Why Multipotentialites Rock at Work

Why Multipotentialites Rock at Work

Written by Emilie

Topics: Work

This article has been written as part of the ‘Life Beyond Norms‘ series; a collaborative project aimed at dispelling societal norms that have been handed down, or unwittingly thrust upon us. This is an attempt to provide thoughts against these norms to encourage us to think deeply and consciously of the values we hold; to ensure they do actually add value to our lives and society as a whole.

Other contributors to the series include The Everyday Minimalist, A World of Inspiration, Alyson Earl, Axis of Awesome, Locationless, Small Things First, and 1 Year Sabbatical among others.

***

When Rob of Beyond Norms asked me to participate in this series, I immediately said yes. I viewed it as a chance to dispel some myths about the supposed uselessness of having broad interests and relieve some anxiety for multipotentialites who worry that there is no place for them in the modern world.

Here’s the norm I decided to tackle:

Norm: To excel in life, you must specialize in one area

When I was in Europe I met law students locked into 5 year programs, who were nineteen years old. I met a 22-year-old who had just completed her training to be a luthier. Back home I see posters in the metro: become skilled at this, specialize in that, train, train, train. Some high schools offer majors now, did you know that?

The implication is that employers want people with specific skill sets- that if you want to stand out in the job market (and in life), you had better buckle down and focus. Become outstanding in one area. Hone one skill extremely well and that skill is your asset. It will set you apart and get you hired.

Furthermore, we’re taught that we’re capable at excelling in only one field. School is supposed to help us select that field (preferably one that’s compatible with our natural abilities) and then hone it.

‘Generalists’ are just as Vital as Specialists

Okay yes, specialists excel at what they do. Stephen King is very good at writing books. Michael Jordan is very good at playing basketball. They’re doing what they were born to do.

But guess what? We’re not all specialists- and thank god! ‘Generalists’ (though I dislike that term because it implies a lack of skill) are just as vital as specialists. We have our own abilities- abilities that are transferable, allow us to think laterally, master things quickly and come up with creative solutions to problems.

Multipotentialites Have Skills

Let me make this clear: We are not dilettantes. The expression ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ is DEAD WRONG.

Often we want to appear humble, so we avoid making statements like: “I’m great at the guitar, I’m an awesome web designer, I rock at writing, I wrote a killer spec script for 30 Rock that’s so funny it could easily be a real episode, and I went to one of the top law schools in the country.”

We sometimes avoid emphasizing our accomplishments (which can hurt us in job interviews) because we don’t want to appear vain or make others feel inferior. Also, there’s a fear that the more skills you list, the less people will believe you.

It’s true though- we’re a talented bunch! We have discrete skills and we master new skills very quickly. And you know why? Because Multipotentialites crave variety and mastery. It’s what drives us.

When a Multipotentialite develops a new interest, forget it. Nothing can stand in their way. We become all emerged and work until we reach a certain level of mastery (and then we get bored). But all to say, that yes, we do have practical skills. We are not ‘master of nones’!

Multipotentialites are Creative Thinkers

Because we have experience in so many different areas, we’re able to think laterally. We can draw from one field of interest to help reach a solution in another. Our ability to synthesize and make connections is a huge asset to any organization. Smart employers and managers recognize this.

Pairing a multipotentialite up with a specialist when solving problems is even better, as the multipotentialite might throw out some crazy solution and the specialist can then delve into the specific details to see whether the solution is possible.

Multipotentialites are Adaptive

I see the following argument coming: “but Emilie, how could a multipotentialite possibly be anywhere near as accomplished as someone who has devoted years of their life to something?”

Okay, so maybe someone with ten years experience as a ‘CSS expert’ is better at CSS than I am. But does that make me useless? Not at all.

I might not get hired to be a ‘CSS expert’ at some corporation, but can I meet the needs of my individual web design clients? You bet. And what happens if I’m asked to develop some new CSS element that I have no knowledge of? I teach myself how to do it.

This is a major asset. Multipotentialites may not be as accomplished in any one area as a specialist, but you know what they are great at? Picking up new skills FAST.

Don’t Deny Who You Are

My intention with this article isn’t to criticize specialists or prove that they are somehow inferior. Rather, it is to dispel the myth that everyone must become a specialist- that specializing is the only way to succeed in this world. We need specialists just as much as they need us. We fill in each others’ gaps.

The worst thing about this myth that we all must settle on one path, is that it leads multipotentialites to deny their true nature. As a result, they try forcing themselves down specialized career paths and deny all their other interests. This is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

Embrace your true nature and find your own way of leveraging it.

29 Comments

  1. I say that without one there cannot be the other. Everyone starts out as a generalist then moves to become a specialist if they want to. Thinking from a project perspective, Some prefer to be jane/jack of all trades, which works out better if you consider that they might enjoy being in the position of being an “overview” person to help everyone else see the big picture of what they’re doing rather than having blinders on.

    Great post.

  2. Emilie says:

    Hi Serena,

    Definitely. I commonly find myself switching between being the ‘overview’ person and the person with the answers, if for instance, someone asks a question about some area that I’ve studied in the past. But you’re right, both personality types are good to have when tackling any particular project.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Brian Gerald says:

    Michael Jordon was not born to play basketball nor was Mozart born to compose music. “Talent Is Overrated” is a good, non-academic book that gets into the research which bears this out. No one is naturally gifted at anything. We are good at what we’ve practiced at. Tiger Woods is amazing at golf because his dad started teaching him before he could even walk, not because he was born to play it.

    • Emilie says:

      Fair point. And I agree, socialization and influences are HUGE! But you don’t believe that people have any innate traits that lend to them more likely flourishing in one area over another?

      • Brian Gerald says:

        Nope, I don’t. Mostly because after decade of looking, there is no scientific research to suggest that “talent” is any way inherent. Now, being tall has a genetic component. And being tall and perceived male as a child might make adults encourage you to play basketball. Being born earlier in the school year also affects how you’ll turn out. So does birth order. But some inherent talent? Just doesn’t exist. I know, it blew my mind too.

        • Nick Laborde says:

          Hey Brian,

          I’m guessing that you’ve read “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell. If you haven’t, you should check it out, I think you’ll dig it.

          • Brian Gerald says:

            I have, enjoyed that too. I really appreciate that Malcolm digs more into factors outside of our control. Talent Is Overrated *almost* gives the impression that anyone can do anything and that if they don’t it’s because they didn’t work hard enough. I think it’s important to recognize the factors outside of our control that limit us and the factors that propel us.

          • Nick Laborde says:

            I like how he digs deep into his topics and forces you to think about it in a different way. After posting this topic I found this video of a speech he did.

            http://su.pr/4jYzKC

            Although not directly related to this topic I found it interesting.

          • Emilie says:

            It’s funny, I actually bought Outliers yesterday because I kept hearing about it. And now all this discussion… Clearly the universe is telling me something.

  4. Matt says:

    Great Post! I have realized my self that I am a scanner in some ways (many interests) and I like it because it keeps life really really new and interesting.

    I also however, Just read and took the test from the book “Strengthsfinders 2.0”

    I actually do agree that people can’t be whatever they want which is something that has also been ingrained in society.

    I do think with major effort and passion, we can do what we set our minds to but only if it falls into some area of a strength.

    The book brought up the movie “rudy” which is the true story of a guy who wanted to play football but wasn’t designed for it naturally. He had more determination and will than anyone on the team but just didn’t have the natural abilities for it.

    After such hard determination he was finally allowed to play in a game and he did good for one play. All that effort for just one play.

    That’s cool and everything but imagine if someone found their strengths and true passion and then put that much determination in! You would be unstoppable!

    I think people really need to find their true strengths they have and develop those into their passions.

    :)

    • Emilie says:

      Hi Matt,

      I think you’re right that there is a genetic component, especially when it comes to physical traits. It’s like Brian mentioned above, being tall would likely give you an advantage when it comes to basketball.

      Even as a Scanner who likes to master things in new areas, I know that certain things will come more easily to me than others. I suck at science for example. But if I really wanted to learn, I know that I could. It would just be harder. But I can’t learn anything at all unless I’m passionate about it.

      Hm.. interesting discussion.

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. Abe says:

    Your ‘humble’ paragraph made me laugh out loud. You go Emilie, great post!

    @Brian, that’s a great book that I’m currently making my way through. Great sports examples too. The whole nature vs. nurture debate in child/human development and psychology is fascinating stuff. I’m in the more optimistic “tabula rasa” camp, in that we are all capable of doing great things regardless of genetics, but situation plays a HUGE role in preventing certain people from even thinking about achieving their potential. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers and his 10,000 hours idea are also great reads, as is Pam Slim’s concept of hitting your sweet spot when it comes to your work.

    The thing that brings me hope is that accessibility to information via the internet is bringing down barriers like never before, and it’s up to people “in the know” to continue sharing and empowering others to be as awesome as possible. Everyone can get a piece of the pie and grow it at the same time. :)

    • Brian Gerald says:

      I’ve read Outliers too. Good stuff. I think it’s important to recognize the potential each person has to accomplish pretty much anything AND to recognize the various factors which go into it (being a third generation Jewish immigrant in New York in a certain year or being a white American male or whatever else the case may be).

      Life is complex.

      • Emilie says:

        Yeah, I agree with you both about life circumstances and external influences.

        I guess I sort of feel like the nature vs nurture debate is almost moot though. Like does it really matter whether we have innate talents or whether they’re learned? Once we reach adulthood, the fact is that some of us tend to master certain skills more easily than others.

        What about being a multipotentialite? I’m curious to hear whether you think that multipotentiality is a learned behaviour Brian? Cause for me, I grew up in a very musical household. I played violin from the age of 4-16. I could have easily devoted my life to the violin, the way Michael Jordon did to basketball. But instead I got interested in other things.. and then more things.. and more. Is the urge to jump from interest to interest learned behaviour too?

        My parents definitely encouraged me to be curious and try new things, so maybe. But I have other friends whose parents did the same and they turned out to be very talented specialists. I’m just not sure.

  6. Anh says:

    Emilie – another great post! It seems like you keep hijacking my mind and writing the posts I would writ about if I were to think of it first.

    Like you I’m a master generalist and excel in many areas – sometimes even more than these so capped specialists.

    Despite the science I think that nature plays a part in the “genius” you see. For me I think people are born with natural and innate gifts and these help make practising easier. For example, tall people find basketball easier as it’s easier for them to get success at the beginning. Aerospace engineers found early math problems easier so they stuck with it.

    The “genius” around us are those with the natural talent who have practiced for a dissproportiante amount. It’s the natural talent that allows people to excel early but it’s the practice which brings greatness. Interests only make practice easy to endure (so in a long winded way I agree with both side of the argument).

    I think for multipotentialists it’s a similar theory. We are super curious (talent) and Our short attention spans (talent?) make it easy for us to practice more things. We do not excel at many things because of our natural gifts, but our natural gifts lower out tolerance for practice until we become competent.

    Like you said, a MASTER specialist will always beat us (as they’ve had more practice) but in reality, most “specialists” are barely competent. They’ve been practising the same things and never going out their comfort zone. I think that’s the main reason why multipotentialists seem like an expert at many things (because being am expert takes a tiny bit of effort more then competancy which many choose not to pursue).

    Dispute all this it’s still a world full of people who think that you must be a specialists. I struggle when applying for jobs (my cv is so general) but I know that as soon as I get in I can prove my worth.

    How do we stand out in a world that values a specific skillet. How do we choose one skill to master more than most?

    Just questions to ponder really. It seems that the higher up the foodchain you become the more valuable your generalist skill set becomes but to get there you need to demonstrae specific mastery.

    Perhaps the world isn’t quite ready yet!

  7. Emilie says:

    Wow, thanks for your input Anh.

    The ‘how do we stand out’ question is a big one. I think we need to remember not to underestimate our abilities when we do want to apply for specialized jobs. It’s like you said, often we’re more accomplished than the so-called specialists. Mostly because when a multipotentialite masters something, it’s because of an intense inner drive, while a specialist might have studied that same skill simply in order to land a good job.

    But this is also where lifestyle design comes in. For me, my solution has largely been to exist outside the system- to stop even trying to appeal to bosses all together. I figure, if they can’t see what I’m worth, screw ’em. I’ll make my own opportunities.

    Thanks so much for the comment!

  8. Nick Laborde says:

    When I first came across your site (as part of this series) I didn’t get what “Multipotentialites” was all about. Mainly because I’ve never heard the term, but after further investigation I realized that’s exactly what I am.

    I think the key trait here is flexibility, at least from my experience. Being able to change and adapt with the times is a very marketable skill… I would even say it’s mandatory.

    • Emilie says:

      Hi Nick,

      I definitely agree. It’s a fantastic trait to have. Also lifestyle design is perfect for multipotentialites because it’s all about creating a flexible life (if that’s what you want). I love having the space and freedom to take on new projects and explore new interests.

      Yeah the terminology is a little tricky. I use multipotentialite, scanner and puttylike pretty much interchangeably. I like multipotentialite best though because a) it’s kind of a made up term (comes from ‘multipotentiality’, which is the dictionary term for us), b) it’s quite nerdy sounding, and c) it has more meaning than the other two… like I feel like someone would more easily know what I’m talking about. But you didn’t, so maybe not. heh whatever. In any case, I’m glad you’re a member of our tribe Nick. :)

  9. To excel in one area we have to concentrate cold hearted like and work, work , work , work , work. Its stifling..but when you love it..its a freeing experience. Great post. Can’t wait for more.

    • Emilie says:

      Yup, but thankfully it is possible to have many projects on the go at once, as long as you give each your full attention when you’re focusing on it. That’s my preferred method of getting good at something, though it varies from person to person.

      Thanks Jonathan.

  10. Emilie, I LOVE this post! It’s amazing how many people in our society push the idea that being a ‘specialist’ in one area is the only way to be important in the world.

    Obviously it’s a great thing to be super skilled in one particular area, and if your skills are useful you’ll likely be well sought after. But at the same time (and I love how you put it) people who can think laterally can combine a seemingly disconnected set of skills and the real movers and shakers of the world.

    There’s a cool career guide book I read a while ago called ‘You majored in WHAT?” that talks about how the true creative abilities you have emerge when you can figure out the cross-section of all of the various skills you possess. Great stuff!

    • Emilie says:

      Hey thanks Patrick! Thinkers and shakers… I agree. :)

      I think I might actually order that book you recommended. It sounds fantastic– and very relevant.

      Thanks for the comment.

  11. i love your blog and i love your enthusiasm. it is high energy and real!

  12. Joe says:

    Emilie, this is a really great post.

    It’s helped me feel better about not really being an expert at anything. (Hasn’t helped me feel like I’m really that great at anything, but that’s a deeper self-esteem issue, which I have no idea how to get around.)

    I think you’ll enjoy Outliers. It’s a great book, and Malcolm Gladwell is a fantastic writer.

    Thanks for writing this, and inspiring my post for today!

    Peace.

  13. Nick Sutton says:

    Hi Emilie, great post. Just a quick comment, the saying “Jack of all trades, master of none” is unfortunately mis-read by most people, because they miss off the end part of the original saying. The full version goes like this:

    “Jack of all trades, master of none,
    Certainly better than a master of one”

    Much better :-)

  14. Terry says:

    Emilie,

    You’ve hit the nail on the head again! And I see myself in your words – learn new skills quickly – crave variety and mastery. Over the years I’ve been facinated by so many topics and worked with them until I become competent, but then I lose interest.

    There is only one problem with this if you are building either a career or business. Employment or business success seems to be required long after the passion has expired and you are into the next exciting topic.

    I am sometimes envious of my work colleague who is passionate about and focussed on just one goal.

    Terry

  15. Puddle says:

    Hi ya’ll. very happy to find other similar people. With so many varied names too. Though i’m probably a bit more of a self hater…
    I’m immensely frustrated with this ‘scanner’ business because while i’m pretty good at quite a few things, I’m not as good as I could be, because I can’t quite bring myself to forgoe my other interests – how do you guys deal with that? I crave mastery, but it would take many lifetimes to do that. And I can’t decide how to direct my life now (have big life decisions to make) and I dont think I have the possibility of doing it all, or at least doing it all at a level that I would be happy with.

    Anyways, lovely to meet ya’ll and wishing you the very best

    Puddle

  16. Lawrence says:

    You used the incorrect spelling of vain. “we don’t want to appear vein” — This spelling is for the tubes forming the blood circulation system. The spelling for your situation would be “vain”. Spelling is my specialty.

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