I found Puttylike today while searching the web for advice on how to settle down and focus on just one interest in life. I’ve struggled with this ‘problem’ for as long as I can remember– having varied, multiple interest and goals and cycling through them on a regular basis. It’s has caused me much anguish throughout my life, since I thought there was something truly wrong with me. I just never stopped to think that there were others out there like me. Nor did it ever occur to me that maybe it was okay to be this way.
Just reading the website for 30 minutes has made me take a huge step back and reconsider all of this. But I’m skeptical. What ever gave you the idea (and the courage) to consider that having multiple interest was okay? I’ve been married for almost 20 years and my wife is finally getting to the point where she accepts me for who I am. I believe she still see’s it as one of my defects, but she accepts it. If my own wife only tolerates me, what chance do I have in this world?
– A multipoltentialite… If there is such a thing
Thanks so much for your question, “A multipotentialite…”. I’ve decided to turn my answer to you into a blog post because I have a feeling the discussion will be helpful for other people too.
Is “multipotentialite” a real thing?
Well, the word itself was invented by a friend of mine and popularized through Puttylike. But the idea of the multipotentialite isn’t a new one. There are several other terms that are used to describe people with interests ranging multiple disciplines. Some terms that come to mind include:
- Renaissance Person
- Jack-of-all-trades (though I’m not a fan of this one)
Dan Pink has written about the importance of synchronicity in his book A Whole New Mind. And Fast Company has even published a series of articles on how
beneficial necessary it is to be flexible and multitalented in our economy.
My spin on the idea
The word multipotentialite is my own spin on the idea. But even multipotentialite comes from the real word “multipotentiality,” which is a term in psychology used to refer to people who have aptitudes in multiple disciplines.
The idea of the Polymath goes back to ancient Greece though, and the term has been applied to figures ranging from Aristotle to Leonardo Di Vinci to Ben Franklin, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Jean Cocteau, René Descartes, Eleanor Roosevelt, Julia Child, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. There are many modern figures that I would call polymaths. Names like Maya Angelou, Gloria Steinem, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Martin, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Tim Ferriss, and James Franco spring to mind. Most entrepreneurs, mixed-media artists, writer/director/producer, singer/dancer/actor combos are also multipotentialites.
It’s not only prominent cultural figures who do many things either. If you start looking around in your life, you’ll likely begin to spot people who runs more than one business or has two very different jobs, each of which they love for different reasons. Most people with careers in multidisciplinary fields (architecture, environmental policy, art therapy, etc.) have several different backgrounds and areas of interest.
So yeah, it’s a thing. There are definitely a lot of people out there who are unable to devote their lives solely to one area (I’ve heard from thousands of them at this point). The way to make it work is find ways of integrating your multipotentiality into your life.
Is being this way okay?
Let’s tackle the second question in your email: is being this way okay? I guess that depends on what you mean by “okay.” If what you mean is: can someone with many passions have a successful career, make a significant positive impact in the world, be happy and healthy, then yes, it is “okay.”
The proof is everywhere; in our history, in our culture, in our communities.
However, if when you ask whether it is “okay” to be this way, you are asking whether it accepted, then no, multipotentialites are not widely accepted or understood– yet. For a long time, it wasn’t “okay” to be gay either (this is still true in many places). It was pathologized. In order for it to be “okay,” society had to change.
Obviously, these two issues are very different. But there are some similarities, namely that the problem lies not with the people who have the trait, but with the rest of society’s lack of awareness, acceptance and education.
Most of us grow up in a world that pressures us to specialize, so it’s all we know. But even this pressure comes from a specific point in history: the industrial revolution. We don’t think about it that way, we think of the requirement to specialize as some innate truth. But it’s rooted in culture, not biology. (If anything, you would think that biologically-speaking it would make the most sense to be able to adapt and have a wide range of skills to draw from– from shelter building to hunting to child-rearing.)
In my opinion, being this way is not simply okay, it’s a tremendous advantage. There are huge strengths to embracing your plurality (here’s a list of some the super powers I identified, and here’s a great article by Tim Ferriss on this topic).
Being accepted by our loved ones
I’m sorry that your wife doesn’t see your multipotentiality as a strength. Perhaps once you start seeing it that way, she will begin to as well.
My guess is that she loves you and is trying her best, but just doesn’t understand. She too grew up in a specialist-centric culture. She probably hasn’t noticed all of the people in the media and in her own life who are doing many things because she hasn’t looked at the world through that lens. Maybe you can point these figures out to her. Maybe you can explain the notion of the multipotentialite to her, send her a link to the terminology page, or give her a copy of Barbara Sher’s Refuse to Choose.
Here’s a whole post about dealing with disapproving family members. A lot of that applies to partners as well.
I hope I’ve answered your questions, A multipotentialite... I also hope you feel better about being a multipod. It’s who you are, and like the Drama teacher in the critically-acclaimed teen drama, My So-Called Life told Ricky in the “Self-Esteem” episode, “Nobody should hate who they are…”
Your pal and fellow multipotentialite,
What advice do you have for the letter-writer? How do you know that “multipotentialite” is a real thing?