12:27
TEDxBend

Emilie Wapnick: Why some of us don't have one true calling

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What do you want to be when you grow up? Well, if you're not sure you want to do just one thing for the rest of your life, you're not alone. In this illuminating talk, writer and artist Emilie Wapnick describes the kind of people she calls "multipotentialites" -- who have a range of interests and jobs over one lifetime. Are you one?

- Writer, coach, artist ...
Career coach Emilie Wapnick celebrates the "multipotentialite" -- those of us with many interests, many jobs over a lifetime, and many interlocking potentials. Full bio

Raise your hand if you've ever
been asked the question
00:12
"What do you want to be when you grow up?"
00:15
Now if you had to guess,
00:18
how old would you say you were
when you were first asked this question?
00:20
You can just hold up fingers.
00:23
Three. Five. Three. Five. Five. OK.
00:25
Now, raise your hand if the question
00:30
"What do you want to be when you grow up?"
00:35
has ever caused you any anxiety.
00:37
(Laughter)
00:39
Any anxiety at all.
00:41
I'm someone who's never
been able to answer the question
00:45
"What do you want to be when you grow up?"
00:47
See, the problem wasn't
that I didn't have any interests --
00:50
it's that I had too many.
00:53
In high school, I liked English
and math and art and I built websites
00:55
and I played guitar in a punk band
called Frustrated Telephone Operator.
01:00
Maybe you've heard of us.
01:04
(Laughter)
01:06
This continued after high school,
01:09
and at a certain point, I began
to notice this pattern in myself
01:11
where I would become interested in an area
01:15
and I would dive in, become all-consumed,
01:18
and I'd get to be pretty good
at whatever it was,
01:21
and then I would hit this point
where I'd start to get bored.
01:24
And usually I would try
and persist anyway,
01:30
because I had already devoted
so much time and energy
01:32
and sometimes money into this field.
01:35
But eventually this sense of boredom,
01:38
this feeling of, like, yeah, I got this,
this isn't challenging anymore --
01:40
it would get to be too much.
01:45
And I would have to let it go.
01:47
But then I would become interested
in something else,
01:50
something totally unrelated,
and I would dive into that,
01:52
and become all-consumed,
and I'd be like, "Yes! I found my thing,"
01:55
and then I would hit this point again
where I'd start to get bored.
02:00
And eventually, I would let it go.
02:05
But then I would discover
something new and totally different,
02:09
and I would dive into that.
02:12
This pattern caused me a lot of anxiety,
02:15
for two reasons.
02:18
The first was that I wasn't sure
02:20
how I was going to turn
any of this into a career.
02:23
I thought that I would eventually
have to pick one thing,
02:26
deny all of my other passions,
02:29
and just resign myself to being bored.
02:31
The other reason it caused me
so much anxiety
02:35
was a little bit more personal.
02:37
I worried that there
was something wrong with this,
02:40
and something wrong with me
for being unable to stick with anything.
02:42
I worried that I was afraid of commitment,
02:47
or that I was scattered,
or that I was self-sabotaging,
02:50
afraid of my own success.
02:53
If you can relate to my story
and to these feelings,
02:57
I'd like you to ask yourself a question
03:00
that I wish I had asked myself back then.
03:03
Ask yourself where you learned to assign
the meaning of wrong or abnormal
03:06
to doing many things.
03:12
I'll tell you where you learned it:
03:15
you learned it from the culture.
03:17
We are first asked the question
"What do you want to be when you grow up?"
03:22
when we're about five years old.
03:25
And the truth is that no one really cares
what you say when you're that age.
03:27
(Laughter)
03:31
It's considered an innocuous question,
03:32
posed to little kids
to elicit cute replies,
03:34
like, "I want to be an astronaut,"
or "I want to be a ballerina,"
03:37
or "I want to be a pirate."
03:40
Insert Halloween costume here.
03:42
(Laughter)
03:44
But this question gets asked of us
again and again as we get older
03:46
in various forms -- for instance,
high school students might get asked
03:50
what major they're going
to pick in college.
03:54
And at some point,
03:57
"What do you want to be when you grow up?"
03:58
goes from being
the cute exercise it once was
04:01
to the thing that keeps us up at night.
04:04
Why?
04:07
See, while this question inspires kids
to dream about what they could be,
04:09
it does not inspire them to dream
about all that they could be.
04:14
In fact, it does just the opposite,
04:17
because when someone asks you
what you want to be,
04:20
you can't reply with 20 different things,
04:23
though well-meaning adults
will likely chuckle and be like,
04:26
"Oh, how cute, but you can't be
a violin maker and a psychologist.
04:29
You have to choose."
04:33
This is Dr. Bob Childs --
04:36
(Laughter)
04:37
and he's a luthier and psychotherapist.
04:40
And this is Amy Ng, a magazine editor
turned illustrator, entrepreneur,
04:44
teacher and creative director.
04:49
But most kids don't hear
about people like this.
04:51
All they hear
04:53
is that they're going to have to choose.
04:55
But it's more than that.
04:59
The notion of the narrowly focused life
05:01
is highly romanticized in our culture.
05:04
It's this idea of destiny
or the one true calling,
05:07
the idea that we each have one great thing
05:11
we are meant to do
during our time on this earth,
05:14
and you need to figure out
what that thing is
05:16
and devote your life to it.
05:19
But what if you're someone
who isn't wired this way?
05:23
What if there are a lot of different
subjects that you're curious about,
05:26
and many different things you want to do?
05:30
Well, there is no room for someone
like you in this framework.
05:33
And so you might feel alone.
05:37
You might feel like you don't
have a purpose.
05:40
And you might feel like
there's something wrong with you.
05:43
There's nothing wrong with you.
05:46
What you are is a multipotentialite.
05:48
(Laughter)
05:52
(Applause)
05:54
A multipotentialite is someone
with many interests and creative pursuits.
06:02
It's a mouthful to say.
06:07
It might help if you break it up
into three parts:
06:09
multi, potential, and ite.
06:12
You can also use one of the other terms
that connote the same idea,
06:16
such as polymath, the Renaissance person.
06:19
Actually, during the Renaissance period,
06:22
it was considered the ideal
to be well-versed in multiple disciplines.
06:24
Barbara Sher refers to us as "scanners."
06:29
Use whichever term you like,
or invent your own.
06:32
I have to say I find it sort of fitting
that as a community,
06:35
we cannot agree on a single identity.
06:38
(Laughter)
06:41
It's easy to see your multipotentiality
06:45
as a limitation or an affliction
that you need to overcome.
06:47
But what I've learned
through speaking with people
06:51
and writing about these
ideas on my website,
06:53
is that there are some tremendous
strengths to being this way.
06:56
Here are three
07:01
multipotentialite super powers.
07:03
One: idea synthesis.
07:07
That is, combining two or more fields
07:10
and creating something new
at the intersection.
07:13
Sha Hwang and Rachel Binx drew
from their shared interests
07:17
in cartography, data visualization,
travel, mathematics and design,
07:20
when they founded Meshu.
07:26
Meshu is a company that creates
custom geographically-inspired jewelry.
07:28
Sha and Rachel came up
with this unique idea
07:35
not despite, but because of their eclectic
mix of skills and experiences.
07:37
Innovation happens at the intersections.
07:45
That's where the new ideas come from.
07:48
And multipotentialites,
with all of their backgrounds,
07:51
are able to access a lot of these
points of intersection.
07:54
The second multipotentialite superpower
07:59
is rapid learning.
08:03
When multipotentialites
become interested in something,
08:05
we go hard.
08:08
We observe everything
we can get our hands on.
08:10
We're also used to being beginners,
08:13
because we've been beginners
so many times in the past,
08:14
and this means that we're less afraid
of trying new things
08:18
and stepping out of our comfort zones.
08:21
What's more, many skills
are transferable across disciplines,
08:23
and we bring everything we've learned
to every new area we pursue,
08:27
so we're rarely starting from scratch.
08:31
Nora Dunn is a full-time traveler
and freelance writer.
08:34
As a child concert pianist,
she honed an incredible ability
08:39
to develop muscle memory.
08:42
Now, she's the fastest typist she knows.
08:45
(Laughter)
08:47
Before becoming a writer,
Nora was a financial planner.
08:49
She had to learn
the finer mechanics of sales
08:52
when she was starting her practice,
08:54
and this skill now helps her
write compelling pitches to editors.
08:56
It is rarely a waste of time
to pursue something you're drawn to,
09:01
even if you end up quitting.
09:05
You might apply that knowledge
in a different field entirely,
09:07
in a way that you couldn't
have anticipated.
09:10
The third multipotentialite superpower
09:14
is adaptability;
09:17
that is, the ability to morph
into whatever you need to be
09:19
in a given situation.
09:22
Abe Cajudo is sometimes a video director,
sometimes a web designer,
09:26
sometimes a Kickstarter consultant,
sometimes a teacher,
09:31
and sometimes, apparently, James Bond.
09:34
(Laughter)
09:37
He's valuable because he does good work.
09:39
He's even more valuable
because he can take on various roles,
09:41
depending on his clients' needs.
09:44
Fast Company magazine
identified adaptability
09:47
as the single most important skill
to develop in order to thrive
09:50
in the 21st century.
09:54
The economic world is changing
so quickly and unpredictably
09:56
that it is the individuals
and organizations that can pivot
10:00
in order to meet the needs of the market
that are really going to thrive.
10:03
Idea synthesis, rapid learning
and adaptability:
10:09
three skills that multipotentialites
are very adept at,
10:13
and three skills that they might lose
if pressured to narrow their focus.
10:17
As a society, we have a vested interest
in encouraging multipotentialites
10:25
to be themselves.
10:29
We have a lot of complex, multidimensional
problems in the world right now,
10:32
and we need creative,
out-of-the-box thinkers to tackle them.
10:36
Now, let's say that you are,
in your heart, a specialist.
10:41
You came out of the womb knowing
you wanted to be a pediatric neurosurgeon.
10:46
Don't worry -- there's nothing
wrong with you, either.
10:51
(Laughter)
10:54
In fact, some of the best teams
are comprised of a specialist
10:55
and multipotentialite paired together.
10:58
The specialist can dive in deep
and implement ideas,
11:01
while the multipotentialite brings
a breadth of knowledge to the project.
11:04
It's a beautiful partnership.
11:08
But we should all be designing
lives and careers
11:11
that are aligned with how we're wired.
11:13
And sadly, multipotentialites
are largely being encouraged
11:16
simply to be more
like their specialist peers.
11:20
So with that said,
11:24
if there is one thing
you take away from this talk,
11:27
I hope that it is this:
11:30
embrace your inner wiring,
whatever that may be.
11:33
If you're a specialist at heart,
11:37
then by all means, specialize.
11:39
That is where you'll do your best work.
11:41
But to the multipotentialites in the room,
11:44
including those of you
who may have just realized
11:47
in the last 12 minutes that you are one --
11:49
(Laughter)
11:52
to you I say:
11:53
embrace your many passions.
11:55
Follow your curiosity
down those rabbit holes.
11:58
Explore your intersections.
12:02
Embracing our inner wiring leads
to a happier, more authentic life.
12:06
And perhaps more importantly --
12:12
multipotentialites, the world needs us.
12:14
Thank you.
12:19
(Applause)
12:21

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About the Speaker:

Emilie Wapnick - Writer, coach, artist ...
Career coach Emilie Wapnick celebrates the "multipotentialite" -- those of us with many interests, many jobs over a lifetime, and many interlocking potentials.

Why you should listen

Emilie Wapnick has been a musician/songwriter, a web designer, filmmaker, writer, law student and entrepreneur. "This is how I’ve always lived," she writes, "moving from interest to interest, building on my skills in different areas, and synthesizing the knowledge I acquire along the way."

As a career and life coach, she helps other people with wide and varied interests understand and appreciate who they are, in a society that asks us to pick a lane and stay in it. Her work with "multipotentialites" has resulted in the book Renaissance Business and the interesting website Puttylike

More profile about the speaker
Emilie Wapnick | Speaker | TED.com