What If You Don’t Have One True Calling?

how to succeed as a generalist

 You Might Be A Polymath

One thing that draws me to social media is the chance to learn things I wouldn’t otherwise learn. For instance, it wouldn’t occur to me to learn what is a  polymathist or a “multipotentialite.” But, the Twitter headline for a TEDx talk lured me in to find out.

Turns out, I am one.

A What?

Emily Wapnick, who coined the term multipotentialite, shares her struggle to “narrow” her focus, choose a niche, and find a career. Shame and guilt followed her every step of the way, until she discovered she’s a polymath; someone who has many interests and talents. She does many things well, but not well enough to be an expert or specialist. 

Have you been labeled a “scanner”, “polymath”, “Jill of All Trades”  (master of none), “Renaissance Woman” (or man), or a generalist? If so, you’re a multipotentialite, too. (Jeff Goins calls it living the portfolio life.)

Take heart. There’s good news for you. Keep reading.

Once Upon A Time, the Tech Industry Sought the One Who Wears Many Hats

Today, we hear “niche”, “focus”, “specialize”. Even high school freshman are expected to know whether they plan to attend college and decide on a major. What fourteen year old knows what they want to do for the rest of their life? If you’re a polymathist, someone many many and varied interests, making a decision like is daunting and scary. You feel like you’ll shrivel up if you have to do one thing for God-only-knows how long. But, conventional wisdom persists: you must choose one thing.

Feeling frustrated?

Generalists, We Want You

Not so long ago, Silicon Valley startups loved hiring Renaissance men and women. Help wanted ads called out “Generalist Wanted.” And why not? It’s a cost saving to any company with a vermicelli-thin budget to hire one person to perform 3 or more functions. Makes sense, no?

Yes, the early Silicon Valley Tech Startup Days were oyster beds for polymaths. Most of us polymaths were undaunted by the volatility of the industry because of our adaptability. We knew going into a new job that it was probably temporary. A company’s doors could close at any moment or it could merge with a larger company and our jobs might be written out of the deal. So we learned to look at each new job as a project that needed our skills–for a time. The environment allowed us to leverage our strengths, sometimes to write our own tickets, so to speak. If I was on a job for 3 years, that was a- l-o-n-g time. I knew going in that I’d soon be getting out. And that was fine with me. Variety is what keeps polymaths thriving and engaged.

This, it turned out, was my training into the world of entrepreneurship.

Somewhere someone decided it’s better to specialize. (Why?!)

I Love Starting New Things, Don’t You?

If you’ve struggled to find ‘your calling’ or “niche” or narrow your focus, maybe your strength is your ability to do many thing? You might be a polymath or multipotentialite, as Emily like to call us.

This is my fifth blog. The first blog I wrote (on a whim!) in 2003-2007 was about organizing and simplifying. At the time, I was compelled to help moms learn to simplify their lives. It was a success. I had real clients (about 50!) who hired me for in-home organizational coaching. But, I didn’t keep it going after we moved away from the suburbs.  I was starting something new.

When the urge to write a blog returned, I blogged about Labrador Retrievers because I own a few, they’re awesome, and writing a dog blog qualifies as a niche. Boom! I found a narrow focus. After about one year, I tired of my dog blog. (Not my dogs). As much as I love Labs, I just couldn’t write about them all the time. And how could I compete with “the experts”?
I quit…until I was again compelled to write a blog again.

Did I Mention I Like Starting New Projects?

This time, I was clever. I started a blog about our simple country life. Initially, I wrote about homestead DIY, gardening, healthy eating, natural health solutions, and crazy random adventures that happen out here. (Think bears, mountain lions, wildland fires, horses loose at midnight in a blizzard….) I was having fun. 

But, the blogosphere shouted focus! So I did. I shifted the blog’s content to center around gardening, which soon bored me. So I stopped blogging for several months until I reclaimed the vision for the blog. 

My mistake was not trusting my natural strength to write about a variety of subject.

Trust Your Love for Variety

Coming from the perspective of a multipotentialite, the idea of doing one thing feels nearly life threatening. The mere mention of narrowing our focus sucks the air right out of the room and sending us to throw our heads out the window for more air. Variety is the spice of life. Wearing many hats excites us and gets up in the morning. (Especially if you’re not a caffeine drinker).

If this is you, go ahead: bravely wear all the hats. You don’t need to wear them all at once. Alternate.

Blogging, by the way, is a great activity for people who like wearing many hats. (So is homesteading and parenting.)

Take Heart. The Tides Are Turning In Your Favor

Today’s monomath mantras are changing:

“Individuals who set out to be proficient at many things are rare. Practitioners who cross the arts/sciences chasm seem few and far between. But this is unlikely to be true for much longer when we consider that some of the fastest growing and most influential fields of research – such as global sustainability or bioinformatics – straddle, distort and even disregard traditional discipline boundaries…”

“For new economies to emerge, and breakthroughs to be made, we need multi-specialised lateral thinkers who can connect the dots in unexpected ways. We need contemporary Leonardos. We need 21st-century polymaths.

Tech companies such as Google understand this and look for ways to expose their employees to methods of thinking that fall outside their immediate experience. Talks at Google was launched precisely for this reason.” (Why the Renaissance Man or Woman is making a comeback, The Conversation.)

Being A Generalist IS Your Strength. Don’t Ignore It. 

Here’s the good new I promise earlier: Polymathism is making a comeback!

Today’s economy is suited to your need to continually learn new things.  I believe you will see an increasing need for multi-specialized lateral thinkers take precedence over specialization.

Bottom Line

Hey, friend, don’t let pressures to specialize in one thing steal your creative mojo. Your talent is your ability to learn and do a wide variety of things. Don’t be afraid to dive into an area, learn all you can, then move on. That time is not wasted. Embrace the fact that you need to do a variety of things in order to be fulfilled.

Take a listen to Emily’s TEDx Talk or read her new book, (Affiliate) How to Be Everything.  You can read more about it here.

Share your thoughts about being generalist versus specializing on Twitter using hashtag #manyhatsgeneralist.

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