I recently came across a fascinating TED Talk by Emilie Wapnick, an author and career coach, who coined the term “multipotentialite”. Although the word sounds complicated, the idea is simple: a multipotentialite is a person with various passions and interests. Unlike specialists, for whom the perfect career choice is often obvious, multipotentialites don’t have “one true calling” – instead, they’re drawn to many different pursuits.
Does that ring a bell?
As a child, there’s a good chance that you, like many others, were asked what you wanted to be when you grew up. People generally expect a straightforward answer like “lawyer”, “astronaut” or “singer” – but certainly not all three! Over time, this question is posed again and again, nudging people towards focusing on a single dream, a fixed path to success.
But what if your ambitions are more complicated? What if you love lots of things that don’t really seem to go together, at least according to the traditional rules? Perhaps you’re deeply interested in mathematics, linguistics and music. Or maybe you’re passionate about sales, photography and teaching?
If you’re a natural multipotentialite, you may have struggled with anxiety about the way you’re wired, given that society tends to place a very high value on specialisation. We’ve all heard the saying, “Jack/Jill of all trades, master of none”. If you don’t pick one thing and stick to it, you might be criticised as being unfocused, scattered and irresponsible.
So, this week, my message focuses on why being a multipotentialite could be a good thing for some, and how you can make the most of your varied interests.
Contrary to the conventional view, having multiple “callings” is not a weakness or a limitation. In fact, in an increasingly complex world with increasingly complex problems, it can be a huge asset. Multipotentialites are excellent at bringing together disparate ideas in creative ways, making them great innovators and problem solvers.
In fact, at Godrej, when we recrafted our employer brand a few years ago, we identified ‘Whole Self’ as one of the three key pillars of our people philosophy. (The other two are around ‘Tough Love’ and how we will bet on potential and ‘Your Canvas’, which details the scope to stretch and grow). Our ‘Whole Self’ proposition is based on the fact that we believe passionate, rounded individuals with diverse interests make for better Godrejites. By making this central to our approach, we are highlighting that we understand that our team members play multi-faceted roles and we want to create an enabling space for them to do so.
In her TED Talk, Wapnick identifies some of the key advantages of being multi-passionate:
1. Intersectional insights
The point of intersection between two or more fields is full of possibilities – and multipotentialites are uniquely positioned to make the most of them. By combining ideas from diverse disciplines, you can create something entirely new. This ability to synthesise and innovate is all the more valuable in today’s business landscape, where multidimensional problems demand out-of-the-box solutions.
2. Hunger to learn
Driven by their strong curiosity, multipotentialites are quick and ambitious learners. They’re not intimidated by new things and are excited at the prospect of stepping out of their comfort zone. Their learning prowess allows them to master several subjects and skills, often at the same time.
3. Ability to pivot
Adaptability is said to be the ultimate twenty-first century superpower. With most industries evolving at breakneck speed, it’s imperative for individuals as well as companies to anticipate and keep up with change. This is something multipotentialites excel at, thanks to their innate flexibility and willingness to dive into unfamiliar waters.
Interestingly, the concept of a multipotentialite isn’t exactly new. During the Renaissance in Europe, for instance, multidisciplinary expertise was highly valued. Take Leonardo da Vinci, the original “Renaissance Man”, who was a mathematician, writer, scientist, inventor, painter and musician – all rolled into one. In the past few years, there has been a resurgence of this approach, especially among millennials, many of whom are discovering that it’s possible to pursue multiple passions while also having a stable, rewarding career.
Here are a few ways in which you can build on these opportunities even while at work:
1. Expand your role
Is there a way to bring some of your other interests into your current role? This would allow you to wear different hats in your day-to-day work itself. Get creative and take charge of expanding your own job description. Identify an exciting new task and pitch it to the organisation, explaining how it could benefit you as well as the business.
2. Start a passion project
A side project that’s entirely unrelated to your work lets you engage with separate topics and use different parts of your curious brain. In his TEDx presentation, self-professed multipotentialite Anthony Rahayel describes how he went about this. A dentist by trade, Rahayel used the breaks between patient appointments to write restaurant reviews and launch his food blog. This way, he could keep being a successful dentist while simultaneously channelling his love for gastronomy and writing.
3. Shift gears
As an organisation that aims for win-win outcomes, we want to utilise each individual’s valuable career experience as well as give them avenues for meaningful growth. So, if you’re itching to make a big change, start by looking for openings within the company that could benefit from your existing expertise while also enabling you to explore a new and exciting domain.
In order to identify the right role, you’ll need to pay special attention to your transferable skills. Talk to a few trusted colleagues or mentors to get their thoughts on the proposed move. Start training yourself in the area you’re considering – this will boost your chances of getting the role you want and make for a smoother transition.
4. Talk to other multipotentialites
Do you know someone who has successfully managed to create a career that combines diverse interests? Reach out to them for advice. How did they go about it? What obstacles did they face? What strategies do they recommend? There’s no substitute for genuine feedback from someone who’s already completed the journey you’re planning to begin.
5. Pair up with your opposite
Whether you’re a specialist or a multipotentialite, you could benefit by collaborating with a colleague who falls in the opposite category. As Wapnick explains:
Some of the best teams are comprised of a specialist and multipotentialite paired together. The specialist can dive in deep and implement ideas, while the multipotentialite brings a breadth of knowledge to the project. It’s a beautiful partnership.
This is something leaders should also keep in mind. By facilitating partnerships between specialists and multipotentialites, you can enable your team members to draw on each other’s unique strengths and deliver their best work together.
I look forward to your thoughts on how we can experiment more with multipotentialite opportunities.
Some career choices like design, consulting or research may be more suited to multipotentialites than others like mainstream operational business roles. A multipotentialite may also exercise judgement in prioritizing one or two of their more promising ideas or skills to drive through to first success so that the credibility and freedom to then fully explore other dimensions is more easily accessible to them.
I have to say I find this topic very important in this ever-changing economic environment. For personally it speaks to me, because I like to challenge myself in continuously learning new things. Especially fields of interest that would add value and enhance my ability to achieve a challenging goal in my Canvas.
I actually had the privilege of a CEO, who understood the importance of being multipotentialite. He spent time sitting with each employee and understanding their role and what they would actually want to be involved in. He would encourage you to tackle your desired role and added value to the organisation enhanced employee satisfaction.