether your employers (or your friends or loved ones for that matter) *really* have your development in mind or not.

        Companies likely misuse words all the time for the sake of profit. They may say they promote the “development” of their staff, but if their staff don’t fit their preconceptions (i.e. they get tired of being weighted down by one singular role), then who should change their approach?

        I’m just thinking in the long term, because the more I follow this site, the more people come out of the woodwork saying “Hey, this is me!” Companies are gonna have to adapt to that.

        Or not. Surgeons can still keep being surgeons, and programmers can be programmers, we’ll leave them alone to do their amazing specialist work.

        • Emilie says:

          Awesome points, Josh.

          I definitely think things are moving in a good direction for us. I think companies will need to adapt or they’ll die. The industrial period is over, and creativity is becoming increasingly more important.

  3. Thea says:


    I especially love the line: “I want to see a world where artists aren’t discouraged from pursuing their work, and where we aren’t threatened by acts of curiosity and exploration after the age of ten.”

    So many of my friends are artsy, curious, and creative and they feel like they have to hide it in order to be “respectable” and “employable” and so that their parents don’t freak out about their future. Heck, I feel like that almost all the time when I consider talking about the stuff I really love to do. I can’t change how people around me feel or act, but I’ve decided to take seriously the hopes and dreams of the people around me, and act like that world that I’d love to see is already the world I live in.

    Emilie, you are awesome. Controversial as this post may be for some, it is an important thing to say. Thank you for saying it. :)

  4. Amber says:

    THIS is it:
    “I want to see a world where artists aren’t discouraged from pursuing their work, and where we aren’t threatened by acts of curiosity and exploration after the age of ten.”

    I’ve found that once you get to about the teenage years, and you’re asked what you want to do when you grow up (which i still refuse to do!), the answer of ‘artist’ or ‘world traveler’ are no longer cute and you are quickly trained to find a ‘proper’ answer, something that’s considered to be an actual career by most.

    It’s the same thing with the questions about ‘what classes do you like the most?’, and when you say ‘art’ or ‘music’ or study hall :) you are told to give a REAL answer…
    We have to find ways to encourage kids/young adults to not let their dreams & personalities get trampled from early on so they don’t have to be 28 when they start to figure it out! :D

  5. Pat says:

    Loved this post, Emilie. Thank you.

  6. Jim G says:

    I spent my youth in the goal oriented pursuit of a career in music, and succeeded in achieving the goals I set; to be accepted in the upper echelons of my profession as a competent and knowledgeable performer on my instrument, to earn a substantial living playing the music I loved (not just for money!) and to be in a position to return the favors all my teachers did for me by teaching and passing on a tradition to younger players. I was 27 or 28 when my problems started, namely I discovered the beginnings of a hearing loss that threatened my passion for music. I managed to continue performing many years before finally giving in and calling it quits. End of specialist life. During all that time my multipotential traits grew and festered to the point of taking over and now I am surprized I could ever be so focused on music as I was. Today I can’t focus on anything for very long before the next shiny object catches my attention and I change paths. The internet has helped me maintain my learning and also helped me broaden my social contacts, since most communication is still written. I am not deaf when reading!

    I recently landed a job I thought would be a dream-job, but alas the situation is impossible, due in part to my own deficiencies, as well as those of others involved, and I am forced to seek another alternative.

    I wonder if you have helped others who have lost the ability to function in an area of great passion as I have?

    • Emilie says:

      Hi Jim,

      That is really interesting. Do you feel as though there is some blessing in disguise there? I didn’t lose my hearing, but I did lose interest in music after being very serious about it for years. It was really upsetting at first. Of course now I understand what was going on, and I got really excited about pursuing other areas.

      Your story reminds me of a friend who got into a bike accident many years ago, landed in a coma and had brain damage. Her former career was over, but once she recovered she began working with people with brain damage and helping them heal through art therapy. I wonder if there are other ways that you can integrate music into your life.

      Sorry about your would-be dream job. Maybe you can learn from it– what about it you like, what you don’t like, and tweak your approach for next time. I feel like it’s a process.

      Thanks for sharing your story.

  7. Maureen L. says:

    Thank you! I am a millennial who quit my job (where I was doing too much and getting too little) to pursue finding something to better fit my multiple interests and skills. I started a private (mental health) practice, launched a blog for personal and professional wellness, began volunteering in my city, speaking to professionals at trainings and serving on an executive board. All of these things offered me different ways to grow my skills and help me find a niche so that I could be multi-potentialed. This experience has moved me into a career that is split between two wonderful, flexible jobs and my volunteer work. I love the diversity it gives me, and am glad to see people moving this way.

    Great article. Thanks again.

  8. Angus says:

    Hi Emilie!

    I just wanted to express my kudos to you on such an eloquent and passionately run site. My friend Mel just enlightened me to you last week and I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read so far. I’m glad to have found you at a bit of a crossroads for me – I’ve recently turned 30 and am feeling the well-intentioned pressure from family etc. to get some financial stability in my career. Thanks for the term “multipotentialite” – after years of braving the wilderness and knowing I wasn’t living a conventional life, I now have a name to brand myself with and the comfort of knowing there’s more of “us” out there bonding together to share insight and advice!

    It seems requisite to give a quick summary of my experiences – jazz pianist; punk rock bass player; music teacher; art historian; artist; MacGuyver problem solver; and projectionist.

    I just wanted to put something on the table that might be insightful to yourself and others. Something which I’ve since been able to acknowledge conceptually as “the interconnectedness of everything” – which serves the multipotentialite very well, particularly by helping us to solve our problems with tangential insight.

    An elaborate story is kind of needed to explain haha… A while back, my piano teacher introduced me to the Alexander Technique and meditation. So whilst I set off on my newfound pathway, I was reading a book on the Alexander Technique by Michael J. Gelb (remember that name for later); practicing meditation (and getting wonderful outcomes); pondering a link between meditation and the Uberman sleep regimen, which in turn made me think of DaVinci and his practices. I’ve always been fascinated by the man, and this penny-drop train of thought led me to research Davinci further. In hindsight, if I hadn’t been motivated to get up from my meditation – this train of thought would have been entirely lost. Funnily enough, when I went to purchase a book on the greatest Renaissance man – Michael J. Gelb popped up as a respected author and researcher. Gelb has been fascinated by genius and “multipotentiality” since his childhood, and has other books investigating the habits and practices of many other great minds. I bought Gelb’s audio book “The Spirit of Leonardo” – I’ve found audio books to be an often overlooked medium for learning, and highly recommend you try one if you haven’t already. They’re great for passively absorbing / listening when your eyes are too tired to read a book after one of those frequently epic days of multi-tasking! Anyway, Gelb’s own list of Seven principles about the Davincian lifestyle surprisingly defined all of the experiential discoveries I’ve made throughout my own creative / spiritual life, and I found having a concrete list helped me take stock of where I’m at right now. It vindicated for me that this intuitive path is the right one for me, and I must carry on to fruition!

    Gelb’s principles are defined in Italian (to keep with the Davician theme) but here are explanations in English:
    * Curiosita: An insatiably curious approach to life.
    * Dimonstratzione: A commitment to test knowledge through experience.
    * Sensazione: The continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to clarify experience.
    * Sfumato: A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty.
    * Arte/Scienza: The development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination (“whole-brain thinking”).
    * Corporalita: The cultivation of ambidexterity, fitness, and poise.
    * Connessione: A recognition and appreciation for the connectedness of all things and phenomena; “systems thinking.”

    I hope it’s of use to someone, all the best


    • Emilie says:

      Hi Angus,

      Thanks for sharing that. I’ve heard about his books and have been meaning to check ’em out. Will do that for sure! Sounds very interesting, and applicable to multipotentialites.


  9. Cassie says:

    Really related to this Emilie, as I just had a reader email me a few days ago explaining my multipotentialite label was “threatening” to her (she was very polite about it). I was so confused. Threatening?! I asked for further feedback, and she explained that reading about my many different pursuits threatened her sense of self as someone with “complete unipotentiality.” It seemed so ironic to me that she felt this way, because I intentionally use the multipotentialite label to increase awareness of the concept–discovering it was a life saver for me, so I wanted to be sure to spread the word. I was trying to help! :) After reading your article here, her words make more sense. Great stuff as always.

  10. Jude says:

    Just stumbled on here last night during my all-too-frequent TED binge. I was somehow hoping I could find some advice on self-motivation to move forward my music career. I almost didn’t click on your talk, for the exact reason that it hit too close to home. I’ve spent the past 3-5 years or so trying to force myself to focus on nothing but music (a path I chose because it would allow me flexibility “later on”) metaphorically slapping my own hand whenever I tried to reach for something else. Except, I was always the kid in my teen years who shocked everybody with how many things I did, from music and theatre, to martial arts to community radio, there was barely a day of the week I didn’t have at least 2 meetings or activities scheduled aside from my part-time job. When people used to comment on how multi-talented I was, I would always joke that my only true talent was for learning. Music became my centrepiece because I come back to in in cycles, so I figured that must be my “One True Calling” because it’s the one thing that has always been among my current or recent interests in some form or another. But now I find myself driving myself into depression and anxiety trying to support my family by grinding through the boredom when there’s so many new things I feel so guilty for wanting to try instead. The title of your talk “Why some of us don’t have one true calling” threatened to entirely dismantle the role and identity I’ve settled on as “a musician” and my fear was actually that if I watched it that meant I was looking for an excuse to distract myself from what I “need” to focus on. Again. When really, in the back of my mind, I’ve been desperately asking why, if music is my one true calling, aren’t I filled with motivation and excitement at the prospect of being immersed in it for the rest of my life? Needless to say, I’m glad I clicked anyway. I’m suddenly excited for the future again. So Thanks, a lot.

    • Stephen says:

      Hi Jude,
      I am smiling at your post, because I am sort of the mirror image. Music is the thing I always come back to, but have never forced myself to stay focused or make regular time for. Playing and composing are perhaps what I love doing most, but something I put after everything else that I take on or sign up for. Some have suggested I fear success. I think it is that I always answer to external obligations before answering to myself. Interested in trading places?

  11. Stephen says:

    Hi Emilie, I found myself here by way of your TED talk and have been reading a bunch of your stuff, for which I thank you immensely. But I am still wondering, what if one is clearly a multipotentiate, AND tends to dive deeper, learn more about, and get as good at, everything one does than do most experts? The descriptor of a “T-shaped person” (broad interests with one area of specialization) seems to be popular now, especially in college admissions offices. Using that shape metaphor, do you have advice for a “long-tooth comb” shaped person?

  12. KGB says:

    I feel this needs to be pointed out as it keeps popping into my mind. I see a connection between Multipods and what our society terms ADD. AKA lack of being extremely focused. I have been wondering if the new movement in mental health to medicating everyone who does not fit into the “norm” is a serious concern. Similar to the insight that was given by Temple Grandin when she stated that autism has abilities that are different and useful; does ADD also fit this thinking. Is our society creating mental illness out of what should simply be seen as a unique way of thinking and acting. Now before someone says, ADD people really are suffering and need all the help they can get (of which I am one). Wouldn’t you suffer if you have been trying all your life to fit your round peg into a square hole. The minds response to trying so hard to conform is depression and other more serious responses.
    So my question is how many of you have been diagnosed as ADD?

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