Why You Don’t Need a Life Calling to be Successful (Or: The Frustrations of a Multipotentialite)

I’ve been consistently employed (if only part time) since I was 16 years old, when I took a job as an assistant to an Argentinian paparazzo so I could save up money for my first dSLR camera. Every day, after school, I’d sit in his back house and edit photos of celebrities performing completely mundane tasks (Celebrities! They’re Just Like Us!); somehow, this managed to get boring pretty quickly.

Since then, in no particular order, I’ve been: a host in the dining room at a country club, a computer and cell phone repair technician, an archaeologist, a cashier at a bakery, a party photographer for A-list celebrities, an employee at a vintage clothes store, a teacher at an Ivy League university, a religious school teacher at a synagogue, a graduate student, a show promoter, a viral video buyer, an ancient language decipherer, a freelance writer, a production assistant, and presently, an operations manager at a digital media company (while also tutoring and working part time for a cryptocurrency exchange). I am a master of the side hustle. In summary, I’m a multipotentialite.

Embracing One’s Inner Multipotentialite

A couple of years ago, when I first left my PhD program, I went through an uncomfortably long period of underemployment, and began to feel down on myself for having strayed from my career path. It seemed that so many of my friends were making their exits from their entry level jobs into real careers, and I was sitting around with two master’s degrees making ends meet working part time at a bakery. I had opted to study nearly a dozen languages and couldn’t speak any of them particularly well. I felt completely useless.

At this particularly low point in my life, I watched Emilie Wapnick’s brilliant TED talk about being a multipotentialite, someone who has a broad range of interests and jobs and can thrive in many different careers. Her talk completely reformed my perspective of myself and my attitude toward the meaning of success, and gave me hope that genuinely changed my life. Instead of feeling stifled, uninspired, and lost, I felt free to pursue anything that seemed interesting to me without the fear of being stuck for the rest of my life.

It’s an especially American tendency to mistake the gift of versatility for being directionless. Our culture tells us that success looks like a steady climb up the ladder of a white collar career job—and just one career at that. The ideal American sits on the top rung of the ladder of their One Career earning a 6+ figure salary. Personal interests are merely “hobbies.” We are uniquely obsessed with the idea of the self-made multi-billionaire from humble beginnings as the ideal American (see: Donald Trump’s insistence on that “small loan of a million dollars” narrative). On the other hand, those who forgo the ladder climb to pursue personal interests like art, humanitarianism, or music are viewed as directionless grifters working minimum wage jobs with “meaningless” humanities degrees.

To the multipotentialite, dedicating 40 hours a week to a single career ladder ad infinitum is retirement from personal growth. As multipotentialites, we want multiple ladders. We’re potentially good at many different things, and we feel intellectually dissatisfied when we’re forced to choose just one. We’re learners, autodidacts, and problem solvers, and when we run out of new problems, we naturally look for the next one to solve. Unfortunately, HR departments tend to be allergic to that kind of thinking and disregard candidates with broad backgrounds for “lack of experience” when they’d likely be excellent additions to their companies. Some of the smartest, most successful people in the world are probably multipotentialites. I’d be willing to bet that Neil DeGrasse Tyson would be an excellent sommelier if he woke up one day and decided that he’d like to give it a shot.

Why Do We Discourage Multipotentialites?

If I have a central thesis here, it’s to say that American culture in particular should embrace, rather than shun or discourage multipotentialites. We pressure (if not outright force) students to pick university majors that are extremely specific even if they’ve expressed little to no interest in those fields, while simultaneously treating liberal arts degrees as frivolous. After thousands of years of liberal arts being the backbone of higher education, humanities fields like philosophy, history, and psychology are being rapidly defunded, while engineering, computer science, and pre-med majors are taking over. If we shun broad educational paths in favor of pure vocational majors and create a world in which humanities degrees are “useless,” we will likely end up with generations in which natural multipotentialites feel dissatisfied, depressed, and intellectually crippled when we could have encouraged and collectively thrived from their versatility and range of ideas.

I’ll end with a personal note. I often find myself being asked to explain my education. Why on earth did I decide to study Sumerian when it’s so “useless,” when I could have spent that time getting my MBA or a law degree? I have my stock answer for potential employers and judgmental strangers, something about how I wanted to be a professor and then I decided to go for a “career change.” The genuine answer? Because it was awesome. I sat in a beautiful library for a couple of years surrounded by 150 year old tomes, deciphering the innermost thoughts of humans that existed millennia ago and have not been read since they were first inscribed in clay, untangling historical problems through minute clues hiding between the lines. And I got to do it at Yale, at a school that was so embedded in my dreams that it was practically mythological to me. I couldn’t imagine any life experience more fulfilling than that.

Note: All photos are my own.

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You studied Sumerian? 😭 💓 That's the most beautiful study I never knew existed. Your reasoning, " sat in a beautiful library for a couple of years surrounded by 150 year old tomes, deciphering the innermost thoughts of humans that existed millennia ago and have not been read since they were first inscribed in clay, untangling historical problems through minute clues hiding between the lines."

That's what life is about. And Yale? You are living the dream, girl. I'm so proud of you.

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Yeah! And people act like I should be ashamed of it all the time, especially when I'm job hunting. Like some of my coworkers genuinely make fun of me for it. "Oh yeah, we'll come to you next time we need to read Sumerian for a client (judgmental smirk)." It's really frustrating because I kind of get my feelings hurt easily. It's really resulted in me feeling like, societal pressure to be ashamed of my past, so I just don't tell people. I need to give myself these pep talks sometimes. Really, thank you!

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Anytime someone cuts you down is a veiled compliment that they see you as greater than themselves. Kind hearts give compliments, hurting hearts give cuts. Same thing, though. ☺️

Any employer who asks such a dumb question as to why you chose to study Sumerian isn't worth working for. My sister read Persian (PhD). Not that she has a job (anymore - quit kowtowing to the Uni.). At least she did study and did get (multiple) degrees. It's all about the perseverence, people. Above all, the guts to do what you love to do! (Doesn't go for her, but she's autistic.) Can't they see it ain't what you do, but the way that you do it? Then again, with standards so random (at various universities/colleges) the idea of a degree has lost its significance, I can appreciate that. (Three cheers for those with decent trades!)

I never got round to Egyptology, discouraged by my father's frown. Stranded on Art History, skipped onto Law, finished up in Linguistics: no degree to show for any of this half-hearted leaping around. Talk about wasted multipotentiality. It sucks and takes up too much bookshelf space. Having said that, my sister first did Geology, then Forestry, French, Arabic and History and hasn't got more than ten books to show for it. So that's just me snowed under by my useless multipotentiality again.

I secretly think it's not your broad interests and diverse (therefor frequently supposed superficial) talents that put employers off but your extreme capability. Who wants to employ somebody they can't boss around?

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None of that multipotentiality sounds wasted to me! Leaping around is the best use of a multipotentialite's natural versatility (in my humble opinion). Sounds like it runs in the family for you.

If it's extreme capability that turns them off, then it must be pretty far down in their subconscious. I understand in a way; I've had to review candidates for jobs and I admit that the whole process is rather exhausting, having to size someone up based on their (career) life as summarized by a single page of bullet points. It's easy to get lazy and find the person who seems like they can already do the job rather than scrutinize those bullet points to try to extract their capabilities and potentials. The problem is that they get so embedded in that thought process that they forget that they're taking shortcuts.

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Uggh I hate that. It's just about what we as humans are "supposed" to do. I've been self employed for 18 years because of it.

I took 8 years to complete my bachelors, after changing majors 3 times, and ended up graduating with 3 majors and 2 minors. Now, I'm going into a PhD program for one of my minors, history, and while I do that, I'm going to keep writing, knitting, drawing, and baking, because I love doing all of those things. Sometimes they are hobbies, and sometimes side hustles—I've sold articles, essays, art, and knit hats before—but always they are things I love doing, and I don't want to give them up. I've worked at a dentist's, in the city planning offices, student government, nonprofits, and student affairs, and I learned something at each of those jobs, skills and knowledge that I've carried with me and used to add value to my work in other fields. I wouldn't give up being a multipotentialite for anything, even when I get stressed about not achieving what mainstream society thinks I ought. Yes, sometimes I worried, but the experiences I've had have been so fulfilling and worthwhile! I'm excited for where I'll go next, and I'm glad to see other multipotentialites owning their gifts joyfully.

Plus, studying Sumerian at Yale? That's pretty badass, no matter what anyone else thinks. Go you!

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Clearly, there's something wrong with mainstream society if they would think for one minute that anyone so accomplished has not achieved enough! I think the history majors and PhDs like us are often multipotentialites. Makes committing to a life of academia difficult, though. At least that was my experience.

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For sure. I'm excited for my doctoral studies, but also worried about having time for hobbies. My art and poetry often serve as de-stressing activities, and I know that will be important in grad school!

This made me smile and wonder if I could also be a Multipotentialite!

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Maybe you are!

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Quite possible :)

I started university as an engineering student, and left with a medieval studies degree. There's a lot to relate to in this post. I get asked a lot about why I left a lucrative field to study things nobody cares about or remembers, and I often can't come up with a good reason besides "I wanted to." As an educator I'm thankful I never stuck around very long in one single field. Kids aren't focused on one single thing, why should my range of abilities be limited to one area?

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When I was a kid (middle school aged-ish), I was really into computer programming. My friend who carried it with him ended up being an early employee at Yelp and Twitter, and I'm sure he's very comfortable financially. When I tell people about that, at least 25% of the time I get a rude comment along the lines of, "bet you wish you stuck with that instead of what you chose to do!" (No, not really.)

Ive been working since I was 15 years old. Ive bounced around from retail to doctor offices, ive even danced in pow wows, now i work fulltime for 15 years with New Presbyterian hospital and I dont regret it one bit because no matter where I go in life I can find something to do. Im so excited now being on steemit. God bless you on your success

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Ummm... I'm going to need some more details here about dancing in pow wows, because that sounds amazing.

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Yes it was amazing! Pow wow's are Native Americans festival I used to be a dance troupe to show how we came together dance and explain our history from a Taino background. Its something thst Im forever proud of.

Thanks for the heads up on your post. And big applause to you for refusing to allow yourself to be defined according to mainstream society values. Being successful in life is all about making your own definition of what being successful actually means to you. Yes for a lot of people it means climbing the career ladder and having the status symbols of house, car, 1.4 kids etc etc, but for a lot of other people (arguably the ones that matter the most to alternatively-minded people like us), it could mean something completely different.

That's such a great idea to have a stock answer ready when people ask about your degree course. I get a similar thing when people ask why I'm not working in an NGO in Brussels after studying a masters in European Studies. I like to argue that the cultural and historical aspects of that program prepared me for life as an ex-pat in Europe, and other benefits I gained were the ability to analyse, think critically and research effectively.

And those very skills lead me to say who cares if HR people fail to recognize your skills. Yes, a multipotentialite might have trouble finding work in a traditional company, but the chances are you'd be so bored by all the company rules and policies and so penned in by the rigorous hierarchy that you'd totally hate it and it'd be a complete waste of your talents anyway. There's always another way to work. And the fact that you're already here on Steemit shows that you're adept at finding the new and innovative ways to approach life.

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To me, European Studies sounds perfectly relevant! And just broad enough to satisfy the multipotentialite mind. :) I've only managed to gain some modicum of success with traditional HR departments because I've spent the last few years in the 9-5 world "proving myself," but it can definitely get stifling, even aside from the resentment toward the whole "proving myself" thing to begin with. I need the side hustles to throw myself off course enough to keep sane. Maybe one day I can be a side hustle-only kinda gal. Would be super duper rad if I could be one of those people who makes a nice amount of money writing on here, but I think I missed that boat.

Too late to vote for you, but I am glad, as it is only worth cents, but it has forced me to take the better way of showing my appreciation of all you wrote and the person you've described yourself as.

Please do not take this as some kind of pat on the head, I would never DARE be patronising to someone as self-fulfilled as you, so, here is what I wanted to say.

I have reached (hopefully) the three-quarter part of my life and for all these years I have deeply wished for a daughter. I've had, temporarily a step-daughter (of sorts) and she was my pride and joy, but her mom moved on, to the other side of the world. I helped bring up a niece who is bright and has done very well, teaching herself and even now, past 30 years old, she studies at night and weekends for more degrees.

But deep inside me I yearned for a daughter of my own, one who...and this is where I came a-cropper, for I more than anything else wanted her to be intelligent, good-hearted and with a spirit and mind that burns fiercely. My wishes, if I'd had her and they had been granted, means she probably would not have had a happy life.

Well, maybe vegetables are happy, I want her to know she is alive and eager to go to the stars.

Reading your post, I got the feeling that you are that daughter I dreamt of - even though we'll never meet.

I'll have to copy this and send to my son... a multipotentialite. It would have been well for me too to know of such things. Ah, well... But I have a question: the two Sumerians Enli and Inki (is that the correct spelling?). Does the story of their messing with human origins have any credibility? Thanks for the enlightening post.

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I'm glad you enjoyed it!
Not sure I know what you're referring to with Enlil and Enki, but as for the correct spelling question, there isn't much in the way of codified spelling when it comes to transliterating cuneiform. :) What's the story of their messing with human origins?

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In a nutshell some have postulated that these two individuals came from the Pleiades constellation eons ago and messed with human DNA to develop modern man. The information, they claim, comes from their interpretation of ancient Sumerian texts/tablets. Don't know if these folks are wearing the same tin foil hats as the Flat Earthers but perhaps. I'll just say it's an interesting theory, and I suppose not entirely impossible.

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...Like, they did that in reality, or that's what the myths say? Either way, it's totally nuts. I've been cornered at parties before but otherwise sane-sounding individuals who have accused me of being part of the government's conspiracy to suppress archaeological evidence that the Sumerians were aliens. At that point it's best to just smile and nod. Reading cuneiform is really fun for nerds like us but it's certainly not THAT exciting.

For some background on that, the person who wrote the original ancient aliens type books that the show is based on (Zechariah Sitchin) claimed to be able to read Sumerian and Akkadian writing and came up with some really wacky conspiracy theories based on his own translations that were just like... not real. Something about twelfth planets and Annunaki. I saw his book on someone's bookshelf once and picked it up and started reading. His translations were just... gibberish. The show ancient aliens is much worse. I've seen them bring up "artifacts" from places like South America with fake cuneiform on them that doesn't even remotely resemble the writing system. At least Flat Earthers have access to real information and are just willfully ignoring it. People who believe in ancient aliens are relying on con artists who claim to be credible because they're not actually able to evaluate the evidence themselves. If not for that aspect of it I would just think it's funny.

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I'm taking a chance here so hope you are not LDS. If so, please forgive, the following is just my opinion. The original Prophet, Joseph Smith, translated some Egyptian papyrus and came out with an entire scripture. The scripture he wrote is quite striking, however. But he made copies of the original Egyptian he translated from back in the 1820's. And now it's very clear that his translations were pure fantasy. And yet people believe.

Actually, I'm going to write a post, tomorrow I think, on beliefs and why it is so difficult to drop them even when confronted with facts that prove them, the beliefs, false. It's way more than just cognitive dissonance.

I once worked for a man who did original research into some of the globalist elite's formal associations. It was amazing how many subsequent authors picked up his information, tweeked it a bit and called it their own. I know this happens all the time on YouTube. Unfortunately people who follow the various theories from one YouTube channel to the next think that just because more than one person says "it is so" then it really must be so. Humans!