Welcome to Dear Puttylike, an occasional column where our team of writers tackles your burning multipotentialite questions! Submissions are edited for length and clarity.
Since I watched Emilie’s TED talk back in high school, I’ve identified as a multipotentialite. But at university I couldn’t pick a specialization. Any time I got deep enough, I got bored. It was agonizing because I wasn’t sure what I was going to do after I got out. Go to grad school? Try to get a traditional job?
I ended up in a non-traditional job in corporate sustainability consulting. I love the team, I’m getting good skills and the day-to-day isn’t so bad, but it’s not really where I want to be. Unfortunately, I don’t know where I DO want to be. I’m not really concerned about the end goal, because it’s hard to predict ahead a year—let alone several years. So, I’m going to stay where I am for at least a year… but I don’t know what I should do next!
Do I get my professional engineering license even though I didn’t specialize? Go to grad school even though I’m not sure for what? Apply for different jobs and just be okay with my interests changing?
—Alex in Agony
Thanks Alex! Your story resonated with me because it’s incredibly familiar. Pencil in different details, and this could be a tale told by many multipotentialites I’ve met over the years… or even myself.
Aim for better problems, not no problems
Reading your story, I was struck by the level of self-knowledge you already possess.
I’ve heard many multipods tell the same story as you, but backwards. In their telling, it’s the endless struggle to pick a specialization that you describe which eventually leads them to the realization that they are multipotentialites. After years of going back and forth, they finally meet others who feel the same and realize, Oh! This is a thing!
However, what I appreciate most about your story is that discovering your multipotentiality wasn’t an end point. It was a beginning.
It’s a great example that self-knowledge rarely solves our problems the way we imagine it should. Instead, it leads us to better problems. In your case, your discovery of multipotentiality in high school helped you to skip an entire class of struggles. Never doubting whether you should be drawn to many different passions, instead you’ve been wrestling with how to use that part of you to build a life.
And, just as self-knowledge took you from one potential problem to a better problem, more self-knowledge can take you to the next step again. This may be a yet more specific problem, like, Now that I have a plan, how do I actually begin to realize it?
To get to that step, we need to know what that plan should actually be aiming to achieve.
What are your true needs?
I’m guilty of living a lot of my life on a surface level: I want a new place to live! A new job! To travel more!
These may all be true, but it’s often helpful to ask why I want those things, i.e. which true needs each of them might meet. Do I want a new job for financial stability? To meet more people? To get out of the house more?
Let’s try this with one of the specific options you mentioned: “Do I get my professional engineering license even though I didn’t specialize?”
The only possible response to this question is “Maybe! Do you want to be an engineer?” But we both know that those sorts of questions are impossible to answer, so let’s break it down together. What would you like to get out of this—or any other—path? Make a list of what aspects of the engineering option motivate you! Do you truly need…
- Financial stability?
- The respect of your peers, or of your family?
- A well-defined career path?
- The chance to use particular skills? (Perhaps design, or mathematics, of the knowledge of materials.)
- The day-to-day life of an engineer?
Try repeating this process with other options. What needs would going to grad school meet that engineering wouldn’t? Again, I don’t mean the obvious surface answer like “I need a qualification” (although that is also a factor). Try to go deeper each time. What needs would the qualification meet? Or what needs would the qualification make it easier to meet in future?
You can even use this framework to consider some wild options. What if you ran away and joined the circus? Or did something you absolutely don’t want to do? What needs would you meet with those options, and what needs would you struggle to meet?
Eventually, you’ll end up with a sense of which needs are genuinely important to you, as well as a feeling for which options can meet them easily, and which options would require tweaking to meet them all. The idea behind this is to escape the overwhelm of choice and to instead engage with the much more fun question of what you need your life to look like.
Beware the variety trap
Before we move on, there’s a road block which can easily stop multipotentialites who are attempting to identify our true needs. I often find myself declaring that my current biggest need is simply “more variety.”
This may well be true, but it’s important to go deeper if possible. After all, moving into a literal beehive would bring more variety to my life, but I doubt it would be much of an upgrade.
(Even if it would be sweet.)
If you find yourself in this trap, ask yourself to be more specific about the variety you want. In other words, in a perfect version of your life, what would be the same day-to-day (or week-to-week, or month-to-month), and what would be different?
Every choice is limiting—and that’s fine
When making life choices, I find it freeing to remember that, in all likelihood, I’m choosing between multiple good options and that it’s possible to build a happy life from each starting point.
Whichever option you pick, you’ll always be able to imagine a version of yourself that chose differently. You’ll be able to picture what you lack compared to them… but remember they can always do the same by imagining you. The version of you who went to grad school and the version of you who took the first cool-sounding job you found are both jealous of each other for some reason.
Since no path in life offers freedom from imagining a way it could have gone better, it’s important to dwell on the good things we’ve found along our own path. Each option we take brings unique experiences that the options we rejected would lack.
And this remains true even if it turns out the option you choose kinda sucks! We all make suboptimal choices, and the only way to avoid them is to never make choices at all, which leads to a life that sucks in a whole other way.
So, when you land on an option that looks like it’ll meet a bunch of your needs and give you room to grow and change and enjoy yourself, then let yourself choose it without worrying too much about the other options. Because…
Nothing lasts—and that’s fine, too
Don’t be scared that any choice you make is permanent. Each choice is a new start. Sure, you can never go back in time and choose another option, but you’ll always be able to make new choices in the future.
Sometimes I worry about this too much in advance. It can be costly—in time, money and emotional energy—to change direction, but there’s nothing actually wrong with doing it. I’ve done it many times. It’s never (yet) been the end of the world.
Alex in Less Agony?
Alex, I think it’s clear from your story that you’ve already absorbed plenty of wisdom and self-knowledge. The fact that you’re consciously choosing to stick where you’re at for a year while exploring other options sounds extremely wise to me.
Like many multipotentialites, I’ve grappled with these same questions many times, and the conclusion I keep coming back to is this: All we can do is pick a path which seems good at the time, and try not to worry too much about it all.
I hope the next path you choose will be interesting enough to keep you on it, and that it takes you somewhere great. But, if not, there’s no shortage of paths. Down each one is hopefully a better problem, if not a total absence of problems.
Best of luck, and do let us know how you get on.
Have you ever navigated a big career change, despite not knowing what’s next? What advice do you have for Alex In Agony? Share with the community in the comments!
Is there something that’s getting in the way of you living your best multipotentialite life? Got a puzzling productivity challenge or career quandary? Is there a particular family member who won’t accept your many facets? Or maybe you have a more general question about multipotentialites and how we move through the world? Send your “Dear Puttylike” questions to email@example.com