Sometimes multipotentialites refer to themselves by other names: scanners, hummingbirds, generalists and even sometimes a “renaissance person.”
I like some of these names more than others. Which I use depends on who I’m talking to and how much effort I’m willing to put in explaining myself.
If I need to make myself easily understood and avoid too much baggage, I’ll say generalist.
If I want no baggage at all – and don’t mind explaining myself – I’ll use multipotentialite.
But two names I generally stay clear of are polymath and renaissance person. Here’s why.
Multipotentialites have existed throughout history
In the multipotentialite community, a discussion arises from time to time about which historical figures might qualify as multipotentialites. Leonardo da Vinci is an obvious first candidate. Perhaps people will mention Galileo, or Thomas Young, or any of many, many others.
While I find these conversations interesting, I worry that we’re accidentally creating a problem for ourselves. These people are great, inspiring figures. Each of them revolutionized art, science, literature, or all of the above. But you don’t have to do that to be a multipotentialite!
It’s cool to change the world if you want to, and if you can, but you don’t have to.
When we think of great historical polymaths, we remember their great achievements, not their passions.
And—rightly or wrongly—the impression given by labels like polymath or renaissance person is that we consider ourselves to be in the company of a particular type of genius.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on ourselves.
The world has changed
It’s not just the pressure that’s a problem. The comparison between somebody born today and somebody making great achievements hundreds of years ago isn’t even fair.
Centuries ago, humanity passed the point where it was possible for one person to read every book in existence at the time. This excellent article by Edward Carr explains how the frontier of knowledge has expanded so much that even specializing in one very specific area is now the work of a lifetime. This makes it harder for a generalist to contribute at the leading edge of even one field, let alone many fields.
Generalists still have a huge role to play—often they excel at providing new perspective in a field that is perhaps growing stale—but the scale of what is required has grown dramatically since da Vinci’s day.
That’s not to diminish his achievements; he was undoubtedly a genius. But if he were born today could he have impacted the world at the same scale? Today he’d be competing against seven billion people, not the few hundred million that were around during the Renaissance…
Measure input, not output
This might sound like I’m making pathetic excuses for why I’m not as good as Leonardo da Vinci. And, on one level, that’s exactly what I’m doing. But I also want to provide an alternative way of assessing ourselves.
When we think of great historical polymaths, we remember their great achievements, not their passions. Achievement is only one way to measure a life. And often, achievement is not within our control. We can work as hard as we like in a field we have talent in, but that doesn’t guarantee success. There are always factors beyond our control: external opposition, inherent difficulty, privilege or even simple luck.
I prefer to measure myself by how well I do at whatever is in my control. Instead of asking What am I achieving with my life? I prefer Am I following my passions?
Judging ourselves by our input (by something in our control) and not by output (which relies partly on external factors), gives us a truer picture of ourselves. It’s also useful for resisting the temptation to make unhelpful comparisons with historical figures who we could never ever live up to!
Ambition is still good
Naturally, we shouldn’t abandon our ambitions. It’s still mostly noble and good to aim to do everything, as best as we can. But we need to evaluate our success using different from when we set our goals.
Aim high, judge reasonably, to coin a phrase.
(You know who else coined a lot of phrases? Shakespeare. Just saying. Maybe the comparison isn’t entirely inaccurate…?)
So for now, I guess I’ll keep explaining what the word multipotentialite means. Perhaps next time I’ll try “like a Renaissance Person, but much more chilled.”
Who’s your favorite historical multipod? Do you ever struggle with comparing yourself to great figures of the past? Share your thoughts in the comments!