My dad was a multipotentialite. Don’t know what that is? Neither did I. But when I recently learned about multipotentiality I knew I found a term that described him. Multipotentiality has only become a thing in the past ten years. It describes people whose interests cannot be confined to a single activity and it accurately describes my dad.
Emilie Wapnick first used 7] the term “multipotentialite” in 2015 Ted Talk. (Multipotentiality is an ugly, long word, so I will use “MP” here.) She defined it this way:
- A MP is a person who has many different interests and creative pursuits in life.
- MP’s have no “one true calling” the way specialists do. Being a multipotentialite is our destiny. We have many paths and we pursue all of them, either sequentially or simultaneously (or both).
- MP’s thrive on learning, exploring, and mastering new skills. We are excellent at bringing disparate ideas together in creative ways. This makes us incredible innovators and problem solvers.
- When it comes to new interests that emerge, our insatiable curiosity leads us to absorb everything we can get our hands on. As a result, we pick up new skills fast and tend to be a wealth of information.
It seems our society has focused its rewards on specialists, those who seek a single path to become an expert. We admire the researcher who has spent 30 years defining the history and characteristics of some medical condition or exploring an archeological site or serving in a civil job. And indeed, our world would be much poorer and less healthy (or wealthy) without them.
On the other hand, there are those who cannot imagine nor could abide such a singular focus. We have considered them “lost” and “unable to find their way”; “scatterbrains,” maybe even lazy . Friends and family continually encourage them to “settle down” and focus on their job or career. The phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none” is a precise description of the MP. There are a few MP’s that are indeed masters of all their interests – We call them Polymaths. Leonardo DaVinci comes to mind.
Certainly career choices such as academic, doctor or lawyer require such huge commitments in time and money, there is no alternative to becoming a specialist.
Now, the Really Big Bucks are earned by the those who see possibilities through a multi-perspective mind. These are the MP’s. We call them entrepreneurs. Their varied interests have shown them that understanding from one pursuit or discipline can be applied to a totally unrelated pursuit. We view them as creative and innovators – and they are. But consider maybe the genesis of their creativity is the many interests that give them a perspective only they have.
All has not been rosy for MP’s. In addition to pressure from society and friends that often makes them feel inferior, they can suffer from boredom or burnout when they learn all they want to know about a particular subject, and are not allowed to move on. An MP without freedom to choose can suffer from depression. Maybe this is why so many finance types, doctors and lawyers have left their profession to become writers, actors, entrepreneurs. Fortunately efforts by Emilie Wapnik and others are turning MP into a superpower.
I am wondering if MP and geek characteristics are mutually exclusive. I need to think about that.
So back to my Dad.
He dropped out of school in the eighth grade during the Great Depression to help support his family. He served in WWII as a field mechanic and other roles. He told a story about how he and some of his buddies removed the Rolls Royce Merlin engine from a crashed Spitfire(?), somehow bolted it into a Willy’s Jeep, and got it running. I can’t imagine how they got such a big engine into a little vehicle, but he said someone drove it once before it crashed the second time. (Sorry there were no pictures of the “modification.”)
After the end of the war, getting married, starting a family, and building a house, he became a carpenter and later a skilled cabinet maker. He could repair anything – well almost anything. He was 40-something in the late 1950’s when he decided he wanted learn electronics and radio-tv repair. He enrolled in courses from DeVry Technical Institute and for nearly two years studied nightly, performed the labs and took the tests. He continued to repair tv’s and radios part time for twenty years. Using his radio repair and cabinet maker skills he restored several pre-war radios which I still have.
When he was 70 years old he declared he wanted to “learn computers.” He bought a Commodore 64, learned how to use it, and later how to write programs. He told me one day he wanted a Windows PC, but he wanted to build it himself. He did it. He always had an interest in the weather, and kept a small diary where he recorded what he worked on and the weather for the day. He built a weather station connected to his PC, and for the rest of his life, used that to record the daily weather.
He seldom watched TV and never stopped learning. In retirement pursued all manner of subjects, from medicine to the cosmos. Unfortunately, the internet was not available to him in those days, and I can only imagine what ideas he might have had if he could have learned from it.