The Evolution of an Overarching Theme
Photo courtesy of Dom Crossley.

The Evolution of an Overarching Theme

Many of us feel relieved when we first come across the term “multipotentialite.” We’re so excited to find out we’re not alone and that there’s nothing wrong with us.

At this point, many of us keep digging, perhaps reading through several years’ worth of Puttylike articles. Eventually we come across the concept of an overarching theme. And we feel hopeful. This is it! We just need to figure out our overarching theme, build a business or career around it, and we’ll never grow bored of our work again!

And for some people that is all it takes. They work through Renaissance Business, identify their overarching theme, and get to work creating the business of their dreams. But what if you can’t figure out what your overarching theme is?

The Evolution of My Overarching Theme

A few years ago, I decided I wanted to start a business, so I booked a coaching call with Emilie. Before our call, I sent her a list of all my interests, projects, and business ideas, both past and present. I mentioned running LGBT campaigns, doing a masters in the use of sexuality labels like “queer” in German and Slovenian, and how I loved to create little cartoon versions of my friends.

At the time, I was planning to start working as a freelance e-book designer and editor. To be honest, I think I was probably looking for confirmation that this was a good idea more than anything else.

The Seed of an Idea

So when Emilie announced that my overarching theme appeared to be “identity.” I was a bit surprised. That wasn’t what I was looking for. I could tell that she was onto something, but I wasn’t ready to hear it.

I put Emilie’s thoughts to the side for a while and carried on with my freelancing plans. Along the way I started blogging about lifestyle design for young people. Through my blogging, I noticed that I enjoyed writing about confidence.

Soon I had a realization. I wanted to be a confidence coach for shy girls! I was so excited about this idea and I was sure this was it. I couldn’t wait to get to know these young girls, help them see what made them special, and help them become more confident versions of themselves.

Hmm… This idea seemed to fit under Emilie’s umbrella of “identity.”

To start working towards my new dream, I created a confidence blog for shy girls. I remember how nervous I was on launch day. This was a big deal. It was going to be my thing and I wanted to do it right.

But about six months later, I started to get bored. I loved blogging but I resented having to write about confidence all the time. So I gave myself permission to turn my blog into a personal blog and to write about whatever I wanted. I ended up writing about self-awareness, confidence, identity, and myself. Hm… Emilie was definitely onto something.

Acceptance

As I finally started to accept that identity seemed to be a theme in my life, I began noticing more and more obsessions in my life that fit it. I’ve always loved making personalized cards. As an aspiring author, I’ve always loved dreaming up characters for novels. The stories I come up with are usually coming of age books.

I started to see that I was having a bit of a Steve Jobs moment:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” – Steve Jobs

Refining the Idea

Around this time, a blogger I followed shared her wedding video. I was planning my wedding and was suddenly desperate to have a video like hers. Why? Because, I realized, I wanted the chance to see myself through someone else’s eyes.

Not long after that, I was listening to a business podcast when someone said the words “character study.” Suddenly I had the words to describe so many of my projects, including that wedding video. What I loved was documenting and analyzing the identities of individuals – creating character studies.

A Work in Progress

My theme isn’t 100% defined yet. “Identity” might cover it. Maybe “character study” is closer. But it doesn’t matter. For me, it’s all about the individual, their identity, personality, and being aware of who you are. I haven’t brought it all together into one perfect sentence yet, but that’s OK.

Having a sense of what my theme is has given me a context in which to understand my passions. It explains why I suddenly felt the need to start a podcast about introspection. It explains why the same-sex weddings book I’m writing isn’t a how-to guide but a collection of personal stories. Knowing what my theme is helps me to understand and organize my interests. It brings order to the chaos.

What You Can Take from My Story

I’ve learned a few lessons about overarching themes that I hope might bring you some comfort as you try to figure out what yours is.

1) You don’t have to figure out your theme straight away

I wanted to figure out my exact theme years ago, so that I could start the project that would be the answer to all of my problems. Each time I started something new, I thought it would be my thing. Nothing so far has been “the thing” and that’s been perfectly OK. I’ve had a great time. Figuring out your theme isn’t the be all and end all.

2) Your theme might be obvious to other people

We tend to know ourselves so well that we can’t step back and see the bigger picture. It may be that your mom or your best friend could figure out your theme quicker than you could. If you want to figure out your theme, ask those around you. Even better, ask someone who’s great at spotting patterns.

3) You’ll get closer to your theme over time

I feel like my theme has gradually been coming into focus. Emilie identified it all those years ago, but I wasn’t ready to see it. But her naming it was probably what I needed to start spotting the clues. As I’ve gone along, I’ve seen more and more evidence that this was what it is.

It’s become more precise too. “Identity” became “character study.” Who knows what it’ll be in another five years’ time?

4) The best way to find your overarching theme is by following your interests

Writing a blog about lifestyle design made me realize I was interested in confidence. Writing a blog about confidence made me realize confidence wasn’t all I was interested in. Writing a blog about anything I wanted made me realize I was interested in self-awareness. Listening to a podcast about business gave me the phrase “character study.”

I wouldn’t have such a good understanding of my overarching theme now if I hadn’t started all those projects. Each one has enabled me to explore my interests and to get to know myself better. And each one has been fun and taught me a load of skills too.

Don’t sit and wait for a eureka moment. Don’t wait for “the perfect idea.” Because that idea is probably not going to come up and tap you on the shoulder while you’re moping around. Instead it’ll probably be an iteration of idea you had that didn’t work out while you were trying to teach yourself a random skill you discovered through your last project. Or something.

Author Joanna Penn often talks about “filling herself up” through travel. She finds that if she puts lots of things into her head (places, experiences, people), eventually those things come back out in the form of great story ideas. She keeps traveling to make sure there are plenty of ideas percolating that she can use in her novels years from now.

I bet that if you keep following your interests, you’ll have more ideas and get closer to your theme too.

Don’t Worry

So don’t worry if you don’t know what your overarching theme is. If you’ve done loads of introspection and journaling, and you’re not getting any closer to figuring it out, put your pen down. Stop analyzing and start living. Follow your interests, even if you don’t think any of them will be “the one.” Trust that they’ll bring you closer to your overarching theme and enjoy the journey.

What clues have you come across that hint at what your overarching theme might be? Has following your interests brought you closer to an understanding of what it is?

jo_authorbioJoanna James-Lynn is a virtual assistant, podcaster, blogger, and writer. She’s fascinated by personality, identity, and self-awareness – themes she explores in her podcast, Introspectology and on her blog. She’s also a linguist and a runner, and she’s currently writing a book about same-sex weddings. Find out more about her projects at JoannaJamesLynn.com or follow her on Twitter @joannajameslynn.

25 Comments

  1. Em says:

    This is a blogpost I needed to read :) Few years ago when I stumbled across Emilie for the first time, I dived in this field and all her writing just like you say. I filled in all those workbooks and I had several brainstorming sessions with myself, pen a paper. It always gave me some ideas but nothing ever led to anything serious, nothing ever felt like the “a-ha” moment and I never had any real idea for a business or even just making a bit of money of my blog. So I do what you say, I just blog for fun, hopefully to help others and for my own self-realization really, I live my life and maybe once in a year I sit down again to write my ideas and feelings down again. And it’s always a bit different :D I still feel it evolving, still can’t grab it like finished product, but I figured that that’s probably who I am. I identify strongly with a phoenix creature anyway and he’s also all about changing and new starts all over. So I am kinda fine with it but it was nice to read that I’m not alone :) Thanks a lot!

  2. Clair says:

    I’ve found another phoenix!
    I knew I wanted to do more and have recently just jumped head first into personal blogging. I know I want to turn this into something that enables me to work for myself, however I am figuring this out as I go along. I’ve spent a lot of time on personal development for myself and think this will be much of my route. I just feel like I need to get this going asap as I’ve already spent so much of my life figuring things out. I want to be doing this already!!

  3. Sorcha says:

    This is EXACTLY the post I needed too.

    And Em, I’d be interested to hear what you’re doing to earn money in the meantime, and if your blog is starting to attract followers?

    I too, am going to start a blog!! I’ve sort of shrugged it off until now because it didn’t feel like a finished idea but… You’re right, that doesn’t matter!

    Going to do it instantly. :-)

    • I’m a virtual assistant. That evolved out of everything too. I blogged and did other things for fun, which gave me the skills I needed to be a virtual assistant, helping other bloggers and business owners. :)

      I do have blog subscribers, but I’m not blogging so much now and I’ve never really ‘done anything’ with them. Which feels like I’m wasting an opportunity. But hey. You just have to do what you want to do, I guess. And I don’t feel like pushing the blog right now. :)

    • Em says:

      Hi Sorcha,

      I have been travelling in last three years, always go abroad for a different job, been au-pair, nanny, housekeeper, housecleaner… nothing to do with “career” or stuff, just quite plain hard jobs to make money :D I spent year and half in West Sussex, UK, then 9 months on Isles of Scilly, then 3 months in Alaska, and in the meantime I always spend up to few months at home where I don’t need to have a job since I have saved and I stay with my parents.

      At first I thought au-pair would be something temporary for me but I actually love living abroad. It’s not like I was dreaming of becoming cleaner or room service stuff, but cleaning kinda goes well with my minimalist nature, I love nice clean spaces and manual job satisfies me.

      My blog has like 50 followers, not many of them comment, though, but to be fair I usually write personal/travel diary and only seldom “How-to” posts which are certainly more popular :D I also mostly write in Czech – I know I could reach much further with EN blog but I just can’t make myself translate everything.

      As much as I love the idea of making money of writing a blog, since that is really what I love the most to do, I don’t think blog has to be started with that intention, maybe it’s actually opposite :) I started it not only before it was cool, but also when it was actually something to be ashamed for, especially in Czech Republic :D It was a girly blog. And in a way it still is, as I said, I don’t see it becoming professional travel blog/minimalism blog/whater I dreamed of. For that I think I’d have to start another one and I’m just not feeling like having two blogs. (I actually already have an old tumblr about meditation, I even forgot about that until now, lol)

      Who knows, maybe in the next wave of inspiration I will do that, start another EN blog :) And maybe making money of blog will simply never be my thing. Anyway, don’t wait for the thought to be finished, it doesn’t really matter how you start. Just start it, do some basic design, start to write your thoughts and it will evolve itself. You can be finding your voice and having fun even without thinking it trough :)

  4. Davis says:

    Awesome! Thanks for the little bump.. I’m on the brink on launching my own site and this helped :)

  5. Inês says:

    I really enjoyed this post. It got me thinking that everything I’ve done so far comes down to writing or science, but I’ve never actually wrote about science. Maybe I would love that, I don’t know, I’m excited I’ve figured a new thing to though…

    • Inês says:

      * a new thing to try

    • Yes! I figured out something similar once. It hadn’t occurred to me that ‘writing’ was a theme/pattern for me. I’ve been writing and using words all my life – writing novels, blogging, studying languages, doing translation, etc., but somehow hadn’t noticed!

  6. Lorraine says:

    The theme “I get bored” is high on my list. Lots of ideas and I get so interested in so many things but, there comes a point, I’m bored.

    In this world of “small bits”, I’ve chosen a “big bit” and am now working on the “little bits” inside the big bit so that I hope the big bit contains so many topics in an overall arching theme that I will always be inventing, re-inventing, promoting new ways of doing things and listening to a diverse audience to morph all the ideas into new ideas. Then, I can develop systems to make the ideas come to life for people in practical and useful ways. I guess I’m an artist though I can’t paint, sing, draw, dance, write fiction or any other demonstrable talent other than creating practical, applicable methodologies.

    As you have said, it’s fun to “uncover” this “intangilbe potentialite” thing . . . and turn it into something that is satisfying and profitable.

  7. Liisa says:

    A good read, thank you! Lately I’ve been wondering about my aversion to “connect the dots” in order to see the big picture of what I am and what I do, since always in fact. I love reading all sorts of narrations, books, stories, biographies, blogs, but I’ve never liked or felt the need to produce anything in those lines myself. Connecting the dots is producing a sort of narrative on oneself, something more coherent and (maybe?) in this sense more acceptable (to ourselves) than what we generally feel we are as multipotentialites. I may be very extreme and wrong in thinking like this (as I currently do), but connecting the dots and making my own narrative would feel to me like putting myself in a box with a label on it. I don’t like labels and boxes. Somehow, if I did that, I would feel trapped in that definition of myself and I’m also afraid that the definition itself would start to govern me in what I do and how I evolve in this life. It would feel like the end: OK so this is what I am…so what now? Just like I avoid talking too much about or analysing too deeply my “artistic approach” – to me putting these things into words just kills the magic. I recently read a very good article: “I am not a story ; Some find it comforting to think of life as a story. Others find that absurd. So are you a Narrative or a non-Narrative?” (find it here if you’re interested https://aeon.co/essays/let-s-ditch-the-dangerous-idea-that-life-is-a-story). So I’m definitely a non-narrative. I (currently) like to think that I may (or not) do the connecting of dots as late in my life as possible, as a sort of puzzle to work on when I’m peacefully seated in my rocking chair at the ripe age of 111…

    • Interesting point. I get the labels thing. When you give yourself a label, I think you often become more of that thing, which, for us at least, can feel quite limiting. Food for thought!

  8. Monica Torres says:

    You guys seem to have found your thing through writing (and blogging) first, what if I don’t like writing and am interested in marketing and veterinary medicine among others? Any suggestions on how to explore my “thing”?

    • Em says:

      Hi Monica, this is interesting question, I never thought about it because I just assumed everyone who is multipod is also somehow blogger, but obviously that is nonsense :D

      What about other medias, though? Vlogs? Podcast? Or couching people? Can you explore it while reading, connecting to people in the veterinary field, learning about this sphere…? Dunno, I’m interested myself in the answer, could give me some more inspiration, too :)

      When I see those words, I imagine you finding some cause related to veterinary field/animals and then spreading the word to people, gathering money, running events related to animal sanctuaries/houses or vets in need of better equipment etc… :)

    • I think for me, the main thing is to just do the things you’re interested in and see where they lead. I don’t think you necessarily need to document or reflect on them, although that is really helpful for me. I’d say just do anything you’re excited or curious about (if you can), and see where it leads?

  9. Patricia says:

    Hey Joanna! Thank you a lot for letting what you’re going through in this post. As you have probably listened a lot lately: THAT WAS EXACTLY WHAT I NEEDED TO HEAR! I’m from South America and on my early thirties. We come from a culture where you chose very early in life what to study from a pool of very traditional careers. Now, I feel sometimes (a lot actually) that I have studied and built up a successful career that my body and soul screaming to step out of it and start walking down a more fulfillment path and start my own business.. But there is just when I go BLANK! Emilie and Puttylike has helped me to feel relieved and understanding what a multipotentialite is, and now your post just confirms me what I just have been experienced for the last couple of month.. Pursuing and DOING things that I really enjoy and have interest in will open new paths that I did not know before. For me, Yoga and Professional Photography have helped me with the introspection and peace that I needed, and I feel that they will keep helping me opening doors. I have not come across with my AHA moment, but I feel pursuing true joy will help me with that, and calm down about the thirties-I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-my-life Crisis! xD Thank you once more for your post!

  10. Debbie says:

    Thank you for this!! I think I am in a similar stage to you, in terms of gradually feeling closer to an overarching theme. I will be applying for a Masters degree course soon, and I am really excited about the possibilities this will open up for me. I don’t think it will answer every interest I have, and until discovering Emilie’s Ted talk recently I fell into the category of people who thought that meant there was something wrong with them… For now though, I have found a career (social work) that draws upon much of my random work history, that offers variety going forward, and that I’m sure will leave me with more valuable skills in the future for when I find something else new and exciting… except that thanks to posts like these, I no longer feel the anxiety from believing I am a freak who is wasting my life by not having one career. Thank you for saving me from myself!

  11. Tom says:

    Hi Joanna, I’d never really wondered whether my interests had an overarching theme – it never occurred to me to look at them in any detail.

    I’m into graphic design (a large part of my day-job), I’m making inroads writing a sitcom (one page so far, ideas slow to form), Postcrossing, learning to speak Russian (3+ years now, slow work!) and recently new to my list is information security and communications systems – so many high-profile hacks get reported in the news that I really got intrigued about the mechanics of how such breaches happen. Also dabbling with shortwave radio, but again from a technical interest in how it functions.

    So, I’ve finally figured out that my overarching theme is actually two overarching themes! 1) Creativity – the pleasure of making stuff. 2) Understanding the functioning of something – dismantling and analysing some system until I have figured out what makes it work.

    • Very cool! There are a few people in the Puttytribe with themes like those. I’d love to have a theme like ‘understanding how things work’. It seems so clear and easily applicable to so many areas of life!