multipotentialite high school portrait
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I’m a multipotentialite?
Well, this explains everything.

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I joke sometimes that I want to be “internet famous.” Not famous-famous, I don’t want to be recognized on the street. I just want to be popular in a niche. When I write something, I want thousands of people to read it. I want to be invited to speak at conferences and be interviewed on podcasts.

Really I just want to be known for something.

But I have a problem. Every time I come close to some sort of professional recognition, to having people understand what I do and know me as someone who’s pretty competent in it, I quit.

This is hard to admit publicly because saying it exposes me to a certain professional vulnerability. Who wants to hire a surefire quitter? But I’ve come to a point where I’m tired of convincing myself and those around me that whatever I’m working on now is the answer, the endpoint, the culmination it all. I don’t want to keep struggling to fit everything I’ve ever worked on into a tidy forward-moving trajectory because, to be totally honest, that high wire act is exhausting. After a 15-year career history that includes some notable nonlinear explorations such as running a home design blog, dog walking, theater marketing and working at a web design company, I’ve come to recognize some patterns in my professional life that I can no longer ignore.

I start things, I’m really into them for a while — in fact I’m so into them that I do end up achieving some sort of professional recognition — and then I stop doing them.

retail whore zine pauly shore

One of many things I did and quit: my zine, Apple Scruff, in high school. Here I am in 1997 getting famous people (and my friend Jenn!) to help me promote it.

Now, I’m really good at writing a resume that leaves off the ill-fitting branches and pieces together a convincing narrative for whatever job I’m going for. And I do well for myself, I make a good income, and I somehow keep finding workplaces that embrace me. So why am I bothering to mention this bad habit at all?

Because recently I’ve come to the realization that it’s not actually a bad habit. That while, yes, I tend to involve myself deeply in things for a span of a few years and then totally ghost, while I am involved I make lasting contributions to whatever it is I’m doing. And that while there are drawbacks to being this way, namely that I haven’t yet stood out in any particular field long enough to achieve the easy recognition I crave, quitting so many things has made me a mini expert in a lot of fields, and I bring that expertise to every new thing I do.

I also want to “come out” as a quitter because I recently learned that there’s a word for my behavior, and I’m not alone. It’s freeing to know that what you are has a label, that you can explore within the boundaries of that label all the traits you have in common with others who identify as that thing, and have up until this point felt like solitary freaks.

It turns out I’m a multipotentialite.

A what? I know, it’s a weird word. It’s not even diagnosable or in any way scientific, just something another serial quitter and blogger made up to describe her traits and those of the community that surrounded her.

Here’s the definition from Emilie’s blog, Puttylike:

A multipotentialite is someone with many interests and creative pursuits. Multipotentialites have no “one true calling” the way specialists do. Being a multipotentialite is our destiny.

In other words, you don’t need to have one true calling to lead a happy and fulfilling life.

For me, this was a deceptively simple concept that I could not absorb, couldn’t see how it applied to me (I just thought it was patently incorrect), until someone wrote it out in exactly the context I needed to see it. Like Robin Williams repeating over and over again in Good Will Hunting: It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.

Reading it and KNOWING it were separate moments for me.

But why is it such a hard concept to grasp? Because our culture sets us up from the very beginning for specialization. Starting at the moment we show any sort of interest in anything, people push us to be that thing. We want to categorize people.

I want to categorize myself. This is what I really mean when I say “internet famous”: not that I desire the spotlight, but I keep thinking it would make my life so much easier if I were just one thing that everyone recognized, and that all the work I’d done in a particular category amounted to something I could rely on, a sort of engine that pushed me forward instead of a series of explanations that leave people wondering if I can commit to anything.

Recently I’ve found myself almost unable to deal with the envy I feel toward people who have been at something for decades and keep showing up to it every day. While I have forced myself into an almost perpetual novicehood, these people have gone on to sign book deals, sell their art to hotel chains, open up multiple restaurant locations. In other words, to somehow be rewarded for their creative pursuits. It’s happening more and more now that I’m approaching 40. Some people have accumulated a real body of work, while I’ve accumulated a mismatched collection of shoeboxes containing the detritus of various projects that are no longer in existance.

While I have achieved fleeting fame within the context of some of those passions — in fact it’s kind of a joke between my husband and me that any time I actually stick to anything for 6 months someone writes a magazine article about it — overall I struggle with the anxiety produced when someone sees me in a coffee shop and asks, “Whatever happened to you?” As my life progresses, I leave more and more abandoned projects, and bewildered people, in my wake.

dwell magazine vintage bazaar

The Vintage Bazaar: One of the things I’ve done that’s ended up in a magazine. (Dwell, Octover 2011)

But finally knowing that I am a multipotentialite has given me the freedom to stop trying to fit whatever I’m passionate about now into the larger picture of my life immediately, and just go with it. Whatever I’m working on now is probably NOT a culmination of all the things, and that’s okay. It probably WON’T be the thing I do for the rest of my life, and that’s okay, too.

But how do you explain that to a potential business partner, or client, or employer? Well, as the phrase goes that I’ve relied on for so much of my adult life: the right people will get it. And so many of the right people have. When I’m excited about a topic I go more in-depth than most people. I am driven by an internal curiosity that has almost nothing to do with monetary reward. I don’t require stability and yet I can produce really amazing work on a really short timeline. This is why I’ve excelled working at startups, for instance.

Being a multipotentialite is my destiny. It’s not an easy concept to embrace in a culture that has asked me to specialize over and over again, and which I’ve resisted, all the while wondering, “What’s wrong with me?” Now, I’m allowing myself to go 100% in-depth on a project without asking what it all means yet, which is huge for me. It frees up so much mental energy to pursue creative projects, and yet it’s such a simple approach. Stop thinking about where this is headed, and just explore. Stop trying to quantify, quality, and monetize everything immediately, and simply create.

glass of wine with dinner
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Looking for the Third Door

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I am proud to say that I have spent a considerable amount of the last two years sober. I went full months (January, July and October of 2015 and January of 2016) without alcohol, and in June of 2016, I stopped drinking for what I thought would be “for good.” That lasted about three months, but by December I stopped again and this time sought support by going to a handful of AA meetings. I also read a lot of books and listened to a lot of podcasts about sobriety, which is why I recently went back and listened to Sarah Hepola, author of the drinking and sobriety memoir Blackout, interviewed on the Home podcast. The hosts, Laura McKowen and Holly Whitaker, asked Hepola about how she quit, and Hepola explained it was a process that took her about 10 years.

“I quit for a year and a half when I was 25,” she explained, then she went back to drinking. Later, she sought the help of an alcohol therapist rather than submit herself to an AA meeting. Finally, she bounced in and out of AA until making a final commitment to it and getting sober for good five years ago.

“I call that looking for the third door,” McKowen said. She explained: I don’t want to go through the door that is my drinking life right now, but I don’t want to go through the door of sobriety, either.

You’re trying to find that middle path.

I haven’t had a drink in 242 days. Granted, I have spent much of that time pregnant, but even though I’m pregnant — and definitely before I became pregnant — I’ve been doing what I would consider to be “the work of sobriety.” I didn’t drink during my previous pregnancy, but I did not examine my motivations for drinking at that time, either. In other words, I didn’t NOT DRINK when I was pregnant because I knew drinking had become a problem for me. I didn’t drink because I didn’t want to harm the fetus, or face judgement. This time it’s different. I’m not drinking, and I’m experiencing the transformation that comes with letting go of the crutch you’ve been using to eliminate all discomfort from the moment I first picked up a drink at age 16. Drinking has been there to alleviate loneliness, boredom, the discomfort of awkward social situations, heartache, the memory of past embarrassments — you name it. When it’s not there, I feel untethered, like I’m floating out in the middle of the ocean by myself trying to survive without a raft.

blacked out facebook

I no longer think this photo of me, or my comment, is very cool.

While doing this work it’s easy to say, “There is no third door.” You either quit drinking, or you don’t. You spend some time in church basements drinking coffee out of styrofoam cups and experiencing the immediate intimacy of listening to someone’s story of their own destruction — someone you otherwise might just be standing in line behind at the Home Depot — and you learn to nod your head in all the right parts: that’s right, you say. I can’t moderate my drinking, either.

drinking sadness

When I look at my eyes in this photo, I see the sadness.

But to tell you the truth I still question whether or not that’s possible for me. After an extended stint in sobriety (7 months, 4 weeks, 2 days, 4 hours and 21 minutes, according to the app that tracks these things on my phone), I feel like some part of the demon has been exorcised. Among the things I have realized while sober:

  • I don’t need to drink a glass of wine to have an intimate conversation with a friend
  • I actually don’t like going to crowded parties and making small talk, and because of that, I don’t have to force myself to go
  • The easiest way to deal with the issue of who is going to drive to the hotel from the wedding reception in the unfamiliar suburb is just to stay sober (and not drinking at a wedding isn’t the worst thing)
  • You don’t need to accept a beer at every social event where someone puts one in your hand, because once you start drinking at 2pm on a Sunday, it’s not a pleasant rest of the day for you
  • Alcohol doesn’t make you cool (seems simple, but it was hard to retrain the neural pathways around a narrative I’ve been telling myself — and that has been reinforced by society — since I was a teenager)
alcohol doesn't make you cool

Alcohol doesn’t make you cool.

The other thing extended sobriety has taught me: how to feel the feelings. It used to be that any strong feeling I had I numbed with alcohol. We do it culturally and consider it totally normal. Tough day at work? Drink. Networking event and the only person I know isn’t here yet? Drink. Feeling nostalgic about a past relationship? Drink. Nervous about this Southwest Airlines flight crashing during takeoff? Drink.

When you take away “drink,” you actually have to feel the what you feel in all those situations when you don’t use alcohol to numb yourself. In each individual case, it’s not that bad. Yes, I feel a bit awkward approaching a group of 6 people at a networking event and inserting myself into the conversation, but you know that? That feeling doesn’t kill you. Yes, it’s not easy to have dinner with a friend and have to have a difficult conversation about a falling out you’ve recently had over money, but doing it without alcohol means you have the benefit of knowing you didn’t say anything you wouldn’t have said otherwise.

ren stimpy raw nerve

The pulsating raw nerve from Ren and Stimpy. A visceral image, and how I felt in the first few months without alcohol.

Still, the cumulative effect of feeling all the feelings all the time can be overwhelming. And it can feel isolating when you’re the only one trying to do it without booze. For the first three months of sobriety I felt like a raw nerve — the littlest things could set me off because I had no other coping mechanisms. I had never developed them. I was denying myself the only thing that I’d ever relied on to take away the bad feelings and to immediately bathe myself in the glow of acceptance and camaraderie. Without it, who was I even?

me_in_my_basement_1996

Letting my freak flag fly in 1996, right before I started drinking.

They say that your emotional development is arrested at the age when you start using alcohol regularly to numb your feelings. Right before I started my current stint of extended sobriety, a funny thing started happening to me: I kept having visceral flashbacks to 11th grade. I’d be in that final resting pose in yoga, where usually I couldn’t focus on anything but what groceries I was supposed to get before heading home, and I’d be suddenly transported to my high school bedroom — green ivy wallpaper, the Trainspotting poster, the chili pepper Christmas lights wrapped around a wicker headboard — and I could just FEEL that girl sitting there. One time I even sat up with tears streaming down my face.

It’s hard to admit this because I’ve BURIED the part of myself that’s at all comfortable with getting “woo woo,” but I know exactly why that kept happening. Junior year was when I started hiding bottles of Seagram’s Extra Dry Gin in my closet and filling a 20 ounce bottle of Sprite halfway up with it pretty much every time I left the house to do something “fun.” Before that I had interests, hobbies, passions, drives, things that made me stand out and maybe even appear a little weird, but at 16 I sealed them up. I poured water over that part of my heart and stuck it in the freezer. Alcohol, I decided, was the path forward into adulthood.

Now alcohol wasn’t working for me, and that part of myself I had frozen was trying to escape, but couldn’t. I figured the only way to thaw her out was to stop drinking. For a while.

I also quit because I couldn’t seem to moderate sometimes. A glass of wine became the bottle, followed by a half a six pack and trying to convince my husband we needed to go to that karaoke bar on the way home from the Christmas party so I could do just ONE SONG. (We did, I did, it was terrible.) This wasn’t the person I wanted to be anymore.

outside sidekicks in chicago

He is saying, “Do we have to go in here?” The night before I quit drinking the last time.

Now, after almost 8 months of doing the work, of feeling the feelings, of experiencing intimacy without booze, of getting past the raw nerve feeling of being forever without my coping mechanism (and finding other ways to cope), and of reconnecting with some of the hobbies and feelings I had before I froze them out in favor of a life spent “acting cool” and “fitting in,” I wonder if I can’t return to a glass of wine in the evenings while chopping vegetables and listening to public radio.

My husband and I are planning on moving to the Pacific Northwest, where we want to buy a house with a big deck surrounded by pine trees, and I think: I could have a glass of wine on that deck while my kids play in the yard.

hiking beer bottle

My idea of a water bottle, in 2010 in the Pacific Northwest. I want to return a different person.

I also think I can balance being able to enjoy that glass of wine with abstaining in places where it doesn’t make sense to drink, like a play date. Like a networking event where I have a hard time limiting myself to 2 drinks even though I have to drive myself home. Can I do that this time, after having done the work of sobriety?

Or is drinking always a slippery slope?

I know there are thousands of people seeking the third door just like I am. Living life with a complicated relationship to alcohol means you’re always existing on a continuum. I heard people in AA meetings, after twenty years of their sobriety, use the same tentative language I was using in the first weeks of my sobriety — things like “one day at a time” and my favorite, “I’ll keep coming back” — and I understood that this work is a lifelong project.

I am proud of the weeks and months I have spent not drinking, and I won’t feel that they are erased if I decide, six months from now after my son is born and I no longer have to consider the needs of a growing fetus, to have a glass of wine some evening at a dinner out with my husband.

The culture of sobriety teaches you to erase your work and start over, and while in some way going back to drinking and then quitting again feels like I’ve thrown away those months because I can no longer “count” them, it also feels like I banked those hours, and the experience, as part of a lifelong attempt to understand my own complicated relationship to alcohol.

In other words, I think I’m still searching for that third door. Maybe it’s a naive and ultimately doomed quest, and maybe others who have unsuccessfully sought it will watch me sailing off from the shore and think, “You idiot.” But one thing I’ve learned in my months of sobriety is that I actually don’t mind what other people think of me (and in a real way, not just a “fuck all of you!” kind of way). So if I go “back out” as they say, it’ll be on my own terms. But I’ll still keep all the doors open.

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Sorry I Haven’t Written in So Long.
(I Forgot I Was a Writer.)

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My chiropractor started his own practice when he was 30. He never wanted to do anything else with his life. He finished chiropractic school, then worked for someone else, then opened his own shop. That was 19 years ago.

I’ve been going to him for 17 years. I’ve seen his business evolve from its rocky beginnings into a thriving practice. Our small talk has evolved from weather and weekend plans to deeper topics: I like asking him about the crazy stuff that happens, like has anyone ever had a sobbing meltdown in here? Or, have you ever treated patients that knew they were terminal? I’m curious what it’s like to work on people in such an intimate way.

I’m also curious about something else. Yesterday at my appointment I asked, “Do you have any friends who are still trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives?”

Hah, yes, he says. He does. One of his friends is 58, lives rent-free in a building his parents own, and is currently helping the Indian couple who moved in down the hall expand their waterproof lotion business. Which, my chiropractor estimates, he’ll probably do for two years until he finds something else that interests him.

So then I ask, “You’ve had this practice for 19 years. Do you ever lie awake at 3 a.m. thinking, ‘What am I doing with my life?'”

He laughs, no. I pretty much knew what I wanted to do in my twenties, and then I did it. He’s quick to assure me he has 3 a.m. worries, just not of the variety in question.

“Can you identify at all with people who still have no clue what they want to do?” I ask.

Sure, he says. He knows people haven’t had as easy a path as he has figuring it all out. In a way, he feels lucky.

“What about you?” he asks. “Do you feel like you have it all figured out?”

I feel like time is running out, I tell him. I’m already 7 years behind the ability to have been doing anything since I was 30.

“When you’re at a wedding,” I say, “and someone asks what you do, you tell them you’re a chiropractor. And people just get it.”

When people ask what I do, right now I tell them I’m a marketing consultant, but I don’t feel like that’s the whole truth. Sometimes I say I was a journalism major who ended up in marketing, but even that leaves out large chunks of my life that don’t fit that narrative. I can’t be summarized in a single cocktail intro!

“I always just thought of you as a writer,” my chiropractor says with the simplicity of someone who has listened to my bullshit for 17 years and forgot all but the important parts.

“A writer?” I ask, flipping over so I can get my neck adjusted. My chiropractor thinks I’m a writer, but I haven’t had a byline anywhere since 2013. Not that I’ve tried.

“Do you still write?” he asks.

It’s a question that at once annoys and reduces me, because it’s a reminder that no, I haven’t written anything in a while. Not for pay, not for fun, either.

But of the tens of thousands of words that I’ve submitted to the scrutiny of anywhere from 1 to 100,000 readers, I’ve probably only been paid for 10% of them. So why did I stop writing the other 90%?

Because I tried to tell myself that other hobbies were more practical. Safer.

Because it’s so much simpler to put a piece of macrame into the world and not care what anyone thinks about it. Because a piece of macrame won’t receive comments like, “what business does this person have making macrame when there are so many other people whose talent and life experiences qualify them to have made a better piece of macrame?” Because no one ever says, “This piece of macrame doesn’t have all the answers.” Because no one ever says, “This piece of macrame was constructed by a person who comes from a place of privilege, and therefore it has no merit.” Because no boss or potential client ever looked at a piece of macrame and said, “This is a good piece of work, but only because it reveals your true feelings about the work that you are currently engaged in, which are negative, so we will not hire you.”

So let me hide behind those safe hobbies that I have no real talent for or interest in, and tell myself I just need to make more of a commitment to them in order to improve. After all, I’m too tired to write a 1,200 word personal essay after putting my toddler to bed. All I have to do now is convince my chiropractor — and the world! — to un-see me as a writer and instead view my personal brand through the lens of successful marketer and macrame artist.

But fiber arts isn’t the outlet through which I construct my understanding of the universe. People criticize Lena Dunham and her female essayist ilk for not having lived enough to have a right to report anything back to the world, but I disagree. Some people simply process their surroundings by writing about them, and I am one of those people.

working at a tech job
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I quit my tech job so I could work on the projects I wanted to work on

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A couple of months after I read Adam Davidson’s article What Hollywood Can Teach Us About the Future of Work, I quit my job. I realized that how I wanted to work in tech and in entrepreneurship was how my friend Meena works on film: she finds projects she likes, she attaches herself to them, those projects go out into the universe, she puts them into a portfolio, and she continues to call herself a director of photography. No affiliation.

I grew up loving film and wanting to do film. I think 8th grade me understood that I didn’t have the ability to focus on one project for the rest of my life and I wanted to work on giant collaborative projects that had the potential to make people (me) famous.

the ceiling at 1871
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Two years later, how I feel about the Women in Tech piece I wrote for Crain’s

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Two years ago this week I was working at a tech company at 1871, Chicago’s tech co-working space, and I commented on a post about the lack of women in tech on the Built in Chicago forum. An editor from Crain’s Chicago Business reached out to me to see if I would expand on my ideas and write an editorial for the magazine about why I thought there weren’t more women working in Chicago tech. Why they didn’t ask the original post author, Reva Minkoff, I don’t know, but I think the editors were specifically interested in my somewhat unbridled remarks that 1871 was filled with dudes. If technology was going to be the next big industry in Chicago, they prompted me, wouldn’t it be a pity if it turned out to be just another white boys’ club like so many industries that have come before it?

business idea generation
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8 Steps to Choosing What Business Idea to Start

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I come up with business ideas in the shower. On the airplane. Wherever. Each one seems really great when it occurs to me but I eventually get tired of mulling it over and when it loses steam, I add it to the dreams deferred pile.

I don’t know what I want to do with my life. Probably be a business owner. The problem is, I have so many business ideas, I can’t decide which idea to start. Which idea defines me as a person? Which one marries my skills with my passions, but also make sense financially? Should I launch a line of practical, colorful children’s clothing? Or open a co-working coffee shop?

invented-netflix
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Why It Doesn’t Matter That I Invented Netflix for a 7th Grade Class English Assignment

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In 1993, I had a seventh grade English class essay assignment to “Invent a New Product.” The product I invented was Netflix.

My teacher didn’t think this was brilliant. She gave me a ‘B’ because what I’d invented “was a good idea, but not a product.” Without the proper encouragement, I diligently completed the rest of the year’s worth of assignments in the Mead notebook, wrote some sophomore’s name in hearts on the teal front cover, and never thought about it again until twenty years later when I was working as a marketing manager for a tech startup and I happened upon it when cleaning my apartment.

Holy shit, I thought. I invented Netflix.