A what you say?
Let me break it down for you: multi-potential-
I recently experienced a moment of clarity where my life experiences and choices made a lot more sense. It came while watching Emilie Wapnick’s Ted Talk. I’m embedding it here for you because it was life altering for me.
I am not the authority on multipotentialites, just myself. Emilie frames her Ted Talk on the question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, and how society ultimately expects a single answer. Multipotentialites are people who realize this simple question has a complex answer. About a minute into the talk, I realized that this is me.
The concept of a multipotentialite is not new and it has different names: polymath, scanner (from
On reflection, it makes complete sense
Truth be told, if you asked me this question in my tweens/teens – it was the first woman on the moon. I went to Space Camp twice and chose the field of Aerospace Engineering because this is what most NASA Mission Specialists earned degrees in the early 80s. On the surface, I’m sure I looked very single-minded, focused. But here’s the thing. On a coin flip, I could have been a music major. I played the flute, piccolo, and piano. Any instrument I could get my hands on, I wanted to learn how to play. I spent hours playing for the sake of playing (ask my parents). By the time I graduated high school, I ultimately chose to major in engineering to ensure I had a steady income.
In college, I took classes in art, interior decorating, and karate that were above and beyond my general institute requirements because I desired non-engineering. In grad school, I wrote a novel, participated in a crowd-source published book, learned how to sew (and a lot of other things – I was there a long time). This is in addition to getting a Ph.D. and becoming a mother of two children. I tell you this not to humblebrag about how diverse my pursuits have been, but to show you how I always needed to have something different going on to fill my soul.
It explains the unhappiness too
Having this aspect of my personality defined also explains so much about the times in my life where I have felt professionally unfulfilled and incredibly unhappy. Looking back, when I try to become that laser-focused Ph.D. whose energy only goes to their academic career path, I’m miserable. Questions of “what am I doing with my life?” and “have I wasted all this time pursuing this career?” run around in my head at all hours of the day and night. Every time I try to shoe-horn myself into that box, I end up depressed and angry and contemplating a career as a yoga instructor or opening up a proper deli in my town (guys, we really need one).
On reflection, I think being an (unknowing) multipotentialite in academia can be a mental health hazard. As a general rule, academia (grad school especially) demands a singular focus. Having a side gig or hobbies that you are passionate about is not traditionally accepted. Or, if you do, there’s a lot of pressure (subtle and not so subtle) to set them aside until you are done. Typically, this laser-like focus is celebrated and portrayed as the only path to success. When you do not fit this mold but have chosen to be a grad student (or career academic), it can prey on you, drive you down the path to questioning all of your choices, and do a serious mindf*ck on you.
Time to find some data to back this up
Intrigued by her video, I went to Emilie’s website and took her test on multipotentialite. And this is how I scored:
I did not quite peg the meter for simultaneous multipotentialite, but pretty close. Granted, she’s reporting what kind of multipotentialite I am. I’m not certain if her test would spot someone who is not one. According to her test, as a “simultaneous multipotentialite”, I
- am energized when I frequently switch between their diverse range of topics and projects (TRUE)
- have my fingers in several projects at any point in my life (TRUE)
- have many different skills and love go between skill sets (TRUE)
Seeing this “in print” lifted a big burden off of my chest. It explains why I would volunteer to be PTA President while holding down not one, but two almost full-time jobs (and why I have those two jobs to begin with); why, when my daughters started dancing, I decided I would become a Prop-mom, learn all the
The power of “labeling” yourself
Now that I have put a name on this aspect of my personality, I can stop questioning my desires to do more than just my primary career. I can stop wondering why there are times I can feel unfulfilled professionally when I am successful in my chosen career. I can stop feeling guilty when I take on new projects that do not align with my immediate career goals.
With this new definition of myself, I can be comfortable with my plurality. I realize that I do not need to have a single occupation that satisfies all of my passions. I do not have to serve myself from just a single plate. As long as I am not overwhelmed by it, I can have multiple plates (simultaneously).
Can you be a multipotentialite and a grad student?
I think the innovation and creativity that comes with having diverse passions is a great trait to have as an academic. Would I have been a better grad student if I had understood this part of my personality? Almost certainly. I might have been more intentional in managing my pursuits, and I might have made sure I had both variety and meaning in what I was doing and minimized the mid-Ph.D. (multi-year) doldrums. I certainly would have been a happier grad student. I would have come to the understanding that my long path through graduate school was, in part, a result of being a multipotentialite.
If the answer to “what you want to be when you grow up” is complex or if you feel guilty for wanting to do more than just one thing, I urge you to watch Emilie’s Ted Talk and take the test on her website. As the saying goes, “Knowledge is Power” and what is more powerful than knowing oneself?