Why “Stick to What You’re Good at” is Bad Advice

Why “Stick to What You’re Good at” is Bad Advice

Written by Emilie

Topics: Confidence

In our culture, it’s common wisdom that if a kid (or anyone) shows aptitude for something, it’s a sign. It indicates, in some way, what they should be doing with their life.

But what if you aren’t particularly excited about something you have natural talent for? Or what if you were passionate about it at one point, but the excitement has faded and now there’s something else you’d rather explore–something you might be less skilled at?

Have you all seen the Netflix show Sex Education? In addition to amazing fashion and never-before-seen-on-tv portrayals of teenage life, the show has a character who exemplifies the struggle of forcing yourself to stick with what you’re good at. Jackson is a popular teenager and star of the swim team, but his passion for swimming is all but gone. During season 2, he starts secretly acting in the school play, but his moms push the swimming thing–hard. There’s a ton of social pressure from his parents, coaches and peers to keep doing what he’s good at and is known for, and to give up on the Shakespeare.

Jackson is also a terrible actor. So, there’s that.

The social pressure to stick to what you’re known for being good at isn’t just something young people face. If anything, kids are afforded more freedom to explore and fumble around than adults. Of course, we’re seeing this change a bit as young people are pressured to specialize earlier and earlier. In any event, once you’re in your thirties, forties, and beyond, announcing a radical shift in your career or taking up a hobby in a totally new field generally gets you sideways looks.

The way these social expectations play out is often subtle, but I frequently experience them in my own life.

Last year, I was invited to perform at a local coffee house event. I was stoked for the opportunity. I dusted off some old songs, practiced for a few weeks and then performed a short set on stage. It was great! I felt satisfied and proud of myself. And the project felt complete to me.

Turns out, when you live on a tiny island, there sometimes aren’t enough musicians to entertain the community through the winter! For months afterward, the organizer of the coffee house kept asking me to perform again. I wasn’t interested. I didn’t have the time, headspace or desire to prepare and perform songs again. But he didn’t understand. For him, a musician who has performed regularly in the community for decades, the idea of not having a “next gig” didn’t make sense. For me, musician is not my identity. It’s a hat I put on sometimes.

Multipotentialites are multi-talented. We have many things we can do, and we might surprise people with our soufflé-making skills or secret dog-training powers.

AND we’re multi-interested. We may want to do even more things that we don’t know how to do yet. It’s in our nature. It might be confusing if I tried to explain to someone that, instead of playing the open mic next Friday, I’ll be working on my television script. That’s okay. We don’t need to justify our interests to anyone. And being “bad at” something is not against the rules.

When it comes to pivoting away from the things we’re known for to explore something new, I always think of this quote from Jake the Dog of Adventure Time:

“Sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something.”

And being sorta good at something is a step toward becoming great at something!

(In fact, even Jackson, our star-swimmer-turned-Romeo, started to improve as an actor with a bit of training.)

But we must be brave.

A multipotentialite must be willing to look incompetent, even a little stupid. We have to be okay admitting that we don’t have everything figured out.

Work is one area where skill is usually required. If you’re getting paid for something, you better be competent. But if you’re pursuing something new with the goal of eventually working in a related field, you can’t be expected to know it all right out of the gate. Learning is always a process. And also, work isn’t everything! If you meet your financial needs, then who cares if you are a terrible singer that adores crooning in the community choir? Or if you tinker with Arduinos on the weekend? Or write very bad novels?

Maybe you’ll get better with time! You almost certainly will. But I challenge you to decouple mastery from worthiness. If an activity adds joy and satisfaction to your life, that is enough. It has value.

Freely pursuing your interests in a culture that values skill (and profitability) above all else, takes courage. I would even go so far as to say that as an adult, exploring your interests—especially the ones you “aren’t good at”—is a radical act.

Thankfully, you aren’t alone.

Your Turn

Multipotentialites, how do you deal with the pressure to stick to what you’re good at and known for? Share your tips in the comments section below.

Emilie Wapnick is the founder and creative director at Puttylike and The Puttytribe, where she helps multipotentialites build lives and careers around ALL their interests. Unable to settle on one path herself, Emilie studied music, art, film production and law, graduating from the Law Faculty at McGill University. She is the author of the award-winning book, How to Be Everything (HarperCollins), and her TED talk has been viewed 6 million times. Learn more about Emilie here.

34 Comments

  1. Laurence says:

    I am 47 and just told some people around me that I was considering changing job as I get bored in the one I’ve been doing for 9 years.
    The answer was “Not agaaaaain”… I told them I couldn’t understand why I should stay in a job I don’t find exciting anymore… But the social pressure…

    • Lin says:

      That’s me, exactly! I change more because I don’t feel successful on the path I’m on, or my definition of success has changed. But I have changed many times. I’m not really close to my family and I live alone so at least I don’t have too much pressure LOL

    • Emilie says:

      9 years? That sounds like a really solid amount of time to me.

      Don’t listen to the naysayers. Maybe they’re a little jealous? I think a lot of people wish they could change careers but are worried about looking dumb/failing. And seeing others go for it means they have the grapple with the fact that they too could do it–that it is possible.

  2. Amy says:

    I’m in the middle of shifting away from teaching music since 2001 to starting my own business helping those who feel stressed, overwhelmed, and exhausted to a point that they no longer find joy in what they used to reconnect with their inner spark. It is SO hard ? when people ask me why I don’t just go back to teaching music, after all, I’m really good at it. Related to this article so deeply – sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something to become great at something! Thank you ?

    • Emilie says:

      Hey Amy, I feel you. Being asked why you don’t just teach music sounds suuuuper frustrating! Forget those people and enjoy building your business. It sounds really needed.

  3. Susan says:

    Dear Emilie,
    I think the biggest problem is the one you had with your gig. The people take it for granted that you will provide your abilities every time they want or need them. I always tell them : i am able to do it but that does not mean i have to. Sometimes they understand. Mostly they don’t.
    Thank you for still providing puttylike.

    • Emilie says:

      Yeah, it’s frustrating. I have a hard time not caring what other people think, but I just don’t think I could continue to do things for folks that my heart wasn’t in for very long. My inner self would find a way to rebel really quickly. :)

  4. Nina says:

    I’ve been just thinking about what to put into the box as a link to my website. I have multiple ones and, they all intertwine, but they all have been my playgrounds (writing & web design), which I forced myself in my head to make a “business” of or to monetize one day. But, this post reminded me that not everything needs to be monetized once again, and affirmed to me what I was talking about with my sort-of therapist that, for my well-being, and as a part of self-care, I should take time to do what I want and need, just for the pure pleasure. To shut off from everything and find that flow state. But, I decided that it will be my “old love” – language learning, which I’m most confident about since I’m exploring a possibility to get back to teaching languages online, which could be the springboard to other things I’d be a beginner in. Maybe I shouldn’t worry about the pay I’d get, as it’s not too important for me right now, any amount of rate would be great and focus on bringing quality to potential students, so I can focus on “side projects” that I’m just playing with… And I’d bring that quality with my language learning abilities by learning a couple of languages to a degree I wish. I don’t have enough work experience to think of having a specific approach, I could only be an Einsteiner, as you call it. :D That could be the most viable thing now. So, I’d be forced to learn languages so I can be a better teacher, but I believe that the joy of learning languages is still priceless. As is the joy of other things, but for now, let them be my playground.

    I’m just brainstorming what to do. But, now I’m more positive about it, and I can build upon this idea. I just need to get myself to do something, to be able to get joy from and money, however small it may be.

    • Emilie says:

      This is awesome, Nina! I love hearing about how you’re working through this stuff, figuring out what brings you joy and meaning, and experimenting. Thanks for the update. It sounds like you’re doing well! <3

  5. Etienn says:

    All is well, a feeling I know very well. My main issue has always been that I had to stick to things that people KNOW I am good at to get paid for it otherwise nobody would hire me. Being a chef, IT man, singer, accountant, writer, salesperson, and with a passion for economics, physics, biology, chemisty, psychology, sociology, philosophy, drawing and more, I only managed to ‘use’ IT and accountancy to make a living, but man have I learnt to hate my job. I also am dead scared of trying a food business once again (my first failed miserably because I decided to bake things in a ‘non-commercial’ manner) as first I don’t want to learn to hate cooking and secondly I like my current standard of living. I KNOW that I am good at whatever I put my energy into but many, to be positive and not say everyone, does not believe this. I feel in a catch 22 situation and unluckily I am not getting any younger.

    • Val Adell says:

      Hi Etienn,

      You and I seem to share a lot in common! Just add water (as in swimming and marine biology) and neurology and a few thousand other interests to the mix, and we’ve lived parallel lives! I’m not usually drawn to reach out to folks via comments, but for whatever reasons, in this moment I am. I may not be as gifted as I like at recognizing when I’ve got myself in my own Catch-22 stories, but I’m super-good at helping other folks see their way out of those corners. I’m not getting any younger either; please feel free to reach back out if I can help you find other ways to look at your situation. I’d love to support you in heading away from misery and towards joy and fulfillment. Emilie, is it ok with you for me to share my contact info with Etienn? Thanks, either way, for all that you do and give! And Etienn, thanks for sharing your heart here. Warm regards, Val

    • Emilie says:

      Hey Etienn, ah that is hard. And it is totally fine for you to keep food as a passion/non-monetized passion if that’s what you’d like to do. But it sounds like you’re also not too keen on your paid work right now. Maybe there’s something other than the IT job and cooking. Like maybe there’s a third option–a skill you have that people will pay you for. Or maybe even a shift from tech employment to tech freelancing would help if it’s this specific job that’s the problem.

  6. Maryske says:

    Great article, Emilie. Thanks.

  7. Laura Pritchard says:

    Thanks for the encouragement Emilie!

  8. Priscilla says:

    Hi Emilie, thanks for posting this article. I’ve recently read your book “How to be everything?” and even if I am not sure at all if I am a multipotentialite or not, it helped me a lot onto finding out sort of what I want to be or dedicate my life for.

    As a review on this article, my struggle was/is related to the fact that I studied something at college but I don’t find myself spending my life on working on that field anymore. I think that reading this will help me feel braver when facing the people that surround me at the hour of dedicating my life into another field.

    I have also found out what I will really like to do with my hobbies and passions by analysing all the chapters of your book, specifically the one related to the kind of multipotentialite that I think I am.

    Thanks again for all your support and for helping me on my way to find out what I am.

    • Emilie says:

      Thanks Priscilla. Glad you found How to Be Everything helpful!

      For what it’s worth, it is suuuper common for people to not work in the field they studied. I see that all the time!

  9. Nicki says:

    Thank you, Emilie. This was such a great article! I’m amused by the timing of this message as I quit a very good paying job recently to “pursue other interests.” To answer your question, I avoid pressure by telling very few people of my plans! It is, by far, the best decision I’ve made during this transition period of my life. After 40 years of living, I’ve come to realize how much I’ve allowed other people to influence me (i.e., my decisions and my own feelings about them). I feel empowered making choices for myself first and foremost, and if/when I let others know of my plans (critical as they usually are) their reaction has no effect on me…and it feels so good.

    • Emilie says:

      That’s a good point, Nicki. I think it’s important that, as multipotentialites, we’re careful when sharing. Always good to think about your audience and how supportive they might or might not be.

      Best of luck with your new adventures!

  10. Kelly says:

    I can relate to this story also. For 7 years I was on a busy reception desk. I’m also an introvert. I was very good at my job which is probably why it took so long to move into a different area. I enjoyed the role for the first 4 years I would say and after that I began to detest coming to work everyday. The role was literally draining the energy from my body on a daily basis.

  11. Marie says:

    I totally relate! In 2016 I was at the end of my third year of elementary school teaching, when I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore. I wasn’t happy at work. I wasn’t passionate anymore, I felt restrained and uncomfortable. Since I’ve always been a good teacher, appreciated by the parents/ students and a role-model for my colleagues, people gave themselves the right to tell me I was making a huge mistake (e.g. « You’re such a good teacher, the profession can’t loose you! » Or « Many people would pay to take your place »). My principal even told me she was sure I would come back begging for my job within one year. Guess what? 4 years later I’ve never regretted my choice! I’m now pursuing a part-time educational consultant carreer that I’m very passionate about and that leaves time in my schedule for my other interests.

    • Emilie says:

      Yes!! Good for you. Those lines are so familiar and painful to read (“You’re such a good teacher, the profession can’t loose you! » Or « Many people would pay to take your place”) Ahh! It’s great to hear that you listened to yourself and have zero regrets. So awesome. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Karishma says:

    Found this article at just the right time. I left a job in accounting a while back and no one around me seems to understand why I don’t want to go back to it. I’ve recently studied user experience design and I’d like to combine it with my experience as an accountant and work on enterprise user experience (which is UX for business software). But I keep getting asked why would I leave a field where I have a lot of experience and where I would get paid a lot more to dabble in this new field where I might not even find a job. So as I am job searching, I am looking for both kind of profiles (with a heavy heart) while hoping that I find something that interests me.

    • Emilie says:

      Keep at it, Karishma! I know you’re still in the middle of job hunting and that process can be brutal. But for whatever it’s worth, I’m a huge fan of combining interests andcombining accounting and UX sounds really neat!

  13. Paul says:

    Amazing article! It’s something I definitely experience but had habituated to and stopped questioning… that internal barrier preventing myself from being (or being perceived to be) crap at something. And I think that it can even prevent me from trying something new if it seems like there are social or professional consequences.

    It’s hard to put into words but it’s almost like taking a step out into the unknown with eyes closed.. and allowing myself not only to be bad at something but also to not even know how to do it. But still to try and see what happens… like a mini experiment or exploration.. I do it naturally in some parts of my life but other areas seem more ‘real’ or like there’s more at stake so I prevent myself from being a ‘beginner’ again. Hmmm food for thought!

  14. Sabine says:

    Hi Emilie, I am so happy I found your Ted Talk. I finally feel understood. Since months I am trying to figure out my one and only purpose/profession just to find out now that I just want to be many things. This is the reason why I am so excited at the beginning of every job/hobby/subject and after some time bored after I have learned everything. And I keep hearing: “But I thought you were happy with what you were doing?”

    I have to ask though, isn’t a life where you keep changing interests expensive? Lets say I want to study psychology, during the study I join a theater club, then changing my mind about psychology, to be in theater fulltime? And later I find something else and drop the theather.. Will I ever be financially stable like this?

  15. Ashlie says:

    I’ve actually imparted this mentality on myself. Even though I have jumped around a lot, I have always been good at anything I set my mind to. And I actually always kind of laughed and said: “it’s because I only do things I’m good at, so I can’t fail”. Fear of failure is a big thing for me…it causes me to deliberate very long and hard before making decisions. But recently I have been wanting to get into things that I am not necessarily “good at” (I guess the more appropriate statement if I am learning anything is “good at yet”). But normally fear of failure would cause me to just avoid them. I am trying to learn to branch out into things that interest me, but that I am afraid I am just not naturally good at.

  16. Connie Hall says:

    Hi Emilie,

    I just had this conversation with my oldest son (who is also a multipotentialite). He is amazing at marketing and sales…he hates it. He is an incredible musician and can play just about anything. That brings him a lot of joy, but he said that having to do that to make a living would take the fun out of it, and then he wouldn’t want to do it. So he works in a factory and although the work is tedious, he makes good money, which finances other things he wants to do. The company takes good care of its employees (like rotating machines, so they aren’t doing the exact same thing for 12 hours), and he likes his coworkers, which is very important for him. He’s just taken up an interest in blacksmithing and is looking to subsidize our (my husband and me) beekeeping endeavors.

    As for me, I’m a vocal musician, but I burn out quickly if I have to spend too much time on the same songs. I belong to a community choir that gets together for two months each year to learn and perform an Easter cantata. Then we’re done. That’s perfect for me. I’m good at bookkeeping, programming and teaching small children, but I don’t enjoy any of them. Yes, I have a BS in IT that I don’t use because I don’t want to do that. Right now, I’m learning to spin fiber from a master spinner. Not great, but getting better
    .

  17. Jaime LoUnoyLoOtro says:

    En general me siento mucho mejor y con tu trabajo sobre la multipotencialidad he encontrado un sentido vital a como gira mi vida. Por ello te doy las gracias Emilie.

    Sentía mucha ansiedad por encontrar un camino en mi vida, sobre todo para destacar en una actividad o ser experto en algo. Como soy claramente multipotencial, he sentido continuas llamadas en mi vida de diferente categoría y he intentado ser bueno o experto en cada una de ellas, con mejor o peor fortuna. Siempre llegaba el momento de aburrimiento o falta de pasión que me animaba a buscar otra cosa.

    Pensar que debemos ser buenos en lo que hacemos, es una pesada carga que siempre he llevado sobre mis hombros. Te doy las gracias por esta publicación. Me voy a animar a hacer el “work your work” para haber si encuentro mas claridad de ideas de por dónde seguir.

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