The Specialist Life Plan, and How To Navigate it when You’re a Multipotentialite
Photo courtesy of tourist_on_earth.

The Specialist Life Plan, and How To Navigate it when You’re a Multipotentialite

Written by Emilie

Topics: Multipotentialite Patterns, Work

We are taught to think about our careers in a linear fashion. Each field is like a straight line, leading to an associated career.

For instance, say in high school you’re interested in science. You might study biology, move on to pre-med, then go to medical school, do your residency and then become a doctor. It’s a straight line. Sure, there are a few different types of doctors. You might teach or do research. But it’s generally assumed that if you’re on this path, you will use the skills you acquire in service of the associated career: Doctor.

Similarly, if you’re in architecture school, the associated career would be Architect. In music, the associated career is Musician. If you’re in law school, people assume you’re going to become a Lawyer. And so on.

Each path has an associate career at the end of a vertical trajectory. (Note: when people talk about a “useless major,” they are often referring to a field like English or Philosophy, which has fewer careers vertically associated with it. One of the reason that I don’t believe in “useless majors,” is that multipotentialites tend to apply their skills, not vertically, but laterally. Lets keep going.)

While a specialist might go straight down one of these trajectories to X associated career, multipotentialites often do things differently. We move laterally.

My Not-So-Linear Path

I’ll use myself as an example. I’ve been interested in many subjects throughout my life, but there are four main areas that I studied formally in school. They are: Music, Art, Film, and Law.

Here is each field with a path leading to the associated career I was considering:

path_blank

Now, I could have gone straight down any of these trajectories.

Except that I couldn’t. I tried.

My path looked a bit more like this:

path2

What’s with all the zigzagging about? Well see, I used my web design skills to promote my band. I used my music skills to make the soundtracks to my short films. I used my knowledge of the arts to do work related to copyright policy in law school. Now I use all of these skills in service of an entirely different project: Puttylike.

Of course I may use my skills vertically as well. I design websites occasionally and I’m going to LA to write and record an album next month. But the more interesting work tends to happen when I apply my knowledge horizontally, not vertically. When I use skills in ways they weren’t meant to be applied and smoosh different disciplines together.

The Secret: Get Good at Thinking Laterally

When you’re drawn to a particular field or subject, don’t worry too much about what careers may be vertically associated with that field. You may use the skills you pick up in service of the associated career, or you may use them in service of a totally unrelated project in a completely different field.

The more you practice bringing your different passions into your work, the better you will become at it. Practice smooshing together your diverse interests and exploring the intersections between them.

Your Turn

Have you ever applied knowledge you picked up in one area, to a project in an entirely unrelated field? I’d love to hear about it.

29 Comments

  1. Orrin says:

    I love exploring the crossover between different skills and how I can take my strengths in one area and look to leverage them in another.

    An example is when I took my minimal experience with film and photography and bolstered that with my programming skills to produce a music video clip. Because of the scripting behind it the clip was “technically” very complicated which helped it get a whole bunch of attention, nearly 400,000 views. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dckA77QRztE

    The challenge, I find, comes from balancing the energy and time required to build up the base level in newer skills. There’s a base level of experience required of a skill to make it properly useful and until reaching that point it’s all an investment of energy

    • Emilie says:

      That’s cool, Orrin. It’s interesting how minimal experience in one area can have real impact in another area. You’re right about the base knowledge thing though. Luckily, it doesn’t take 10,000 hours to reach the base level. I think multipods get there faster than most people too because we’re so used to being beginners and picking things up.

  2. Willi Morris says:

    Once I found out that my writing and interviewing skills I learned as a journalism major could be applied to private investigation, I started heading down that path. Sadly, my new hubby is afraid for my safety haha. I ended up writing a blog about being a PI. I still may go down that path, but right now I’m focusing on writing and being an administrative consultant.

    • Emilie says:

      Are you serious?! You’re a PI? That’s one of my dreams. One of the things I imagined as a little kid. I plan on doing it briefly at some point, just to cross it off my Life List. We should talk!

  3. Wow

    So nice Emilie -great images + words. Really digging into the roots of multipotentiality!

    I think you’re / we’re just at the tip of the iceberg with the possibilities of smooshing / intersecting / colliding different interests / mediums together. So much to benefit from it.

    “The more you practice bringing your different passions into your work, the better you will become at it.”

    This just came back to me full force this evening, apropos of nothing, and was so great to remember. And yeah, you do get better at it!

  4. Great post, Emilie.

    Yes, I find that all skills are transferable. I use the negotiating skills I learned just by being cheeky in my purchasing career. The systems and process skills I learned in my purchasing career have been useful for my business at Kaizen Journaling. Writing I’ve done throughout has helped me across all areas – in creative writing, in education, and in corporate work. I’m sure I can come up with a lot more smooshing skills examples, but the point is, you are absolutely correct. Thinking laterally works, and is often far more effective and enjoyable than simply thinking vertically.

    • Emilie says:

      Thanks Dolly! I too have found writing to be one of the most useful and transferable skills. I like to say that law school made me a better writer. It’s absolutely true.

  5. Doug says:

    Yep…I took my knowledge of data mining and applied it to professional football statistics to create a new method for analyzing performance and predicting games. Ended up publishing an annual, getting into radio, quitting my job…..

    Then the guy I became partners with turned out to be a whacko, and kapoof went that plan.

    Now I plan school bus routes, but I’m working on an idea to become a life coach :)

  6. David Delp says:

    I don’t know many skills I’ve learned that don’t apply to other situations. I sing when I give talks. I use my user interface design processes to help people design their lives. I even use my programming skills to think about time management skills. I’m actually baffled when people can’t imagine applying one experience to the next. Once a painter, now a gardner. Same thing, pushing colors around.

    I don’t experience it as a zig zag, but the problems I run into are when I lose my technical chops. I used to be a rock star computer animator, and when I stepped out of using that software to become a manager, I lost my chops. There’s no way I could step back in. Those kids are amazing!

    • Emilie says:

      “Once a painter, now a gardner. Same thing, pushing colors around.”

      So inspiring David, thanks for sharing.

      I guess the skill thing is only a problem when you compare yourself to others, and are fighting for that vertical. When you’re moving laterally, there’s far less competition.

  7. This blog has literally saved me from losing my mind! Everywhere I go, people have constantly tried to push their own learned dogmas on me. I never felt like I fit in very much. I have played guitar since 13, been a martial artist since 15, produce music, film, and am a creative director. I use web skills to make my own business, and also use soundtracks for film projects along with producing engineering, and mixing. My parents would yell at me and tell me to finish the stuff i started. The thing they never understood was that I never really quit any of these things, I continued over the years to bounce back and forth from talent to talent. I would say I have hone most of them to a pretty high level. Inclusive of writing.

    Growing up I felt, lost, in some cases broken, dysfunctional. Everything around us teaches us to specialize. I never could and never could understand how others could do the same thing day in and day out.

    Currently my own business, I bounce daily from, Designer, Developer, Salesperson, Motionographer, Photographer, Cinematographer, Sound designer, and like 10 other things. I Kind of love the frantic ever evolving of it. I have ALWAYS felt a sense of stress, around that fact alone, that it is somehow wrong to think laterally. Almost as if there was a constant nagging to “FOCUS”. You definitely have made me feel a bit less stress and sane! Thanks, your blog rocks!

    • Wow, Chris that sounds like a perfect creative multipotentialite fantasy! Not the parents yelling part or losing my mind part, but the other parts! That’s awesome you’ve made that into a business, too. I would love to do the same for myself, so any sage wisdom you have in running a multipotentialite business would be awesome. For me, I kinda run into the problem where I can’t explain what I’m about in a way that would appeal to any consumer looking for one service. I really want to be like “I can do everything!” but I guess I don’t feel qualified to do web design just because I have a revolving interest in it. But that could just be an excuse, maybe I should just get out there and start approaching everybody? My skill set is pretty similar to yours.

      • Hi Joshua, I would say these days while I still aim to work on all my passions, I am only really using 2-3 as a “bread winner” the remaining I don’t focus on like per say a service I supply, rather a secondary talent to back up the leading talents? If that makes any sense lol. It took me about a decade to figure out exactly where my niche and skills sit, (believe me I am still figuring out so it’s not seated yet) and lot’s of back and forth. They really don’t teach much of this stuff in school or even in society, I feel like when you do a bunch of things you get looked at as someone not serious. That is not the case at all. The hardest part is trying to explain to someone at a social convention what it is you do. My wife always struggles with that when asked. I just say an overarching concept which still gives people a contorted face— Digital Media Production. Most are like great… What’s that? lol.

      • Emilie says:

        Hey Josh,

        A couple thoughts. One thing you could do is start by identifying an audience that you’d like to work with. Then figure out what their wants and needs are and focus, not on the individual features or skills you offer, but on the overall outcome– the benefit to them.

        When I created Puttylike, I decided that I wanted to help multipotentialites. As I interacted with more multipods, I realized that the main issues we have are work, productivity, confidence, and a lack of community/connection, so I set out to create products and services that addressed those needs and also overlapped with things that I wanted to do (write a book, start a membership site, speak, etc.)

        Abe is a Kick Starter consultant, and I like to use him as an example when I speak because Kick Starter Consulting allows him to combine design work, video editing, marketing, etc. My guess is that he pitches himself to a client by presenting the ultimate result: a winning campaign. All of the things he does to get them there, are just part of the process.

    • Emilie says:

      Chris,

      Your comment made my day. I immediately forwarded it to a good friend when it came in, and it’s going in my “Woo file.” :)

      Thank you.

      • Hey thanks! Keep up the great work! I’m super excited to read as much as I can here. Society may see it as a weakness of some sort, but it’s a huge strength to be muli talented.

  8. Lauren says:

    This is amazing! I just found your site and I feel so relieved to find out that there are others out there like me and who are embracing it to make something awesome! I’ve always felt like the jack of all trades and master of none. Good at a lot of things but not great, jumping from topic to topic. I studied biology and psychology in school and am now working in sales at a financial education company. Some of my interests range from traveling, rock climbing, snowboarding, investing/real estate, crafts and reading almost anything I can get my hands on from fiction to personal development to financial topics. I just love to learn and try anything new. I’m really struggling to figure out how it all fits together and the thought of one job for 30 years terrifies me. I can’t wait to explore your site, I think this is exactly what I needed to find at this point in my life. It’s not really a success story of how I’ve “smooshed” my interests, but I just got so excited and wanted to let you know :) I think this site will be a huge help, Thank you!!

    • Emilie says:

      Hey Lauren!

      Aw your comment is so amazing, thank you! What a glorious background and array of interests you’ve got. Keep in touch and let me know how things evolve for you.

      And welcome home. :)

      Emilie

  9. puddle says:

    I’d probably agree to a degree, but there are somethings where you have to be a specialist – no one wants a smooshy kind of surgeon or a doctor dabbling in cardiology. I was a professional dancer, artist and designer and am now training to be a surgeon, There is little to no direct benefit – my ability to do pirouettes minimally impacts my abilities as a surgeon. Though my knowledge of anatomy aids my teaching of dance to a tiny degree and there is some argument about an appreciation of form and aesthetics which helps my surgery (plastics and reconstruction) but I think the big thing is that new fields open up – i’m consulting on improving interfaces and workflow in electronic prescribing based on my expertise on user interaction and also being an end user.
    so aye, nowt goes to waste, but i guess I subscribe more to the multi-specialist pathway more. I run all my pathways at a high level and occasionally new fields emerge, but i find there is not so much ‘smooshing’

    • Emilie says:

      Dr. Sanjay Gupta does a pretty good job of being both a neurosurgeon and media personality. I think his patients probably trust him even though he has a “side gig.” Possibly even more.

      What about the tangential skills that you picked up in dance and the arts? Communicating and interacting with people, discipline, attention to detail. These sound like qualities that will be very useful in your medical practice. I’ve also been told that medical schools like people who come from “non-traditional backgrounds,” because they’re more likely to be good with people. Very important when working with patients.

  10. Naomi says:

    I love how you broke this concept down! Especially the super simple drawings. Reflecting back, I smiled to myself and kind of had an Aha moment. My life has always been a lateral movement, but with pressure from parents, private school, and what everybody expects, I’ve unwillingly tried to mold vertically. I’m happy to say that I am proud to continue on this lateral movement amongst other multipods ;)

    Thanks for the post!

  11. Sheree says:

    I’m a lifelong multipotentialite (a term I’d never head until a week ago and it’s come up twice since then). I just referred to myself as a Renaissance person or dot-connector. My heroes are people like Ben Franklin (who succeeded in multiple fields), Thomas Jefferson, Leonardo da Vinci, Helen Keller.

    I’m educated as a lawyer and I have a Ph.D. and I’ve worked professionally as a lawyer, journalist, writer and teacher. In the early stages of becoming a commercial organic farmer. And I’m about to go big with my blog The Ben Franklin Follies. I started it as a way to explore topics I’m interested in (pretty much everything) and now I’m repurposing it as a way to teach others to become explorers, not couch potatoes.

    I look forward to seeing more about what you have to offer, Emilie.

  12. Sarah says:

    I ran into this when I went from wrenching on cars to working on people (as a nurse). In either field it’s rarely about one part, it’s more about the system as a whole. I refuse to specialize in nursing just because I realize that I am at heart a generalist. I have found that my experiences in theater, music, and retail assist me tremendously in communicating with my patients at their level. Next up is the Ph.d so I can teach AND do research. =)

  13. FB says:

    I thought I’d never smooched interests together, but when I stopped to think about it, I’ve done it so often I don’t even notice anymore. I’m doing it right now! I’m a historian, but I’m using my research skills to help people graduate college. (I work in the facilities department, so, yeah, I don’t know how I got into improving graduation rates, but… I am…) Before that, I interned as an assistant dramaturg at a theatre company (we were doing a historical play), which got me my first job as a production assistant at an opera, where I used the fact that I’d been in and out of hospitals my whole life to help the choir act like the old fashioned nurses they were portraying. (Old fashioned as in efficient-but-highly- detached, which was useful because some of them had little experiece acting and were looking a little detached themselves. I was so proud when the review praised the ‘eerie quality’ the detachment of the choir brought to the play… (No offence to any nurses intended, by the way! Most I’ve known were very loving and not detached at all.)
    That said, when I have to sell myself, I feel blocked. I don’t know ‘what I’m good at’, as I think I could learn almost anything well enough if I had to… People keep telling me they have no idea what I’m going to be when I grow up and I’m 29! They also keep saying I have a strange resume.

  14. Ryan M Hall says:

    I regularly use my sales skills in almost every area of my life, my acting and speaking skills translate to almost every interaction as well. I use my web coding and marketing skills for my own blogs as well as for my film projects and for non profits.

    I don’t have many skills that can’t be drawn upon at some point during a job.

    Thanks for the post!!!

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