So, You’re a Multipotentialite. Here’s How to Break It To Your Specialist Family.
Photo courtesy of Richard Croft

So, You’re a Multipotentialite. Here’s How to Break It To Your Specialist Family.

Written by Kristin Wong

Topics: Relationships

When I was a kid and I heard Margaret Cho complain about her strict, Asian parents, I was bowled over. It was so relatable, and there weren’t many other Asians in the small Texas town I grew up in, so I had no idea this was a shared experience.

Generalizations be damned, Margaret spoke the truth. Doctor, lawyer, maybe pharmacist—these were the occupations expected of me, my brother, and my cousins when we were growing up. You do the One Thing and go to work and shut up and don’t embarrass your family. And pull up your pants.

So imagine my mom’s surprise when I told her I wanted to move to Los Angeles and be a screenwriter. Try to picture her furrowed brow when my brother said he was switching majors, from pre-med to General Studies, because he didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up. He still doesn’t, and for what it’s worth, neither do I. My poor mom—I can still hear her heavy sigh.

But recently my mom shared something with me that I thought was pretty special. “When you moved to California, you said you didn’t want to regret not trying something, even if you failed,” my mom told me. “It made me realize that not trying feels worse than failure.”  

“Um, yeah,” I said, taken aback at Mom’s open-mindedness.

Most people have a handful of different interests and hobbies. As a multipod—someone who actively celebrates that fact and pursues your interests—you might have found that the pursuit has gotten in the way of the specialist lifestyle your family and friends have laid out for you.

Maybe you’re planning to leave your stable 9 to 5 job and embark on a new, precarious career. Maybe you’re spending a lot of time, energy, and money on making short films, and your family doesn’t approve. Whatever the scenario, talking about your multipotentiality can be tricky, especially when the people you love come from a highly specialized background or culture. If you know they’re going to be disappointed, you might be reluctant to talk about it with them at all. These three tips might help soften the blow.

1. Have a Plan in Place

While neither of my parents reacted particularly poorly when I told them I wanted to switch careers—there was no yelling, no name-calling—they were still concerned. And even though that concern came from a good place, it could be demotivating. It’s hard to finish a goal when the people around you, especially the people you love and respect, second-guess your every move.

Of course, that’s what parents do, they worry, but that worrying can be discouraging. It can make you want to give up on your goal altogether, because you’re second-guessing yourself, too. To avoid this, I predicted some of my parents’ concerns, and thought of every possible argument they might have against my move. You won’t have enough money. You won’t be able to find a job. You’ll have to come back and start over. I had a plan in place for each of those scenarios.

For example, I saved up several thousand dollars of my income for about a year so that I’d have enough money to live on if I couldn’t find a job at first. I also negotiated freelance work with my employer at the time, so I wouldn’t be completely jobless, and found two other remote freelancing gigs. When I moved, I would have a healthy emergency fund as well as some income. This was prudent for my move, anyway, and it made it harder for my parents to doubt me. After all, this wasn’t just some harebrained scheme, this was a plan.

2. Know When to Share

I’m lucky. Despite their worrying, my family is, for the most part, pretty open-minded about my hobbies and aspirations. But let’s say your loved ones aren’t so open to your multipotentiality. Let’s say you’re an artist, and anytime you try to pursue your art, your family has something negative to say about it. It might help to talk to it with a family member who might be more supportive or understanding of your pursuits.

For example, my step-dad is a classic multipod—throughout his life, he’s been a professional martial arts instructor, a business owner, a security guard, and a musician. Perhaps that’s why he was a little more understanding when I told him I wanted to switch careers. He also helped assuage my mom’s fears, which made things a little easier for me.

In some cases, I think it’s reasonable to limit how much you share about your different hobbies and interests. When I was doing sketch comedy, I kept it quiet from some of my family members who I knew would just say, “Kristin! Why are you wasting your time? Make some money!”

Even when I moved to LA and my family supported me, I had friends who doubted me and told me I was making a mistake. One former coworker emailed me incessantly and said things like, “You’re going to move back to Texas with your tail between your legs.” It seemed less like concern and more like I was the object of his schadenfreude. Something about my move was hitting a nerve. I stopped talking to him, not because I was in denial about the possibility of failing, but because it’s hard enough to get out of your comfort zone without someone egging on your failure.

The point is, not everyone is going to be supportive of your multipotentialite moves, and in some cases, it might be in your best interest to limit your interaction with them.

3. Define What “Success” Means to You

Finally, it helps to understand your own definition of success, and separate it from other people’s. For my parents, success was finding a job that paid well. It was buying a house and living a calm, drama-free life. But my definition differs from that quite a bit.

To me, success is about exploring—squeezing every ounce of experience out of life that I can, even if it’s dramatic, and even if it’s not always happy. And that included pursuing a hobby that had turned into a passion.  If I tried to be a writer and it didn’t work out, sure, I might feel like a failure—but not nearly as much as I would if I never tried at all.

When I defined for myself what success would be, it was easy to talk about these things with my family because I understood that, even if they weren’t fully behind my move, it wasn’t because they didn’t love me or support me or have faith in me. It was just that we had different definitions of success.

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I’ve always envied people who come from families that nurture their creative hobbies and endeavors. As a kid, my best friend wanted to be a gymnast. Then she wanted to take horseback riding lessons. Then she was in band. Not only could her family afford to fund these interests, they also encouraged her to do something new every year. If I ever have kids, I hope that I can do this for them, too.

This makes me wonder if there’s a certain amount of privilege in pursuing your multipotentiality. Like a lot of Chinese immigrants, mom had an unstable, underprivileged life growing up. My grandmother moved her children to another country with a single goal in mind: survival. It’s hard not to be a specialist when you think about life in those terms.  

Like her own mother, my mom wanted her children to land good jobs and build solid foundations for themselves and future generations. When your kid shakes up that foundation with her sketch comedy, her writing pursuits, and her crazy business ideas, it’s probably quite scary.

Recently, I asked my mom about this. How did she feel when my brother and I veered from the course she had laid out for us? “I guess we’re lucky,” she said. “Life isn’t just about surviving anymore. It’s also about doing things that make you happy.”

Your Turn

How do you talk about new pursuits or interests to family and friends who want to see you specialize? Share your experiences in the comments below.

neil_2017_2Kristin Wong has written for the New York Times, The Cut, NBC News, and Glamour magazine. She’s the author of Get Money: Live the Life You Want, Not Just the Life You Can Afford. Kristin is a writer, but she’s also an amateur photographer, speaker, podcaster, and recovering workaholic. You can find her on Twitter or Instagram @thewildwong.

8 Comments

  1. Jess says:

    Thanks for all this excellent advice! I am really glad you brought up the topic of privilege here. It’s been something I’ve struggled with for a while recently, with my friend group, and I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts…

    Most of my peers are in a place financially where they need to find & stick with full-time jobs in order to make ends meet. I’m lucky enough that my spouse & I have been able to arrange our finances so that there’s enough wiggle room to allow me to start my own business & follow my passions. Yet when I share my plans with certain friends, part of me fears (and sometimes feels) their judgement or jealousy. Of course, this quickly differentiates the wholly-supportive True Friends from the rest, and I know that it reveals more about the judgement caster’s internal struggles than their feelings toward me. But even so, I haven’t figured out how to resist alienation from everyone else – especially at a difficult time of transition & vulnerability. I don’t think it’s productive to feel guilty or ashamed about the steps I’ve taken, or the privileged position I’m in, but I often want to curl up and hide when certain people ask about my work plans.

    Any good strategies for dealing with these touchy conversations & emotions?

    • Kim says:

      I don’t have any solid advice for you – but I just want to tell you that I can relate to your entire comment so much! I’m basically in exactly the same situation – transitioning between jobs/fields, trying to orientate myself and see what will work out. Including also the privilege that I (and my boyfriend) don’t have financial problems during that process. So I can basically stay calm for at least a few months until I can be sure what I want. I’m close to finishing my PhD in 2 months, and my dad is constantly asking what I’m up to afterwards – so far I haven’t told him that I have some ideas already, but plan on taking it slowly for a few months. He wouldn’t understand (for him it was always about financial survival) – or at least it would take a long discussion, and I don’t have the energy for that right now.
      I guess my only advice would be trying to avert discussions about such topics as long as possible, until one doesn’t feel as stressed or vulnerable anymore. I found that the longer I toy around with ideas in my head, the more secure I become about them, and then I don’t have that many problems anymore defending my path before others.

    • Kristin Wong says:

      As someone who has been on both sides of the coin (lucky to have more freedom in my career and stuck in a dead-end job, envious of friends with more flexibility), I think it’s great to acknowledge the privilege and all, but I also think it’s important to include those friends in the conversation. Because chances are, they’re feeling left out and inadequate, and that’s why they seem unsupportive.

      Your friends might not feel like they’re doing anything special in their 9-5 job, but career goes far beyond what we do for a living. I would try to find a way to relate what you’re going through to something that’s important to them – without being patronizing about it. Truly support and respect what matters to them, and urge them to succeed in it, even if it’s not something you would be interested in yourself. It’s hard to feel jealous of someone who is wholly rooting for you to succeed.

      I don’t know, that’s what helped me when I felt less than in a dead end job. I had an acquaintance who was a doctor and he would always ask about my writing with genuine curiosity and encouragement. It made me feel important when I would otherwise feel intimidated. People just want to feel like they matter, I think.

      I’ve heard so many business gurus suggest finding a new circle of friends when you get more successful, because old friends will just bring you down, and that’s just about the most callous thing I can imagine. Unless those people are truly toxic and just want to see you destroyed, I think it’s worth reaching out and trying to understand how they might be feeling.

      • Jess says:

        This is excellent advice — I think that’s a great way to turn the conversation around in a direction that’s positive for both people and can create a stronger bond that lasts through thick and thin. Thanks!

  2. Rafa says:

    You just made me realize how lucky we are to not have to worry about survival as much as a generation. :)

  3. Asmaa says:

    Woah! I just had this conversation with my mum, the idea not having to just survive anymore. This article is so timely, and I can relate so much, I come from a very similar background, I’m just a little earlier on in life, and still picking out a university option. It’s great to hear your perspective and all your wonderful advice. Also, I think you had a nanowrimo pep talk this year? I recognize your name, and also because that was also super helpful. Anyway, thank you!!!

  4. Camelia says:

    I was lucky not to worry about survival, although I am living in an emerging country. My parents succeeded to gain financial stability and as a child my only worry when I wanted something expensive, was to convince them that it was necessary. My biggest fear in my adulthood was just not to remain without money, depend again on my parents and lose my freedom and independency. Thanks to my various abilities, I was able to try some high paid domains and to figure out which brings me the most advantages, so my independency is no more a concern.

    Regarding their attitude about my multipotentiality, they invested a lot in my education and gave me the freedom to make all the choices in my career. They are only very worried that I am switching jobs too often and I am not stable somewhere. They believe that I need a very long term job, to make something in my career. And they say it in a very annoying way.

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