Multipotentiality is an educational and psychological term referring to the ability and preference of a person, particularly one of strong intellectual or artistic curiosity, to excel in two or more different fields. It can also refer to an individual whose interests span multiple fields or areas, rather than being strong in just one. Such traits are called multipotentials, while “multipotentialites” has been suggested as a name for those with this trait.
By contrast, those whose interests lie mostly within a single field are called “specialists.” A multipotentialite is a person who has many different interests and creative pursuits in life. Multipotentialites have no “one true calling” the way specialists do. Multipotentialites thrive on learning, exploring, and mastering new skills. We are excellent at bringing disparate ideas together in creative ways. This makes us incredible innovators and problem solvers.
When it comes to new interests that emerge, our insatiable curiosity leads us to absorb everything we can get our hands on. As a result, we pick up new skills fast and tend to be a wealth of information.
With the advent of the industrial age, cultural norms have shifted in favor of specialization. Indeed in the modern day, the more narrow the specialization, the higher the pay and respect accorded, for example: PhD graduates, and specialized lawyers, doctors, and engineers. Older emphasis towards generalist and multiple potentials such as Renaissance humanism and the Renaissance man were replaced.
However, the convergence economy, Internet age, connectivity, the rise of the Creative Class, and other modern developments are bringing about a return of a more positive opinion for generalists and multipotentialites.
Modern Society Doesn’t Understand Us
Unfortunately, mainstream society tends not to value or recognize multipotentiality and labels this sort of “jumping between interests” flaky, immature behavior. For a specialist, that might be true. But for us multipotentialites, saying goodbye to one passion to explore a new one is how we’re wired. It’s our gift.
The aspect of multipotentiality that worries multipotentialites the most is the tendency to become bored. Boredom usually hits once we’ve learned what we are meant to learn on a particular topic, and instead of moving on, we try to continue down a path we’re no longer interested in. Boredom is our body’s way of telling us that it’s time to move on to something new.
Multipotentialites don’t define “finishing” the way a specialist (and indeed, most of society) does. We learn what we came to learn and then move on to the next interest. This may not always look like “finishing” to the outside world, but it is.
Some of the elements multipotentialites tends to experience without a supportive environment.
Great ideas but no follow through
You get plenty of ideas, so much so that it becomes overwhelming. There are countless things you’d like to do right away. Sometimes it’s difficult to choose, for fear that you’ll leave it mid-way. Or you have a desire to do a multitude of things, all at once. Or the dissatisfaction of the earlier half-finished projects may bog you down, so you don’t start at all.
You’re labeled “irresponsible” or “afraid to commit”
You begin to feel that you’re not a responsible person because you don’t stick to anything. After all, hasn’t it been drilled into you that success depends on your level of commitment? And a lack of commitment could mean anything from not being serious to being irresponsible and careless.
The blame game
You start blaming yourself. The pressure to perform and stick to one particular career or task intensifies. It may be a self-created vortex, or others around you will contribute to the pressure by saying things like, “get serious” or “discipline is just what you need.”
Not fitting in
Finally, you realize you don’t fit in. You start feeling something’s wrong with you, that you’re not like other “normal” people around you who commit to doing things. You believe you’re different and feel you don’t belong anywhere. This can also lead to loneliness or a sense of being alone in the world.
Disappointments greet you
When you’re unable to come up with a goal for yourself, it can hurt. You know you’re ready to put in the hard work, but goals keep changing, as nothing interests you for long. The hurt and disappointment can erode your self-confidence, as well.
Yet you try. You keep searching for that single purpose that will make you feel whole again. Maybe you feel there’s something out there that is “you”—something that’s meant especially for you. You only have to find it and then you’ll be okay. Beware: This path is full of lies.
The feeling of being abnormal
You begin searching for mental disorders on the web. Maybe this is a symptom of a condition, or maybe it signifies a psychiatric illness. The web is extremely helpful here, as it displays twenty or more different disorders that you could box yourself into.
You start sticking to a goal even if it kills you. You wake up day after day reassuring yourself that things will work out in the end. The suppression does not get you anywhere. Instead, you feel a discontent, an overwhelming feeling that something is missing.
So this, in a nutshell, is the world of multipotentialites.
In spite of their vulnerabilities, multipotentialites can get a lot done. They’re generally quick learners who are able to grasp varied things, a strength that they could capitalize on. In a team they can come up with innovative ideas; the jack-of-all-trades does not lack solutions. Belief in yourself is the only thing that’s missing. Well, that and a couple of other things.
Looks for creative ways to contribute.
Maybe you could utilize your skills to earn more, by writing in your particular field, coaching, or even speaking. The important thing is not to give up on your interests; instead, look at them closely and see how you can proactively pursue them to better your situation. This removes the pressure on you and you start feeling less anxious.
Advantages of multipotentialites includes:
- rapid learning and fast skill acquisition
- idea synthesis
- translating between modes of thought
- concocting new solutions
- contextual thinking
- novelty and variety
- fit well into leadership roles
- lose out on the benefits of specialization, ultra long-term commitment
- Distraction and burn out
- Depending on person, mastery or competence can take longer to achieve. While there is some dispute as to the degree of prevalence of this phenomenon, it can be a significant problem for those who experience it, leading to overscheduling, high stress levels, confusion, paralysis by analysis, and impulsive or conformist choices in gifted children, and to feelings of social alienation, purposelessness, apathy and depression in the brightest of adults.
In a world that overvalues specialization, the term and its increasing popularity (especially among the blogging community) have contributed to the revival of awareness on the importance of generalists. In the current economy, creativity and the rise of the creative class are linked to divergent thinking and innovative solutions to current problems. Because new ideas can be found in the intersection of multiple fields, they would benefit from the advantages of multipotentialites.