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“I’ve been living my backup plan”
That’s what filmmaker, actress, writer, trailblazer, artist (aka multipotentialite) and generally awesome thinker, Brit Marling said about her difficult choice between staying on at Goldman Sachs as an investment banker and moving on to travel to Cuba, go dumpster diving and undertake a myriad of experiences that would inform her writing for years to come.
What a crossroads to be at. And what a choice to make.
In the end, Marling chose something that could spark her creativity and feed her soul.
But rather than a choice between “commerce” and “art”, she went by the underlying principles: a difference between a fixed mindset and the opportunity to experience, grow, learn, practice and then grow some more.
She chose the questions. Her questions. And she followed them.
A similar conversation was going on in the life of lawyer, filmmaker, screenwriter and researcher, Kalyanee Mam. But hers was less defined, a more fluid progression that helped her move from one “thing” to the next.
From a lawyer helping cases in refugee camps to a desperate attempt at trying to capture these refugees’ stories and broadcast them to the “outside world”.
Mam understood an essential truth when transforming herself from researching case law to researching facts for the seminal documentary “Inside Job”, narrated by Matt Damon: there are many ways to tell a story. And all these ways call on the same fundamental principles.
A new way of being. A new way of expressing. A new way of capturing.
Mam and Marling show you and I, the budding multipotentialites, something very fundamental: that there’s no need to “be” only one thing for we, as humans, are complex.
Our identities are, our world is and so our interactions with that world require a more nuanced engagement, coloured with multiple “perspectives”, interests and ideas.
Something even more important: Undertaking technical and professional training doesn’t automatically define who you are…nor does it require you to polarize those pieces of training, categorizing them into “working for the Man” and “art”.
Divisions like this just corrode your sense of being. They unnecessarily complicate and pathologize your sense of self. Look, you don’t need an added layer of baggage to “work through” and “process”.
You don’t need to publicly renounce one avatar to follow your bliss. It’s all a part of what you accumulate here on your journey — the only thing that matters is how you pivot.
By the way, all this has nothing to do with the mythical debate of “I-don’t-know-how-she-does-it” balancing act, where women derive value from projecting their identity as a woman who can “lean in” and “handle it all”.
It has everything to do with embracing the various parts of who we are, what makes up our desires and “pulls”, integrating these various aspects together, over time, in a brilliant journey, a legacy that is, at least to our circle of influence, unforgettable and undeniable.
Carl Jung called this the “individuation process”.
Emilie Wapnick calls this the identifying feature of the self-proclaimed “multipotentialite”.
“Your desires are not a liability”
I’ve struggled for many years to put myself out there in an external way that matches the internal idea of who I am.
This whispering voice inside of me has always kept speaking, tagging along faithfully, doggedly even, while I bumped around the world.
I’ve been equally frustrated by a process that was/is at odds with each other. It always felt like I was at war within myself, with myself.
Fighting that inner wolf and determining which one lives today is the greatest battle I’ve ever had to face — and I suspect it will not end, simply evolve.
On the one hand, I wanted to harness the “truth” of who I am, the power I’ve felt inside — those moments of incredible control, creative potency and deep connection and immersion — without actually claiming it. Instead, I was busy trying to hold myself in check, within tight reigns that would subjugate my various “interests” into some kind of meaningful “whole” that I might arrive at someday.
For fuck’s sake, just pick already! You can’t have it all! There’s no time!
It wasn’t until I read this gorgeous quote by serial entrepreneur Miki Agrawal and had a major personal breakdown in my life that things started to open up for me.
“Now I want it all…”
Of course…like anything worthwhile, it took many, many, many, many mornings of starting all over again, kind of like the Memento man, and trying (and failing) to put it into action.
It’s still a work-in-progress — but, at least now, I know what I’m aiming for — everything — and I’m doing so without any shame or self-censorship.
Now, I’m delighting in the work-in-progress without any sense of hurrying, greatness, accumulation, grandiosity, pressure, delusion, illusion or narrow, limiting beliefs.
There’s just the work. And I.
The Rule of 3
So what’s a multipotentialite? Is it a polite way of saying, “unfocused, afraid of commitment, demonstrating adult ADD or entitled”?
Unless you’re jaded enough to believe in only the worst bits of humanity, no — multipotentialite is not a derogatory term. Nor is it a liability or a nicety.
Multipotentialites are those individuals who don’t only have “one interest”. They’re individuals who are deeply curious about seemingly disparate disciplines — like civil engineering and German opera — and who immerse themselves in various ways with the world around them.
They’re individuals prone to be visual artists who maybe also want to perform science experiments, paint frescoes, and design human flight machines — sound familiar?
At their very core, multipotentialites sound suspiciously like those who demonstrate a love for lifelong learning; those individuals imbued with what Carol Dweck’s research has called, “the growth mindset”.
It’s not just that they refuse to pick, or refuse to be held down to “just one thing”, or that they refuse easy categorization. The legacy of multipotentialites is not in their “refusal”, but, rather, in their acceptance.
An acceptance to see all things as interconnected and the willingness to play at these intersections.
Wapnick’s ideas can be consolidated into what I like to think about as, “the rule of three”.
Throughout her TED Talk, Wapnick points to three distinct advantages multipotentialities have over specialists — again, this is not to say one is better than the other but, rather, to call the multipotentialite out of his or her hidey-hole:
- Idea synthesis
- Rapid learning
That these three are the ingredients to a perfect storm capable of bringing innovation to fields as seemingly diverse as investment banking and architecture is just a delicious detail.
A veritable, “fuck you” against all the naysayers and detractors: not specific people, per se, but a dominant culture hell-bent on a shuffling assembling line of humanity, on conformity.
So non-conformity is not just its opposite but its opportunity: The opportunity to celebrate and emerge as whoever the fuck you happen to be.
But Wapnick also has two other ideas, each which can be broken down into three sub-ideas.
This theme of a trinity seems significant — if not culturally then, at least, mnemonically. For although Wapnick is certainly not the first to cast a spotlight over this idea of a “Renaissance person”, the way she frames her thoughts is refreshingly accessible and digestible, not to mention warm and sincere.
All hallmarks of an earnest and creative millennial.
So on we go, down her rabbit hole.
First off, she identifies three main questions you’ll want to ask yourself:
- “How will you get the variety you need into your everyday life and career?”
- “How will you make time in your life for your many passions?”
- “How will you deal with self-doubt, the fear of not being taken seriously, or the people in your life who don’t understand?”
Notice that I said, “ask” and not “answer”. Answering is what your life’s action is supposed to do and be about.
In other words, don’t worry about the answer. That will come and is coming as you’re doing. Keep being, instead, so you can keep “do-being” and don’t stop.
“Managing” and responding to career, productivity and confidence are what Wapnick sees as a multipotentialite’s challenges.
Self-proclaimed polymath and investor Anupam Kundu would word this in a different way.
He sees the “issue” of operating as a multipotentialite — i.e. finding and creating meaningful work that impacts larger society in whatever big and small ways it will — as a question of “if one can manage this sense of variety and exploration with a healthy dose of pragmatism and purpose” — or not.
It helps to view your working hours as an experience — a holistic journey — that incorporates many aspects of self-development.
The implication is that not only is there a blend between personal and professional but, also, there’s a distinct thread of continuity when viewed as an experience.
“The workforce of today is asking [for] much more than a work and career — they want an experience. HRs in progressive companies are now being tasked with creating compelling experiences…”
Experiencing the answers to Wapnick’s three questions is key in actually taking action, turning a situation from crippling and hopeless into creative and gainful.
Remember, as a multipotentialite, the truest and greatest battle you’ll be fighting is not with others (as you may have previously thought) but with your own perceived limitations and internalized beliefs of what you are worthy of conquering.
Viewed as an experience, you’ll be able to determine your own narrative and see actual touchpoints in that narrative as flowing into the next thing, logically.
You can make meaning from it and you needn’t struggle with feeling fragmented and discontented.
This is no small thing — in fact, it’s perhaps one of the most debilitating fears that pinion the potential of a multipotentialite down.
The third “set of three” she looks at are what are likely to be the major preoccupations of multipotentialites for their lives:
In Wapnick’s world, meaning and money are not “multi-pod specific”. They apply to anyone and everyone looking to do work they love in this world and contribute to its amelioration.
But variety is a pretty big desire that multipotentialites claim all to themselves.
In the interest of inclusivity, I’d actually broaden the meaning of “variety” and connect it to transformation.
See, in his book, Mastery, Robert Greene points to the vast variety of interests and experience of “masters” like Charles Darwin or Da Vinci as being a cornerstone to their later success, built during their formative years.
He doesn’t credit the sheer number of interests in a quantitative sense but rather the depth of connections these multiple honey-pots, so to speak, afforded the “masters” over their lives.
In other words, a qualitative cross-pollination of ideas coupled with the existential growth of these “greats” is what propelled their legacy.
So specialists, too, can have a sense of “variety” through transformation.
Let’s take a programmer, for example. No doubt, what a C++ specialist works on today with the coding and developing tools in his arsenal won’t remain the same. He might get deeper or he might employ an entirely new language.
In fact, he might break away from software and move to working for data visualizations in graphic design or not-for-profit, open-source journalism databases.
Artists have a term of this: Altersteihl, or the fresh perspectives and works of an artist during their “later years”. Sometimes, this would mean a break in style, subject or even theme.
Usually, “altersteihl” is fueled by an impending sense of one’s own finitude in life. What preoccupied the greats like Georgia O’Keefe, who painted well into her 90s? Only her work can tell us.
And that’s the point: only the work matters.
Embracing the idea and signifying label of a multipotentialite is only the first step to making meaningful impact.
Transformation is accessible by anyone — multipotentialite or not. And if you’re willing to work consistently then “dropping” one thing to move onto the next looks exactly the same as a transformation of the self.
And that is valuable.
Does it really even matter what we call it?
Here’s what Paul Jarvis, creator of several successful software products and the seminal online course, “Creative Class”, thinks about labels (and, naturally, it’s a paradox): they both matter enormously and don’t even merit a second glance.
He likes “moving between identities without caring” and doesn’t care for ascribing only one label because with labels come these accompanying narratives.
And he does his best work when without the narrow frameworks others want to put on him. At the same time, selling and operating as a professional requires some packaging — of product, service, and, at the end of it all — yourself.
So labels matter: Use them but don’t make the mistake of conflating the labels to your sense of self, your existence or your future action.
Labels are both effective street lamps and hazardous high-beams. Don’t allow labels to dominate your identity and existence.
Instead, begin to story-tell yourself in a way that brings the authenticity of who you are in that moment on the inside, to what you’re doing and who you’re being on the outside.
“It’s easier to build confidence incrementally” — Paul Jarvis
Takeaways and Tactics
In writing this piece, I had a weird blend of research, anecdote, organization and organic creativity. This means not just the content but my treatment of it.
The actual writing and research process was a song-and-dance sequence rather than a strict martial progression or, on the other end of the spectrum, a free-for-all jam.
I wove back and forth between the research, background reading, specific sections, link examples and my own ideas.
I both started with a particular structure and allowed it to evolve on its own. In other words, I was open to going where the progression of the specific layout of facts took me.
If there were anything to be taken away from all this, and if there’s anything I’d want to tell my emerging multipotentialite self, it would be this.
Maintain a balance between structure and creativity
Recently, I got into a discussion with a very free-spirited friend about starting a project together. Kind of, a radio show meets “The Conversation”.
Because, I reasoned, who doesn’t want to watch two Indian women be fucking explicit and creative in a stream-of-consciousness way?
(p.s. This is happening)
Thankfully, while our vision is the same, our way of operation is vastly different.
She likes to just get in there and start shit. I like to have a bit more structure, based on what the project is. It doesn’t have to be extensive, I reasoned with her, but it should have at least some kind of forethought like location, topics and times.
While we hammered out the details and tried to negotiate our creative needs, it occurred to me that multipotentialites often have to walk this tightrope of “not ready” and “fully prepared”.
Too much planning and you get lost in the details. Too little and you’re liable to just start and stop things with no real effectiveness or consistency.
Yes, you’re never going to be ready. So don’t use “readiness” as a litmus test. Instead, make “trying” your minimum viable product (for now) and use it until it’s outlived its use.
If you begin by doing, each day, at least one thing related to your interests, your projects or your ideas a day, that’s all that matters. You’ve tried your idea out. You dropped that album. You worked for even an hour on that manuscript.
Remember, the work is all that matters. And all work worth doing requires a delicate dance between structure for support (not suffocation) and organic creativity.
Focus on being iterative and experimental
No body of work — artistic or otherwise — exists in a silo.
Every author leaves his or her psychological stamps on their characters in some way, shape or form.
Whether you can see it or not, all work that you produce is iterative. Which is to say, it builds upon what came previously. It’s not a diversion, distraction or a long-winded, ill-advised, doomed tangent.
So a photographer working in film and then tinkering about with cinemagraphs, branching out into digital photography is not a “sell-out”, losing relevance, betraying his discipline or worried about encroaching technology.
Rather, the work this photographer produces is iterative. It adds to his arsenal of skills and arms him with a new way to operate and view the world. It may be a useful medium of expression some day, as he works through its mastery.
Or he may drop it and only return to it 20 years later.
Regardless, exploring this “itch” is the next stage in his self-development as well as the development of his work. In short, it’s iterative.
Holding this perspective and framework for understanding your life and your creativity, as a multipotentialite, may be the difference between running around in circles chasing your tail or making meaningful if incremental progress daily.
See, viewing your work and your life’s story as an iteration helps you create meaning because there’s a sense of continuity. It really doesn’t matter if people agree with you on your reading or not. It doesn’t matter if it’s “objectively true” or not.
No one has the right to read your life and write it out — nor analyze it and determine its meaning — than you.
So why not make it iterative?
Embracing iteration as a form of continuity also gives you the strength to be experimental with your mediums and methods. If you see meaning in what’s come before — rather than regretting it — you’ll be more likely and willing to be courageous with your next moves.
And your next move might call for a major leap of faith.
Identify common threads
“Common threads” in our lives are also our life lessons. They’re those “themes” that will recur in our lives, throughout our stages of transformation.
In the interest of being completely transparent, I’ll let you in on two of mine: they’re undoubtedly love (self and otherwise) and self-reliance.
As I look back on my life, I see these themes occur over and over again in different ways, based on what I needed to learn at the time and the level of growth I was in. They’ve simply become more nuanced and potent now, as is a human’s development anyway.
But identifying these common threads — deciding that this is where the most meaning lay in my life, rising to these challenges as things I could master someday — is what gives me the courage to dabble in many different ways.
Identifying common threads is also the perfect way to, like Odysseus, lash yourself to the ship’s mast and stay away from siren songs.
And, contrary to popular belief, the siren song for a multipotentialite is not yet another interest but, rather, corrosive thoughts of…
…fear of never being enough or finding “the one thing”…
…of never coming to any coherent creative fruition…
…of never being able to use our diverse talents to make the kind of global impact we
know we can.
Where you hurt is where you can help
Which then brings me to my next point.
These commonly recurring “threads” running through the progression of my life thus far are also, on deep introspection, what I’ve realized are the major underlying principles to the work I’m going to do.
Embracing common threads means it doesn’t matter how you show up in the world. In what avatar. Whether you’re a therapist or an artist or a filmmaker or a lawyer or a theoretical physicist — or all nine of your “interests” simultaneously.
Your preoccupations and major motivations will remain the same across disciplines.
Identifying these themes also gives you a chance to begin to articulate the problems that we’re all facing. Rest assured, if you’ve felt pain over something, thousands of other people have as well.
If not tens of millions.
I’m not just talking “user interface” or “product” idea problems — I’m also talking the major pains and underlying fears we all have. We’re delightfully and amusingly similar in this regard.
All creatures feel fear and we all want to give it all up for love.
Recognizing that you should be working at the intersections of your “hurts” and using your multiple interests as ways to show up and operate in this world gives you more than a sense of inner calm.
It also frees you up to know something very important: no matter what “decision” you make, you will always be moving forward.
Knowing this as truth starts at two levels: one, telling yourself this and, secondly, storytelling yourself to others.
As a “cartographer” of ideas who is interested in the “cross-pollination of ideas”, Maria Popova is a major champion for multipotentialite being — whether she includes that as part of her creative brainchild, Brain Pickings, her personal storytelling, or not.
The future of storytelling is not only in how we communicate ideas to the outside world or the work we do engaging with others and their issues.
It first begins with how you storytell yourself — to yourself.
“Knowledge without context,” says Popova, “cannot lead to wisdom”.
The issue is that, for so long, we’ve had knowledge of who we are and the context we’ve been given is of others’ making. They see it as a liability. They see it as a downfall. They see it a lack of focus.
But what about our own right to make meaning? If we’ve been supplied the context thus far, a major transformation in self means re-writing that context in a way that supports our sense of identity and creativity to our greatest detractor and our greatest supporter:
— (no, not you, Mom) —
Your own mind.