The Multipotentialism Mindset: Your Competitive Edge in the New Economy

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This is a guest post written by our community manager, Milena who leading our Listener Tribe at Mighty Networks. Every month we are exploring a different subject and in November, we are focusing on Multipotentialism. Since this theme has resonated with many of our members, we have decided to share two posts with you on Medium to give you the flavor of our Tribe.

We were raised (and we’re still living) in a society that is heavily focused on a specialist mindset, the idea that you should pursue one thing, specialize and become the best. ‘Find your passion and you’ll never have to work a day in your life,’ some of us were told. (Or ‘Find what you love and let it kill you,’ a bit more radical version by Bukowski.) For some people, this works like a charm. Don’t we all have that annoying friend who wanted to become a doctor since the age of 3 and is now screaming at everyone’s face how all you have to do is follow your passion? Unfortunately, for many, the message of finding one true passion (The Passion) doesn’t sit quite right. Choosing just one thing can felt limiting and boring and best, and daunting at worst. What if someone told you that you have to find a perfect pair of jeans at the age of 18 and wear the hell out of them for the rest of your life? That sounds horrible. Yet, that’s exactly how we approach our careers.

At early age of 17–18, we don’t have enough data points when making these big decisions. We are yet to learn more about ourselves, master new skills and change our directions. Economy also changes, nowadays faster than ever. Forcing the idea of The Passion and specialization ends up being not just impractical, it also leaves many people feeling deficient, and broken. For many of us, the quest to finding The Passion turns into a nightmare and futile attempt to pinpoint the one magical thing that will resolve everything. In the meantime, tons of our energy, potential, and possible experimentation are wasted. We are constantly in search of the wrong thing.

What if instead of pursuing The Passion, we embrace the fact that we prefer to be on a convoluted path, rather than linear? What if we allow ourselves to put fingers in many pies, explore many things, start projects, abandon projects, gather data, and let the dots connect in the hindsight? What if the ultimate purpose for some us is to cross-pollinate rather than perfect just one skill until the sun explodes?

The timing is right

We live in an interesting period in history in which technology has permeated our lives on so many levels and creative tools are more available than ever. (So is the distraction, mind you.) On the other hand, due to larger automation and the creation of intelligent machines, many jobs are becoming obsolete and knowing a certain skill or procedure may not be enough any longer. We need more people who see the bigger picture and have the ability to correlate disparate domains. It’s difficult to predict the exact skills that will be needed in 21st century, but quick learning, creativity, pattern recognition, and interdisciplinarity are certainly on the list. For that reason, the time of multipotentialite’s is coming and it will be increasingly important for us to double down on our strengths.

Great thinkers agree

Several books and authors gave hints about the increasing importance of the multipotentialite mindset. In ‘Linchpin’, Seth Godin claimed that instead of working your ass off to get into the top 1 percent in say your Harvard application, you should focus on fostering your creativity and creating ‘gifts’. By becoming different and indispensable, such that your role is essential but difficult to describe, you’ll get a ticket for your future career. That is the exact shift from the specialist mindset. We all remember a 10,000-hour rule from Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’: that if you invest 10,000 hours of deliberate practice into a skill, you will become an expert. James Altucher made a twist on this idea and said that you should invest a total of 10,000 hours into multiple skills and become an expert in their intersection. That way, your hybrid expertise will be practically unique and impossible to replicate. (Not coincidentally, Altucher also wrote a book Reinvent Yourself, also related to multipotenialism idea, which we’ll talk about more in the upcoming weeks.) Srini’s book Unmistakable- Why Only is Better than Best, speaks to the same message, contained in the title.

The person who has championed the idea of multipotentialism was Barbara Sher in her book “Refuse to Choose”. She defines Scanners- people with a multitude of unrelated interests, voracious intellectual and creative appetites, who find the idea of choosing one direction for the rest of your life unbearable. She is a strong proponent of the idea that, if you are a Scanner, you should give your soul what it wants: variety, novelty, playfulness, and grace to quit when you are done with a certain domain. Yes, this may seem immature and whimsical from a conventional standpoint. But if you are a Scanner, it may provide the freedom you crave. If you felt confused and pulled in many directions, mindset change can help. And let’s be honest, if you were an obsessed child prodigy violinist, you would be practicing your violin and not bother reading Barbara Sher’s book or this post. “Refuse to Choose” contains numerous good, practical examples and actionable steps and we will come back to it many times during this month.

Emilie Wapnick, the founder of Puttylike and the author of the book ‘How to Be Everything’ built upon the idea of Scanners and defined the term ‘Multipotentialite’ and ‘Multipotentialism’, which we’ll use throughout the month. She writes:

“While specialists excel in a single domain, multipotentialites blend domains together and work in the intersections. This allows us to achieve a deep level of knowledge on the relationships between domains- our own form of expertise.”

Emilie’s work is fascinating and very relevant and we will go over parts of it extensively this month.

Also worth mentioning is Jenny Blake’s career framework called Pivot that is suited for the new economy. She claims that we all will (like it or not) have to reinvent ourselves over and over, so we might as well try to do it intentionally (Pivot or be pivoted). Her motto is: if the change is the only constant, let’s get better at it. She suggests figuring out what is already working, doing little experiments and scanning for the new possibilities (so multipotentialite!), trying new directions, learning lessons, and iterating. A recent guest at The Unmistakable Creative Podcast, David Epstein, authored the book Range, in which he speaks about the powerful role of generalists (multipotentialists- we’ll use terms interchangeably) in the new economy. Notes can be found HERE and several great quotes from his book below.

Knowing all this, let’s touch upon weaknesses and strengths of multipotentialites, so that we can make a game plan.

First and foremost, self-confidence can be an issue. Since we’re conditioned to believe that only specialization can bring career security, many multipotentialites end up feeling deficient, immature, and unable to fit it. We live in a world obsessed with labeling and judging. When you don’t fit into a stereotypical box, people have difficulties to position you in their coordinate system. If you are a doctor, that’s cool, everybody understands what it is. A weird person who is a lawyer, artist, and dog breeder is a bit complicated to be boxed and shelved, and that makes people very uncomfortable.

Passion switching, shifting, and experimentation that multipotentialites thrive on are commonly perceived as childish, whimsical, flaky, and extremely difficult to explain on a resume (an epitome of a labeling tool).

Multipotentialites love switching domains, which makes them beginners over and over. While it has many advantages (see superpowers), being a beginner is typically an uncomfortable position. You are always an underdog, never an expert. And the notion of ‘an expert’ also may be problematic to many multipotentialites. It comes through specialization and narrow focus, hence, multipods may never attain a conventional ‘expertise’.

Since the educational, academic, and corporate systems are still rigid and stagnant, multipotentialites often seriously struggle with their careers, especially at the beginning. They are often ‘late bloomers’ because it takes time to build career capital in several domains, find the right balance and connect the dots.

Because they are juggling many projects at once, productivity can also be an issue (we’ll tackle that in week 3). Lastly, let’s point to the obvious: lack of grit (or perceived lack of grit) because of the switching between the domains. Multipods have an obsessive nature, but when they are done with the subject, they are done. However, it’s important to note that they operate differently from specialists: rather than refining single expertise to the max, their purpose is to gain some useful aspect of the domain and use it elsewhere.

A nonexhaustive list… we will expand with Q&A.

In the Originals, Adam Grant says:

“Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience. In fashion, the most original collections come from directors who spent most time working abroad. In science, winning a Nobel Prize is less about being single-minded genius and more about being interested in in many things. Relative to typical scientists, Nobel Prize winners are 22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or magicians; 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; 7 times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts, twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music.”

It is often the outsiders who bring ideas from different domains and resolve problems. The larger your bank of experience is, the more likely you are to notice what insiders are dismissing and introduce something new.

Because of their extensive curiosity and obsessive nature, multipods are quick learners. And because they started learning tons of new things tons of times, they have mastered the art of learning. They are using knowledge of other fields to master the one at hand. Their beginner’s mindset helps them adapt and be open to learning a new subject. As stated above, it is hard to predict exactly how the future economy and job market will unravel; for that reason, quick learning is becoming increasingly important and multipods well positioned to excel.

Regarding generalists, David Epstein says:

“Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly.”

Using a diverse knowledge base, multipods can see patterns, common themes, and a big picture. This is the skill that is the hallmark of successful leadership and problem-solving. Multipods are visionaries. In addition to perceiving the world as-is, they also can foresee what could be.

Scott Young who is an ultra-learning expert says that a big flaw of the educational system is the lack of translating knowledge between domains. (Think about the kids in math class who solve the problem and then fail to solve a similar one with different numbers.) Translating knowledge from one domain to another comes easily to generalists. In the words of David Epstein:

“The more constrained and repetitive a challenge, the more likely it will be automated, while great rewards will accrue to those who can take conceptual knowledge from one problem or domain and apply it in an entirely new one.”

Our skills are more transferrable than we think they are. Having technical expertise may be really useful for a certain job. However, if you show that you are an effective communicator, manager, leader, problem-solver, organizer, you increase your job prospects dramatically for literally any job. While the training path is usually straightforward for technical skills, the same cannot be said for the transferable skills. Again, multipotentialists win.

In the comments below, let us know why do you think multipotentialites are suited to thrive in the future economy.

If you’d like to learn more and continue the conversation on Multipotentialism with likeminded people, click here to join the Tribe today.

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