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.

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