“Mike the Musician” or The Dangers of Doing Only One Thing
Photo courtesy of C x 2.

“Mike the Musician” or The Dangers of Doing Only One Thing

Written by Emilie

Topics: Confidence

Note from Emilie: This is a guest post by Mike Pumphrey.

I have a confession to make. I’m not a multipotentialite. At least not by nature.

Instead, I’ve trained myself to be one. Is such a thing possible? Can you learn to be a scanner if your natural temperament leads you to do one thing and one thing only?

I believe you can. And in becoming a multipotentialite, I’ve realized that not only is the multipotentialite life a more fulfilling one for me, but that it also offers protection against some of the challenges that life throws at you.

A Specialist’s Childhood

My parents tell me that I started playing the piano by the time I was five. My memory is a bit hazy on this, but what is certain is that music has been a part of my life since as far back as I can remember. I’m probably the only person I know who actually asked their parents for piano lessons.

I had a normal childhood that was punctuated by abnormal musical achievements: writing the theme music for my hometown’s centennial celebration, winning a school-wide music award, and being invited to audition at an exclusive music school in Philadelphia.

In high school and beyond, I changed tack slightly, moving from piano to guitar, playing in bands, recording my own music, and performing at venues in my area. It was rare to see me without my guitar. When I went to parties, people would always ask me to play for them. I was in demand.

All of this sounds suitably self-aggrandizing, but there was a significant dark side here. As great as it was to be known for something, it felt like I was known for only one thing. “Mike the Musician” was how I viewed myself and how I thought others viewed me. Yes, I got invited to parties and it was always fun to play at them, but did they just want me there because of music? Would they still want me around if I put down the instrument?

This feeling extended to my relationships too. It’s no secret that musicians are particularly appealing to some people, and I can’t deny that I took advantage of this. But living like this bred a kind of paranoia. Is this person interested in who I am or just in what I do? And who am I when I’m not a musician? Am I anything?

The Dangers of Doing Only One Thing

Things came to a head after a few unsuccessful years in New York City. I had moved there to go to school for audio engineering to try and “make it.” But I never felt like I was getting anywhere. The endless search for work and my attempts at getting a stable band together became so unsatisfying and painful, that they started affecting every aspect of my life.

Eventually, things got so bad that I couldn’t continue. I was sick of music and wanted nothing to do with it anymore. I put my instruments down. I even stopped listening to music. As terrifying as it was to finally find out whether or not there was a person there aside from Mike the Musician, I couldn’t avoid it any longer. As I learned, doing only one thing presents a huge potential risk to your identity. What happens if you find yourself unable to continue to do that one thing?

There are scores of stories of athletes whose careers ended quickly due to injury or circumstance (the NFL is euphemistically referred to as “Not For Long”). To develop your craft enough to become a professional athlete, you have to eschew a normal existence, so what happens when that craft is no longer relevant? If you’ve always practiced for seven hours a day and now you can’t, how do you fill those hours? Do you define yourself by your work? How would your view of yourself change if you were laid off or if you retired?

Losing one’s identity is an incredibly painful experience. It actually goes beyond pain and towards the surreal. At points during that time, it felt like I had ceased to inhabit my body. Getting out of bed stopped seeming like the obvious thing to do. I no longer had music, so it felt like I no longer had me.

Becoming a Multipotentialite

Gradually, perhaps due to the pragmatic necessity of needing to fill my days with something, I started looking around for what to do next. I’d love to say that there was one epiphany – a moment when I decided that diversifying my interests was a good move. But the honest truth is that I just started doing a whole bunch of things, without any thought to whether or not that was something that I would ordinarily do.

I volunteered at events that I had little experience with. I hiked up mountains that seemed too big for me to climb. I traveled around the world for weeks at a time, going to unfamiliar and scary places. I started a blog. I took an interest in personal finance and counseling and I started coaching. I signed up for a 200 mile bike ride, despite always having been picked last in gym class. Some things I tried once and never returned to. Some things stuck.

During this process, I came across resources like Puttylike. At first, I was intimidated and envious. These people have all these interests! They never have to worry about losing who they are!

But gradually I learned that the distance between me and others was only one of degrees. We are taught to focus in school, so why wouldn’t we be able to teach ourselves to scan? So I taught myself to scan.

Separating Interests and Identity

The trick to scanning, at least for someone like me, is to not associate any of your pursuits with your identity. If something doesn’t fit, well, that’s not who you are!

When you don’t define yourself using a single vocation or interest, your life becomes less about what you do and more about who you are. This is a much more tenable position to be in. After all, who we are is evolving. If we do this, we can take control of our lives instead of having our one thing control us. We cannot lose ourselves.

There’s so much more that I want to try. Why shouldn’t I take dance lessons, try my hand at gardening or farming, or start a new business? All of these pursuits are brought together by the overarching theme that is me.

Oh and, years after I put it down, I started playing the guitar again. I now play it when I feel like it, without any sense of obligation or stress. It’s just one of the many things I do these days and I like it that way.

Do you define yourself using your interests or your work? Do you find that separating your identity from what you do gives you the freedom to do more?

mikeMike Pumphrey is the author and curator of Unlikely Radical -a community site about money, travel, living intentionally, and other ways to stick it to The Man. He helps people heal their relationship to money, travel the world, and move forward. When not traveling, he lives in Portland, OR.


  1. Desiree says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your journey. I too had an identity – marketer. And now I want to shed it and it has and still is a struggle. I’ve recently stumbled across Puttylike and other similar resources and I understand myself better now, which help me relax, breathe and be kinder to myself. I love the sound of the other things you pursued/scanned. Maybe you are a scanner in private hee hee!

    • Hi Desiree. Thanks! I agree that it is a struggle to shed your so-called identity. It’s made especially harder by others too, who will continue to make those associations long after you’ve stopped.

      I guess our only option is to continue doing amazing things in a wide variety of areas!

  2. Saul says:

    I think this is especially important for musicians/artists/etc. We see so many celebrities who SEEM to be just one thing, so we try to follow in their footsteps. I just read a great book by David Byrne of the Talking Heads called “How Music Works”, and he talks about just how diverse his projects are. Lots of albums, but also plenty of books and even some bicycle activism. It was kind of encouraging to see that even a big-name artist has to spend time diversifying his income streams, and the financial breakdowns for each project were pretty fascinating.

    • David Byrne is a great example of an artist not content to stick to one area. Instead of singing “Once in a Lifetime” in Las Vegas forever, like I’m sure he could have done, he’s at least as creative now as he ever has been. A model for all of us, for sure.

  3. Margaret says:

    Interesting question, and a lot tied up in it… what about the aphorism, “We are what we repeatedly do”? When I think of identity, I can’t get to a succinct description of all the things I like to do, so I simply say, “Writer,” and am reasonably satisfied. I guess I don’t think scanners have as much problem with ‘being identified as X’ since they change so often. No? Or maybe I don’t have a problem with it because ‘identity’ is such an internal concept to me… I’m thinking out loud here, and will likely keep doing so… thought-provoking post.

    • Hi Margaret. I guess I would have to disagree with that aphorism! I think we are so much more than what we do, whether repeatedly or otherwise.

      “Writer” may suffice for some target audiences, but there is so much more that you are than that.

      And it’s just not always possible or convenient to sum up one’s work for others. That’s why instead of just one business card, I have a few!

  4. Jan Koch says:

    Great lesson shared Mike, thanks for being that open!
    I didn’t consider myself a multipotentialite until I started thinking of becoming self-employed and quitting my job.

    Looking back, it feels like being employed in a job just drained my creative energy. I was just working 9-to-5 and that was it. Now I’m bursting with energy, and I’ve discovered many interests I didn’t know I have.

    I think our environment forms us and we need to find our path in it. We need to stick true to who we really are, regardless what anyone else is thinking of it. It’s tough, but it’s so worth it.

    Now I’ll head over to your blog to read more from you :)

    All the best,

    • Hi Jan. Thanks! That’s awesome that you’ve found your path.

      As for sticking true to who we really are, that’s certainly right, though figuring that out is a certainly a long game, and as I’ve found, that definition will change with time. So I think that’s a life-long challenge for all of us. (Not that that’s a bad thing though!)

  5. Lisa says:

    “Losing one’s identity is an incredibly painful experience. It actually goes beyond pain and towards the surreal.”

    Though I always saw myself as a multipotentialite, I chose at a young age to dedicate myself to education. After 23 years, I left the classroom (due to the lack of autonomy/creativity and the increasing mandates on standardization). I had such a varied bag of tricks and used a million different approaches and most of it was my choice. It was the perfect life for a multipotentialite…until it wasn’t anymore.

    After a huge struggle of identity, I came to the conclusion that I will always have the heart of both a teacher and a learner, so I continue on that path as my identity though it’s an ever-evolving concept. Keeping yourself open to new experiences and connecting with people like you and others at Puttylike feed us curiosity/knowledge seekers. Thanks for your insights! I enjoyed them.

    • Hi Lisa. Thanks so much for sharing your story. I don’t envy those who are in traditional education these days. There’s so much diverting the focus and sapping the energy of those who want so much to help, that I can’t blame you for getting out.

      That said, when you have the heart of a teacher, you can’t hold that back forever. Luckily, I believe there are so many other avenues where you can express that and make the difference you wish to make, with no tenure required.

  6. Megster says:

    Something you said in this post reminds me of the Lobo song ‘Would I still have you?’ , that goes somethin’ like “If I did not know how to sing , would I still have you? That’s when I wish I’d never bought that first guitar. I’d be out somewhere in Oklahoma fixing cars. And then at last when my hard-working day is through, I’d still have you!”

    Beautiful post there! ALthough I’m a born multipotentialite still struggling to find my way through the dark, it’s heart-rending to see their’s others out there groping in a myriad kinds of darknesses

  7. “Mike the Musician!” Sorry- That made me chuckle, I can definitely relate. I actually had never heard of the term multipotentialites before reading your blog post. This is a very interesting personality type(?) and it sounds as though you have found a way to capitalize how your mind works. It is invaluable to truly know one’s self, and be as open and honest as you can with self evaluations. Thanks for the wonderfully written post!

    • Thank you both so much! We’re all continuing to figure out what works best and makes the most sense for us, and it sounds like you’re doing the exact same thing. So bravo!

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