Jack Of All Trades, Master of Some

Today I had an "ah ha" moment where I discovered something so crucial to my quality of life. This discovery will change the course of my career and personal development from this point forward. 

From a very young age, we are conditioned to think about, and even answer the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" We live in a society that romanticizes the idea of destiny and calling. We are expected to focus all of our learning and career experiences around a particular specialization under this social framework. Is specialization right for everyone? Today, I watched the TED Talk "Why some of us don't have one true calling" by Emilie Wapnick. Emilie's talk was about how some people can't seem to decide what they want to do for the rest of their lives...and how this is perfectly normal.

For a long time--I'm talking at least 10 years--I've felt there was something wrong with me. My friends and family have lovingly--but annoyingly--referred to me as a dreamer, with an almost negative connotation. I have pursued so many interests and hobbies, have held various jobs, and explored multiple collegiate studies. I've wracked-up a Bachelor's in Environmental Science, a Master's in Sustainability, a Graduate Certificate in Global Health and Latin American Studies, another Grad Certificate in Water, Health, and Sustainability, and am currently finishing up a second Master's in Environmental Science and Policy. Overachiever? Not really. I just love learning. I crave the excitement of starting something from scratch and finishing with new knowledge, skills, and experiences. Society tells us this is not practical though. I've told myself time and time again that I should just pick one thing and stick with it. I've asked myself why I can't commit to any one career field, or even one field of study. I've spent a lot of time and energy aiming to fix my "problem" and have tried everything from reading self-help books to taking lengthy aptitude tests meant to help identify my strongest career skills, and have even sought-out career counseling.  

It wasn't always like this though. Emilie states that "during the Renaissance period, it was considered ideal to be well-versed in multiple disciplines." The Renaissance was a time of great rediscovery based on the Greek philosophy that "man is the measure of all things." (Protagoras, 420 BC, taken from Wiki). The cultural movement was highlighted by simultaneous developments in art, architecture, politics, science, and literature. According to wiki, the period is "best known for its artistic developments and contributions of such polymaths as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, who inspired the term "Renaissance man". 

I am a polymath whose expertise spans a wide range of studies, including environmental science, sustainability, water resources, global health, Latin American studies, team leadership, event organization, environmental education, Argentine Tango, and the list goes on. 

So what is a polymath? It is a person of wide-ranging knowledge, also termed by Emilie as a "multipotentialite". Multipotentiality refers to the ability of a person, particularly one of intellectual or artistic curiosity, to excel in multiple fields. (Wiki, 2015). Ah-ha! Bingo! I'm not weird, misguided, or lacking direction after all. In fact, I have identified special strengths that stem from my affliction. 

Emilie breaks these strengths down into "three multipotenialite super powers". 

1) Idea Synthesis. By combining multiple fields and generating something new in the nexus, I draw on diverse bodies of knowledge to solve complex problems. My comprehensive mix of skills and experiences set the stage for innovation.

2) Rapid Learning. Because I've had my hands in so many fields, I am used to being a beginner. This means that I have learned to attain information at an accelerated rate. I'm not afraid to try new things and step out of my comfort zone. The skills I've cultivated along the way are transferable across disciplines so I am never really starting with an empty tool box. 

3) Adaptability. My flexibility allows me to take on various duties and transform into multiple roles as needed. The economic environment is constantly changing so being able to shift quickly is mandatory in order to meet the needs of evolving organizations. 

How can hiring multipotentialites help your organization?


While as a hiring manager you might think you only want specialists who have extensive education and/or experience in one area, you need a Jack Of All Trades for a couple of reasons. First, teams comprised of a specialist and a multipotentialite cover all the bases. Emilie suggests that "the specialist can dive deep and implement ideas while the multipotentialite brings a breadth of knowledge to the project". Second, you want people working for you who are being true to their own personal hardwiring because that is when they will perform at their best. If you try to force a person with multiple passions and skill sets to narrow their focus permanently, they will not feel as if they are working authentically, the work will be done without passion and enthusiasm, and the end result will be less than stellar. 

Think you or someone you know might really be a multipotentialite disguised as a wanderer?

Emilie started the web-based community Puttylike.com in 2011 to give resources to people just trying to make sense of their curious world. Check her site out to learn terminology, read advice, get personalized career coaching, and follow her blog.