Why the Multipotentialite Mindset Makes Sense from an Economics and Philosophy Perspective

Why the Multipotentialite Mindset Makes Sense from an Economics and Philosophy Perspective

Written by Emilie

Topics: History, Innovation

This is a guest post by Sean Buchan.

Have you ever broken to somebody that you’re a multipotentialite and had a tough time fighting your corner? Did somebody ‘toe the party line’ and tell you this kind of way of working was inefficient, bad for the economy, bad for your happiness, or just plain “impossible”? Well, the modern advent of increasing specialization has its roots all the way back to the industrial revolution, so it is no surprise that by now we find it hard to question.

But would it interest you to know that one of the most important figures of the industrial revolution itself, Adam Smith, probably would not have approved? It depends on how you look at it, but there is a strong economic-philosophical argument you can make for supporting the multipotentialite mindset as opposed to the specialization status quo. By no means is it a justification for multipotentialites all by itself, but it’s certainly a nice supporting argument we thought you’d like to hear.

First, I’d like to go into a bit of history, and a minor rant regarding Adam Smith.

1776 – Specialist Revolution

Lots of academic types like to look back to Adam Smith to support their models of specialization. In 1776 the Scotsman wrote his most famous book, The Wealth of Nations, which predicated the industrial revolution. Hence he is also known as a “founding father of capitalism.”

This lengthy book actually kicks off with specialization. Smith uses a pin factory. He first proposes that there are 18 stages in order to make a pin. He then suggests we have 18 employees and two ways to make the pins. First, each employee could perform all 18 stages consecutively for one pin, then start a new pin. Alternatively, each employee could dedicate themselves to one stage only in a kind of production line. Sounds obvious now – but not so much in the 18th Century – Smith suggested that each employee could make the equivalent of 4,800 pins with the second, production line process, compared to scarcely 20 in the first scenario. That’s 240 times more. Voila: specialization rules; the industrial revolution happened; the rest is history. Well that’s the simplified version anyway.

Now I will be the first to say that I am incredibly glad the industrial revolution happened. Our Western world now enjoys an abundance of convenience: furniture, housing, cars, fully-stocked kitchens and supermarkets, heating, electricity, you name it. It’s also what made it possible for me to write the original version of this article in Ecuador.

But it is no longer 1776. What of specialization now? Something people tend to miss with Smith’s arguments for specialization is that his comments were focused on one particular sector and for one particular point in time. It appears that, whilst helpful in the past, the world has taken his idea too far and for too long.

Specialism Taken Too Far

To anybody that does not know, most economists view markets as having three kinds of industry: primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary is extracting goods – farming or mining; secondary is adding value to those goods – manufacturing; and tertiary is all to do with services, ranging from haircuts to financial advice. Smith only really talked about specialization as being particularly useful to the secondary sector – manufacturing.

Just two pages after describing his pin factory, Smith himself pointed out that specialism is not effective in agriculture in the same way.

Specialism For Too Long

As for the tertiary sector, in Smith’s time this was not really a thriving industry in the same way it is today. Sure, many men that had a specialized trade like cobblers or craftsmen, and Smith mentioned this specialization was essential when a community reached a certain size. However, I doubt Smith envisaged what we have today – full-scale globalization. To me it seems quite unfair to extract a 300 year old argument from a person who would have very little conception of the present day, and assume he would stick to the same arguments.

Why think the contrary, though? Well, many don’t realise that Adam Smith was a moralist first, a capitalist second. The proof of that is the entirety of the book he wrote before his most famous one, detailing his Theory Of Moral Sentiments (1759). The important thing for this article is that Smith only supported an idea of specialization if it did not infringe on our ‘civic humanity’ – our ability to be an essential part of a functioning community. Overspecialization, especially of the mind, causes detriment to the human spirit.

That’s enough about Smith now. As an aside, if you want to read why he also wasn’t really a capitalist, I find this article informative in an amusing way.

How is this all relevant for us?

Don’t Specialize; Multipotentialize

Today globalization moves us into ever more specialized professions. There’s many ways to look at this, but I believe we are losing some of our humanity in the process.

The most visible trait of specialism gone mad is certainly in academic life, whereby, at least in my country, 16 year olds are expected to study at most 4 subject areas in order to begin a road to success. What happens over here in the U.K. is at 18, a person taking the academic route is expected to take only one subject for a 3 to 4 year study. Often they have to pick this subject in advance, at 17. I don’t know about you, but at 23 years old I still feel like I’m discovering the world, let alone at 17! Notwithstanding, we’re not really encouraged to go away and think about our decision, or get life experience first, as when applying for jobs in the future we wouldn’t want to look like we were being complacent.

What happens later is even crazier. If you do well at University it’s common to hear “hey, if you really want a good job in your industry, your 3-year degree is not really enough. You need to take a masters and probably a PhD.” What happens in these post-graduate studies? Even more specialization. Post-PhD professors in my university had insanely miniature specializations, such as ‘the impact of Colombia’s oil economy on the East Asian block of countries’. A problem arose every time I wanted to talk to these professors about anything not to do with these subject areas – they just didn’t care, let alone know much detail.

This seems to have created so much friction amongst specialists. Discussions end in stalemates and progress is hard to make because we are not willing to look into each other’s boxes and expand our own knowledge. Specialization is slowly dissolving our humility, creativity, and sense of balanced debate.

A multipotentialite-minded friend in Honduras remarked about a time she worked for a very ethical theater company. Anyone that has ever worked in theater will know how it consumes and then becomes your life. However, this friend had other thoughts on her mind that were nothing to do with the theater company and wanted to discuss them. Unfortunately she found that people were not particularly open to her discussion of global politics, ethical vegetarianism, whatever – in fact most of the time they didn’t see the relevance of anything outside of their own vocation or what they were preaching.

Do you see the cognitive bias problem here?

It’s understandable in a way, though, right? I mean, honestly, who has time to think about every issue in the world, all the time? I can’t be part of an ethical theater company about repression of women in Eastern Europe and consider the Amazon rainforest and those working in sweatshops in Africa and animal cruelty throughout the world and the abortion issue in the United States etc, etc.

Well, here’s a tough message to hear. You have to.

Living On The Edge

You have to care about all the issues, even just a little bit. Firstly, not all people are equally persuasive, and not all issues lend themselves to persuasiveness as much as others. It’s our responsibility to sift better and understand we might be biased.

Secondly, going back to globalization. Unlike 1776, we now live in a world where every action we make affects the four corners of the globe in some way. Like it or not, that is the case. If you have a child, you must take responsibility for it. Similarly, if you want to participate in a globalized world, where products come from everywhere and messages fly across the planet at light speed, you have to take your responsibility for that and responsibility for your actions.

This is all about balance, really. Whilst the world is looking way too specialized right now for our own humanities, it also does not make sense to try everything all at once. What I’m advocating is steps towards a more multipotentialite way of seeing the world – opening our minds to the multitude of ways we might reach our goals. The multipotentialite mindset is the key to a more aware and harmonious world, so keep it up guys. Smith’s on your side too.

If you’re interested in hearing more about this topic, the original, longer article was written on my blog earlier this year, whilst the rest of the website contains related information.

About Sean Buchan
I am an aspiring writer from the U.K. I graduated in econ, but work with philosophy, politics and economics. I tried the ‘work at one thing’ after uni initially and gave up pretty fast. I self-funded a spontaneous travel experience with several jobs on the go and have just arrived home from that after 17 months. Learn more about me and my work at trueefficiency.net and connect with me on Facebook and Twitter @trueefficiency.


  1. Gareth Field says:

    I’d like to submit a critique from the earliest stage, the first point I perceived. With 19 men, 18 pinmakers and a foreman, the characteristics of interest in the manufacturing process become communication and *levels* of specialization. Two or more foremen and communication saves the whole process from myopia. This isn’t a denunciation of multipotentialism, but a promotion of the education system (which has lived longer than any particular school of thought, mind) as a provider of grades of multipotentialites for society.

    • Sean Buchan says:

      Interesting. My immediate thoughts are a) I agree with you and then the following. Your iteration of the specialization process involves a sort of overseer and in our modern world I would analogize as a governing body. Of course we have that today everywhere. It’s debatable whether that system is working or not, but my take would be that in the case of a foreman in a pin factory, it *does* work well. In the case of attempting to run several thousand factories, like one might in country governance, the efficiency does seem to be lost.

      Related to that, a separate argument I left out of the article for brevity involves the strength of small community models. German economist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher wrote an incredibly humanist book named Small is Beautiful in 1973 encouraging one and all to move away from “bigger is better” syndrome to a more balanced approach, citing that this is better for our sakes and our planet’s too. In the end he admitted that it is not necessarily that Small as possible Is Beautiful, but Smaller than right now Is Beautiful. This just goes further to support a multipotentialite mindset, as in smaller models, just like Smith pointed out, specialization is less attractive anyway.

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