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In Defense of Multipotentialism

If you read the vast swathes of self- and career-improvement advice available via blogs, magazines and books, you’re no doubt familiar with the directive to “follow your passion.” Follow your passion in your work and the money will follow. Follow your passion in your life and happiness will follow. It makes sense – to a point.

But what about for the rest of us? Those who stop, think real hard, and come to the conclusion that they have no idea what the hell their “passion” is, or what they were “meant” to do? Are we passionless souls destined to be destitute and unhappy our whole lives?

Or what about those who thought they knew what their passion was, then opened a cupcake shop and realized they were miserable, or just simply bored by it? That’s not how it’s supposed to work, right? When you pursue your passion good things are supposed to follow. But that’s not always the case. And therein lies the problem. Because when most of us think about finding our “passion” or “meaning,” we are thinking of one thing.

It’s similar to the idea that there is one true love out in the world for each of us. All we have to do is find that one person and everything will fall into place, but of course that’s overly simplistic and naive. The same goes for finding a passion. We expect some bolt of inspiration that reveals our life’s calling. We get frustrated when it never comes. Alternatively we think we find it, then realize it’s not for us – or at least not anymore – but we stick with it for a lifetime because, well, it’s our passion.

If you’ve found your life’s calling, good for you. I think that’s great, and I’m envious that you have a single pursuit that propels you out of bed every morning for your entire life.

But I don’t think that’s the case for most of us – and that’s okay. Because we can be happy and fulfilled living a life of variety rather than one marked by singular focus.

To those frustrated by an inability to find your passion; to those who found it but are now bored or unfulfilled; to those who have stopped trying; there is hope for you (and me, I’m one of you). We are not equivocators, slackers, drifters and quitters. We are multipotentialites.

The Meaning of Multipotentialism

Emilie Wapnick is a blogger and entrepreneur and, yes, multipotentialite. In fact she coined the term. She writes a blog at which she discusses multipotentialism, and did a great TEDx talk called “Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling.”

She defines a multipotentialite as someone with many interests and creative pursuits. The opposite of a multipotentialite is a monopath. She describes herself as a combination of artist, entrepreneur, writer, speaker and coach. According to Wapnick, if you’re the type of person who agonizes over prioritizing one of your interests to the exclusion of others, then there is a good chance that you are a multipotentialite.

This is not necessarily a new concept, just a modern spin. History is rife with multipotentialites, although we commonly refer to them as renaissance men or women.

Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, sculptor, scientist, humanist, architect, philosopher and engineer. Thomas Jefferson was an architect, author, lawyer, musician, botanist, inventor, philosopher, and naturalist – not to mention President of the United States. Ida Bell Wells Barnett was an African-American journalist, newspaper editor, suffragist, sociologist and early leader in the civil rights movement.

The point is that some of the most consequential experts, innovators and leaders of all time led lives marked by diverse interests and accomplishments.

After studying multipotentialites, Wapnick noticed certain patterns in their professional pursuits. She identified four commonly used models for those adopting a multipotentialist approach to work:

  • The Group Hug Approach: This is when someone finds a multifaceted business or job that permits him or her to wear many hats.
  • The Slash Approach: This is the approach of someone who has multiple, concurrent, distinct jobs, businesses or revenue streams that enable him or her to make a living while maintaining variety.
  • The Einstein Approach: Albert Einstein worked in the U.S. Patent Office, but his job did not require a tremendous amount of effort. This left him with time and energy to pursue other interests. The Einstein approach involves having one “good enough” job that leaves time for varied creative pursuits on the side.
  • The Sequential Approach: This is when someone commits to a field for several years, then switches gears to something new.

I consider myself a multipotentialist. I definitely don’t have that one thing that I want to pursue for my lifetime. My work model is a bit of a hybrid, falling somewhere between Sequential and Group Hug. I’ve had different careers (lawyer, marketer) and within our business I get to wear multiple hats (writer, brand strategist). One of the primary reasons that Heather and I launched Life and Whim was because we are multipotentialites. It’s a platform – free of any client filters – that gives me a chance to write and Heather a chance to design and do photography.

Transition to a Multipotentialite Career or Lifestyle

In an article on Huffington Post, Wapnick offers a few tips for those looking to embrace their inner multipotentialite. To get started she suggests that people: “Make a master list of your interests, passions, skills hobbies and curiosities, past and present. Cross out the items that you are totally over, and underline the ones that really pull at your heart. Then try fitting the items on your list into each of the four commonly used work models: group hug, slash, Einstein and sequential.”

Perseverance is important, but no one should stick it out doing just one thing for their entire career if it’s not making them happy or fulfilled just because they think they’re following their passion. People are more complex, and their interests are often more varied than that. Whether it’s within the confines of a job or business, or outside of work, it’s important to explore and experiment. {tweet that}

Just because you like to shift gears and switch things up doesn’t make you undisciplined. It just might mean you’re a multipotentialist.

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