Being equally good at and passionate about several different things is no longer a detriment to building a focused, strong, and sustaining career. Emilie Wapnick, speaker and author of How to be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up has a few tips for how to explain your own “multipotentiality” to those who might not understand what it means to have a non-linear and multi-faceted career.
by Emilie Wapnick
These days, many of us have multiple professional identities. We might hold a few different jobs, freelance in multiple capacities or occasionally transition between industries. It’s no secret that careers are far less linear than they once were. And, for some, that is a good thing.
I’m a career coach and writer who works with people who have many passions and creative pursuits. I refer to these people as “multipotentialites”. (Hint: I’m one of them, too!) Multipotentialites are curious about a number of unrelated subjects and require variety — along with financial stability — in their lives to be happy. They often diversify their income streams or intentionally choose to have, say, three very different part-time jobs instead of a single full-time job. Multipotentialites feel at home in interdisciplinary fields like filmmaking, A.I., or environmental policy; you almost always find them wearing multiple hats at work.
“Multipotentialites are curious about a number of unrelated subjects and require variety — along with financial stability — in their lives to be happy.”
When your career is multifaceted, it can feel nearly impossible to explain it to other people. Here are a few different ways to answer that popular cocktail party question, “So, what do you do?” when what you do is many things:
Lead with your plurality and be up-front about the different facets of your career and other endeavors. The key to getting a good reaction is conveying confidence. Instead of sounding apologetic, share your enthusiasm for your different roles and projects. This approach will lead to a conversation, so only use it if you’re in the mood to talk about yourself for awhile.
Is there a broader term or category that encompasses much of what you do? For instance, instead of responding with ”I’m an actor, painter, and musician,” you could say, “I’m an artist.” Or instead of saying “I’m a geography teacher, a docent at the zoo, and a health coach,” you could call yourself an educator.
Leave your medium and title out entirely! Instead, talk about the people you help and what you accomplish through your work. Saying, “I help youth feel empowered,” says a lot about who you are and what you’re doing on this planet without mentioning specifics. This could apply if you’re a dance teacher, a motivational speaker, or if you work at a nonprofit that provides health services to homeless youth. It would also (maybe especially) work if maybe you do all three. If the person you’re talking to is interested in learning more, they’ll ask. And then you can elaborate and get into the specifics.
It’s okay to choose not to share your entire work portfolio. Sometimes the person asking is only doing so to be polite, and getting into a lengthy conversation about your professional life would actually be inappropriate. Other times, you might simply not be in the mood to open up. It’s okay to answer with just one of your professional identities, or to simplify. People can learn about your other facets and the nuances of your career as they get to know you over time.
It isn’t always easy to be someone who doesn’t fit neatly into boxes. The world doesn’t always understand. But things are changing. Whether out of necessity or due to genuine passion and curiosity, more and more people are developing a multitude of skill sets. And yet, I think we can all agree that a better question to ask when you first meet someone might be something like, “So, what are you excited about these days?” Wouldn’t that be nice?
Emilie Wapnick is the founder, creative director, and resident multipotentialite at Puttylike. She believes that instead of picking one thing and denying all of our other interests, we can find ways to integrate our many passions into our lives. She created Puttylike in 2010 as a way to help people build dynamic, multifaceted lives, in practical and sustainable ways.