When I was admitted as a Masters student to the Department of History at my alma mater, Central Michigan University, it quickly became apparent that I needed to pick an area to specialize in. That may sound strange to some people, but historians do actually specialize in certain areas, which is why you sometimes get blank stares if you pose a general history question to a random historian…history is a lot bigger than you think and just because a person studied it doesn’t mean they are familiar with the history relevant to your question. As a child I had been absolutely fascinated with Ancient Egyptian culture; just ask my Mom who I made sit through hours and hours of documentaries on a subject she had no interest in just so I could have someone to talk about it with. As a teenager, I pivoted more towards Celtic/Nordic cultures and dove into their amazing variety. But now, as an early twenty-something, I was finding myself drawn more towards how our modern society developed from the societies that came before it, and how they developed from their predecessors. In particular, I had interest in two time periods: The Renaissance and The Enlightenment, time periods which were very volatile from a cultural evolutionary perspective. These were times when ideas were, to paraphrase from Les Miserables, “…made and used and wasted” within an astonishingly short period of time. And so I decided to focus my studies in what is often referred to as Intellectual History or The History of Ideas, which is the study of how ideas develop, how they are expressed and how they change over time. It was and remains a truly fascinating area, partially because it often partners with sister disciplines like philosophy or literature or science which gives you an endless variety of viewpoints.
Not to be outdone, my interests have never exclusively fallen within the field of history. In high school and university I also dabbled in music (which remains a beloved interest to this day…I always have to have music around to help me focus or to relax), journalism/creative writing (which evolved out of my love for reading and the written word), theater and theater production, microbiology/human biology (which remain an area of interest for me) and public administration. I found all of these areas fascinating, and it caused a great deal of distress as I began to have doubts about my major and how I would answer the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”…a question which takes on a whole new level of importance in your late teens and early twenties.
I find myself with the same multi-faceted interests still today. I have transitioned my career into the adult education/e-learning field within technology, and that has allowed me to learn some great new skills and try out more new things. But I also find myself fascinated with the medical field, which happens to be undergoing its own Renaissance when it comes to IT and technology. I feel like I can do any of these different things, and often have a hard time deciding which direction I want to go.
Standard advice from society would tell me that I am simply indecisive. I need to buckle down, pick an area to focus on and do it, because you cannot do everything. Even when you go looking for career advice, the prevailing wisdom is that it is to your detriment to be a Jack (or Jill)-of-All-Trades, because you will not be taken seriously as a job candidate unless you specialize. To a certain extent, especially within the technology sector, I feel like that is an accurate portrayal of the situation; having deep knowledge of one or two things is the standard, and anyone attempting to enter without that kind of specialization will find themselves rejected from the resume pile in favor of those who have specialized. But some far-sighted organizations have started to point out the disadvantages in this modus operendi, and have begun to advocate for a more varied pool of talent.
In April 2015, Emilie Wapnick presented a Ted Talk on this very topic at TedX Bend, titled Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling. In her talk, she coins a term for people like me which I think is spot on: Multipotentialite. The idea, of course, is that people who are multipotentialites aren’t people who can’t make up their minds, they are people who have the potential to excel in a variety of fields, and they possess certain superpowers which enable them to do this. These superpowers are a huge benefit to any field that a multipotentialite gets interested in.
What are these superpowers? The first is Idea Synthesis, which she defines as “..combining two or more fields and creating something new at the intersection”. Multipotentialites don’t simply learn what they need to learn for a single field, and then move on to another one and wipe away all previous knowledge from their prior experiences. Just like everyone else, we take our prior knowledge and experience with us. But what makes this so valuable in multipotentialites is that the information is coming from a seemingly unrelated place…which gives the person a fresh, new perspective on their current challenge. It is a true statement for any company or industry that you cannot solve the problems of today using the same tools, thinking and methods that created them in the first place. This is one area where having some multipotentialites on your team can provide priceless benefits.
The second superpower is Rapid Learning, partly a function of the fact that when a multipotentialite falls for a new idea or a new interest, we fall hard. We bury ourselves in it and want to know everything about it, which allows us to catch on very quickly. But because we have also had experience in other areas, we bring that knowledge with us which allows us to form connections and ideas which not only speed learning, but can help solve problems or make things easier to understand for others. Another benefit that Emilie points out is that because multipotentialites have had to go back to the beginning so many times in the past, they aren’t afraid of it. They aren’t afraid to step out of their comfort zone and try new things and new ideas…in fact that is where they shine.
The third superpower is Adaptability, which multiple sources including Fast Company magazine have pointed to as being THE most important skill for workers of the 21st century. Particularly in technology, where things are moving so fast that if you are not thinking about what is going to be common in the next five years you are already behind, adaptability is a requirement. You can’t get stuck only knowing how to do something one way, because some new technology is going to throw a monkey wrench into your works on a regular basis. Multipotentialites are adapters…they adapt to their new interest and new fields, and they are good at it.
None of this is a new idea. During The Renaissance it was considered a disadvantage to be a specialist in only one thing, and the Enlightenment was much the same way. As Benjamin Franklin, the very model of a multipotentialite once said,
Once you have finished changing, you have finished.”
– Benjamin Franklin
We are beginning to circle back around to the idea that being a Renaissance Person, a person who has broad interest and talents, is actually advantageous to society. We have very complex problems we are trying to solve, and we aren’t going to solve them with the same thinking that created them. So let’s stop encouraging those who are multipotentialites to narrow their focus and let them shake things up with their talents and skills…because the world needs us.