Recently while living in the experimental town of Arcosanti, Arizona I was invited to participate in an open-mic/talent show with fellow community members. My co-inhabitants were a collection of architects, artists, philosophers, craftsman and builders. My first thought to the invitation was to decline, because I didn’t feel like I had anything worth showing or performing. I started thinking about why I didn’t feel like I had anything worth showing or performing, and then I thought it might be fun to share thatSo, this is a reflection about my experience as a multipotentialite, which I shared at the open-mic event on June 12, 2016.

 

What is a Multipotentialite?

For those who don’t know, a “multipotentialite” refers to an individual whose interests span multiple fields or areas, rather than being strong in just one. By contrast, those whose interests lie mostly within a single field are called “specialists.” While the term multipotentialite can be used interchangeably with polymath, generalist or Renaissance Person, the terms are not identical. One need not be an expert in any particular field to be a multipotentialite.

Leonardo da Vinci may be the best historical example of an acknowledged genius who struggled from the difficulties often associated with multipotentiality. Having failed to complete many of the projects he started, he has been quoted as saying: “I have wasted my hours” and “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.”[2]

 

Infinite Knowledge, Finite Learner

I would be presumptuous to place myself in the same league as Leonardo da Vinci, but I think we share many of the same passions and struggles. I constantly conceptualize new ideas and projects, some of which get documented, fewer of which get started, and very few of which get completed. It is not necessarily that I lose interest in current projects, but rather that I continuously gain immense interest in new ones. Oftentimes a new idea is really an improvement on an existing one. I get especially excited when I synthesize ideas together from multiple disciplines such as art, nature, psychology, anthropology, biology, technology, mathematics, and spirituality. I also enjoy perceiving and applying them from multiple perspectives, cultures, beliefs, and worldviews. That awareness and synthesis are my favorite parts of being a generalist.

While I personally enjoy my multi-faceted interests, I occasionally run into trouble because this orientation is not particularly well-suited for modern society. As students we all learn several subjects in grade school, but they are taught in a very segregated way. They are presented as separate life options to choose between rather than parts of a holistic understanding we can appreciate in the moment and in their entirety. Those who pursue higher education and careers are corralled into specialized job skills to align with the competitive job market. This is not ideal for me. Despite loving most subjects, specializing can be too much of a good thing.

A multipotentialite’s biggest concern is time, because development of a particular skill ages in dog years, interspersed with side projects, adjustments, and a lot of reflection.

Also while I get immense joy from the sheer process of continuously learning totally new skills, disciplines and worldviews, modern society rewards a static worldview and mastery and achievement in very narrow fields. Focused mastery requires investment of energy and time. A multipotentialite’s biggest concern is time, because development of a particular skill ages in dog years, interspersed with side projects, adjustments, and a lot of reflection. These activities are often not rewarded in specialized jobs and culture roles.

I handle this by defining my own criteria for success. I aim to develop a working knowledge of what other talented people have discovered and created, and concurrently develop a holistic understanding to help piece together the dots. Scientific data and technology such as written language and automation allow us to do this with increasing ease. So the key is finding the right environment that is supportive of that approach.

So that addresses work and survival, but what about fulfillment, purpose, and meaning? Surely a multipotentialite misses out on the feeling of accomplishment of mastering a skill and creating intimate relationships with fellow passionate specialists. For this I would like to address the multipotentiality spectrum on a more fundamental level.

 

 

Infinite Spectrum: Breadth Versus Depth

While I think this dualistic spectrum holds true in a certain context, it fails to consider other dimensions of thinking and being that go beyond the mastery of skills, and that extend into the synergistic power that comes with simply being aware and open to many things.

It is easy to interpret the phenomenon of generalism and specialism as a dualistic sacrifice of breadth versus depth. In many ways this is true. There is the saying that a generalist knows a little about a lot and a specialist knows a lot about a little. You can be somewhere in between but the equation must keep equilibrium. While I think this dualistic spectrum holds true in a certain context, it fails to consider other dimensions of thinking and being that go beyond the mastery of skills, and that extend into the synergistic power that comes with simply being aware and open to many things.

I’ll share an example to explain what I mean. I have recently been reading the book “A Brief History of Everything” (which, by the way is a very alluring title for a multipotentialite). In the book, author Ken Wilber describes his emergent Integral Theory, which argues that there is limited but valid truth in all beliefs or worldviews, and that to move forward as a species and society we need to appreciate each view and put it in its proper context and perspective. He walks through the many dualistic debates that typify modern societal discourse, such as objectivism vs subjectivism, individualism vs collectivism, and the narrow-minded non-holistic approach of many modern social justice movements.

What I find particularly interesting is his notion that lack of breadth can actually lead to lack of depth, or said another way, that breadth of awareness can create depth of meaning.

In one particular example involving worldviews about the Earth itself, Wilber discusses the importance of both Left Hand and Right Hand thinking, i.e. the importance of interpreting subjective meaning as well as analyzing empirical data. He writes, “The ‘Ultimate Reality’ [for modern ecological theorists] is the empirical web of life, or Gaia, or the biosphere, or the social system, and all [parts] are reduced to being merely a strand in the wonderful web. These approaches devastate the interior stages of consciousness development and reduce all Left Hand components to Right Hand strands in the empirical web. This totally mistakes great span for great depth and therefore collapses vertical depth to horizontal expansion.” Wilber’s overall point is to argue the importance of multi-faceted, holistic thinking. But what I find particularly interesting is his notion that lack of breadth can actually lead to lack of depth, or said another way, that breadth of awareness can create depth of meaning. Without that breadth, in this case by not appreciating subjective interpretation, there is lack of perspective, lack of integration, lack of deep spiritual connection.

A Place for Everyone, A Need for Every Gift

Every person has unique talents, passions, experiences and relationships which provide a framework for perceiving and interpreting the world around them. The world in turn holds so much available knowledge that we can’t possibly understand it without leveraging each other’s strengths, even if we each come with some incomplete worldviews.

Now whether or not it is true, I am not sharing this to convince anyone that multipotentiality is superior. It definitely has benefits, and with the aid of technology and alternative social structures I envision a future where more people can comfortably choose to become stronger generalists. But instead I wish to emphasize that the ways we are able to achieve meaningful fulfillment as humans in an infinite universe are so diverse. Some cultures might reward specialism, but life purpose and meaning are always completely up to you, the individual to explore and discover. Every person has unique talents, passions, experiences and relationships which provide a framework for perceiving and interpreting the world around them. The world in turn holds so much available knowledge that we can’t possibly understand it without leveraging each other’s strengths, even if we each come with some incomplete worldviews. We just need to help each other fill them in.

So with that, I hope anyone reading this is not disappointed that I didn’t decide to share my portfolio of half-drawn doodles, prototype software and disorganized project ideas. I am personally proud and impressed that I actually managed to finish writing this essay post, and happy that we can all share our diverse talents with each other every day.