What if you were able to list every famous American director by decade, knew all the latest news in astronomy and had an in-depth understanding of renewable energies? Most of us are really good at one or two things, but some excel in a variety of disciplines. These are the polymaths or multipotentialites. What makes someone a multipotentialite? What role might they play in the workplace? How do they effectively tap into their talents?
Multipotentiality in a nutshell
“Jack of all trades, master of none, often times better than master of one.” In current usage, the expression “jack of all trades” can be seen as a compliment when used to describe someone with an array of skills and good general knowledge. However, when Robert Greene dropped the last part of the expression in 1592 and applied it to actor-turned-playwright William Shakespeare, it was intended as an insult. Nearly a century later, the ideal of the Renaissance man took centre stage, developed from the humanist notion that people should pursue knowledge and develop their talents to the greatest extent possible. As a result, the term has remained closely linked to this historical peak in intellectual and creative output.
The term “multipotentiality” was coined in 1972 when psychologist Ronald Fredrickson described individuals who were able to attain a high level of competency in multiple subjects, provided they had access to the most favourable environment. Such people are not merely passionate about a wide range of subjects—such as music, computer programming, foreign cinema, politics and even esoteric topics such as Norse mythology—they are also very good at them.
From there, Canadian writer, artist and entrepreneur Emilie Wapnick came up with the term “multipotentialite” and even wrote about it in her 2018 book entitled, How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up. Along with her TED talk, the book has played a major role in bringing the concept of multipotentiality – and life as a multipotentialite – into the mainstream. A big part of her work is aimed at removing the cultural stigma around career-hopping. Véronique Bouton, a professional development coach who specialises in atypical jobseeker profiles, said: “Multipotentialites are very curious, can think on their feet, carry out tasks quickly and enjoy challenges and working independently. They tend to career-hop and sometimes experience periods of unemployment. They often have several jobs at the same time. In the collective imagination, they are typically associated with startups and with the creation of companies, but they can also be found working for large companies.”
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Different professionals with the same thirst for knowledge
Wapnick distinguishes between two types of multipotentialites: “simultaneous” and “sequential.”“Simultaneous multipotentialites” get passionately involved in different disciplines or carry out several projects at the same time. They delve into subjects that have no obvious connection. For example, they might get an idea for a short film, write a book and develop an app during the same period. “Sequential multipotentialites”, however, are more likely to focus on one project after another, devoting equal passion to each one. Both these types demonstrate a genuine ability to move rapidly from one subject to another, diving into each subject and almost mastering it. While multipotentialites are not necessarily gifted, Bouton said that “experience shows that gifted people are passionate and excel in many areas”.
It is hard to say what percentage of the population are multipotentialites and Bouton warns that numbers on the internet “should be treated with caution”. Indeed, it is difficult to detect in oneself or in others and is not always fully understood. According to Bouton, a multipotentialite might be someone who feels like they are languishing in their job and are looking elsewhere, someone who needs constant challenges to feel fulfilled professionally or who hasn’t found success by the age of 30.
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Multipotentiality: the challenges
People who fall into this category can become bored quickly and their feelings of frustration are noticeable, according to Bouton. This can be a real issue: they often end up losing interest in subjects that once interested them, frequently from the point where they attain a certain level of knowledge. Vulcanology is replaced by another passion, the fascination with nuclear physics wears off and Amerindian culture loses its lustre. In short, they tend to worry about wasting their time further exploring a subject they have mastered. Swapping one interest for another is not a drawback when it comes to hobbies, but it can cause concern for people in their professional lives. Being efficient and skilled doesn’t mean it’s time to move on, however. On the contrary, achieving a certain level of excellence can convince a company the employee is in the right place for them.
Multipotentialites may also experience social pressure as their voracious appetite for knowledge can seem excessive to many people. Not fitting into a single mould isn’t always easy in a society where there’s a tendency to label people and to value specialist skills. Moving from one career to another is easier and more socially accepted in some disciplines, but in others regularly changing companies or roles is frowned upon, according to Bouton. “Some recruiters still refer to old career models. Multipotentiality is sometimes perceived as instability or as an expression of poor interpersonal skills. Yet multipotentialites are an asset to managers because they adapt easily, see the bigger picture, come up with new ideas and are super-creative,” she said. Bouton, who is a former HR director of an international corporation, said that multipotentialites are likely to feel out of place, jumpy, scattered, irresponsible and sometimes even lazy because they are unable to stick with one thing over the long haul. Bouton has observed that they often lack confidence despite their many abilities. They sometimes feel like impostors as they struggle to stay focused on a single area of expertise like everyone else.
Identify and emphasise your added value in the workplace
Throughout her career in human resources, Bouton met a wide array of professionals many of whom could be classified as multipotentialites. They were more likely to thrive within large organisations in positions that involved cross-divisional functions such as management, business development and organisation, she said.
Do you suspect you might be a multipotentialite? If so, the most suitable corporate cultures are ones that are open to internal flexibility, she said. So choose an employer that offers this if you want to be able to grow professionally. It may be true that curious, creative and sharp minds shy from the beaten path, but how do you justify three career or job changes? Can they be called “short term positions”? You must know how to explain periods of unemployment and connect unrelated roles or positions before the recruitment process “so you don’t come off as flaky,” said Bouton. That’s because such candidates – perhaps this describes you – often demonstrate a less than regular career path. She advises carefully preparing for your interview in advance so you can showcase the added value your diverse background represents. “Multipotentialites risk losing their audience because they think in a nonlinear way and tend to go off topic. They should run through a practice interview out loud in advance to refine their answers, find common threads and be prepared for the recruiter to ask questions.”
This appetite for novelty, stimulation, learning and endless curiosity must be taken seriously and means breaking free from societal expectations. “Bringing together different disciplinary fields should happen more frequently,” said entrepreneur and new technology investor Jake Chapman, who is also an author, sommelier, amateur boxer and poker player. According to Chapman, the best ideas are those that come from the intersection of disciplines. Polymaths, with their insatiable curiosity, add meaning to learning for its own sake and, as a result, they challenge the very notion of achievement. After all, you can spend many years studying literature without necessarily becoming a professor of literature. Whether or not you identify as a multipotentialite, the lifelong pursuit of knowledge, motivated by pleasure alone, may well lead to personal growth.
Translated by Andrea Schwam
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