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.
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.