I oscillate between being a proud polymath and the need to specialise.
When I finished school, I didn’t know what I wanted to study. I can’t really recall having a childhood dream of pursuing a specific profession (I wish I could claim that “I do not dream of labour”).
I ended up studying political science mainly because it sounded varied enough that I felt I wouldn't get bored and will eventually find “my path” (SciencesPo was also serious enough to satisfy my parents’ ambitions for my future).
Whilst studying, I often envied my colleagues who seemed to have much clearer goals than I did (I spent more time and energy setting up the Arts society, leading salsa classes and failing to play rugby than studying economics or reading about the history of institutions).
Now a good decade after having graduated and working in a different field(s), I am still in awe of entrepreneurs who can spend years and even decades focusing on growing one idea; of creatives who only make work in their chosen role/genre or of PhD students who can spend years delving deeper and deeper into one single subject.
Yet, as soon as I really start thinking about these unilateral pursuits, part of my skin begins to crawl. Do I really admire this or am I taught to want it?
I didn’t know that the famous quote “jack of all trades, master of none” continues as “…but oftentimes better than one”. Apparently, it was first used by some Robert Greene who was referring to Shakespeare, both a playwright and an actor. With time, we’ve chosen to completely forget the second half…
When I was finally able to go fully freelance last year, I read Emma Gannon’s The Multi-Hyphen Method book which gave me renewed courage to embrace my "hyphens" and to actually see them as strings to my bow. Being a multipotentialite in uncertain times is strategically savvy, opening up diverse income streams and widening one’s network. The arguments in favour of polymaths also point to the fact that your unique combination of skills, experiences and points of view is what will make you stand out and “cut through the noise”.
This however seems completely contradictory to, for example, how social media platforms operate. Powered by enigmatic algorithms, they favour consistence and focused content: post often and post about your “niche” is the go-to advice of all marketers. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if it wasn’t symptomatic of society at large. It seems that there is a general growing inability to hold contradictions, to live with nuance and to allow time for complexity to unfold.
This desire for specialism and the subsequent intolerance of multi-hyphen realities (both at work and beyond) is closely linked to the evolution of economics, from Taylorism to economic specialisation, all with the aim to increase productivity, efficiency and, ultimately, earning potential.
We have been sold the idea of the single minded, hyper focused genius as the way to succeed. Taking the longer route, by educating yourself in multiple fields, dabbling in several hobbies, having a non-linear career progression or (God forbid) prioritising other aspects of life are all clearly discouraged. This is mirrored by our tools (like how Linkedin drives me mad because it is so not adapted to portfolio careers or when I have to provide a CV for something, which is always a hair-tearing exercise) but is most entrenched in our way of seeing the world. I started calling myself an artist after a decade of awkwardly being labelled a producer, a term I never felt fully represented what I did. But “artist” is only part of the picture as well, especially now that I qualified as NLP practitioner and coach, adding more terms to my ever-growing biog. I often also wonder how much financial insecurity actually played a part in me developing these strands (investing fully in one direction has always felt riskier than maintaining several doors open…).
I am not going to lie, some days it is still frustrating not to have only one neatly defined business to run or one unique passion to pursue. Most days however, I do find myself embracing the messiness of being a multipotentialite. Not only because, as Emily Wapnik highlights it in this TedTalk, we have some pretty useful superpowers but also because it has become an exercise of resisting mainstream ideas of productivity and success.
So, f*ck getting there in an efficient and timely manner - let us celebrate wonderful, meandering zigzags that enrich life instead. If that is your thing, obvs.