Calling All Multipotentialites: Why the “What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up” Question Is Nonsense

Step 1: Watch this TED Talk.

Step 2: Okay, now that you’ve seen it, here are my two cents.

I came across this TED Talk via Facebook with the caption “Why some of us don’t have one true calling” above the link. It piqued my curiosity, considering I’m someone who has struggled (and still does) with the whole “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question. Some people are blessed with the beautiful peace of mind at a young age of knowing exactly what they want to be when they grow up. Whether it is a teacher, a doctor, a firefighter, these individuals know precisely what they are passionate about and the steps that they need to take in order to get to their end destination.

Other people, like myself, have a more “colorful” path. Rather than finding ourselves on just one track, we find ourselves on multiple, sometimes at the same time. We are the kind of people who are attracted to many activities and have multiple interests and don’t want to settle on just one. 

Growing up, I tried just about everything there was available to a kid. My parents encouraged me to try different activities to help me find what I was the most interested in, and hopefully from there, I would foster the ones that I was the most passionate about. The problem was, I was interested in just about everything. That meant playing soccer, tennis, ice skating, swimming, gymnastics, basketball, horseback riding, dance (tap, jazz, and ballet), karate, going to sailing and snowboarding and waterpolo camps, taking acting classes, and even throwing in a sprint distance triathlon or two. No joke. In high school, I joined the swim team, track team, cross-country skiing team, played club soccer, acted in my high school plays, and was involved in a handful of different clubs. At one point, I even thought I wanted to be in the fashion industry, so I started making jewelry, tried my hand at sewing, and even focused my final senior project around fashion. I had so many interests, I couldn’t choose just one.

This is what Emilie Wapnick in the above TED Talk calls a “multipotentialite.” (And here I’ve gone my whole life thinking I was just “Indecisive.”) The TED Talk focuses on the idea that many people, like myself, do not have a one-track answer to the “What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up” question. The thing is, we are brought up being taught by current culture that we are destined for one path in this life. Do you want to be an Engineer? A Psychologist? A Scientist? A Lawyer? From an early age, we are wired to select one or two passions and to cultivate those interests into a career. And when we have many interests, current culture forces us to question whether we simply are just not one of the select few who have a true calling, that we missed the boat on the whole “destiny” thing. We are led to believe that something is wrong; that we will not be able to find our true calling as long as we are so “indecisive.” We are taught that our “true calling” is a linear entity, not this winding, haphazard, multifaceted path it so often turns out to be.

In the TED Talk, Wapnick says that for us “multipotentialites,” the problem isn’t that we don’t know what we want to do because we don’t have any interests; it’s because we have too many. At one point in the talk, she notes, “When multipotentialites become interested in something, we go hard.” Talk about hitting home… Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m a “go big or go home” type of person. I liked triathlon, so I did an Ironman. I wanted to travel, so I quit my job and moved halfway across the world to do it. I like running, so I’ve added “Do an ultramarathon” to my bucket list. I get interested in something and I want to experience that thing as much as I possibly can. The only thing is that I want to do it all, and as time and sanity will dictate, that’s not possible. 

Or is it?

Walt Whitman once said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Amen, Walt. I get you. Because at the end of the day, I love organic kale salads topped with chia seeds, hemp, and all kinds of other hippy sh*t; I also love your hole-in-the-wall Mexican place that serves a cheese and bacon stuffed burrito, complete with a cold, delicious beer. I’ve been known to whip and nae-nae, dougie, pop-lock-and-drop-it, and everything in between (or at least give my best attempt) while just a few hours later detoxifying post-yoga to the latest Jack Johnson song while sipping on my goji-berry and coconut topped smoothie. (P.s. Basic? So be it. It’s delicious.) I’ve been known to go out on a Friday night with the crew only to wake up the next morning for a 75-mile bike ride. I’m a complete bookworm and like to knit (true story), but am also all about a solid Vegas trip. Needless to say, I contain multitudes.

But contrary to popular belief, Wapnick suggests that maybe these “multitudes” aren’t such a bad thing. She says at one point, “It is rarely a waste of time to pursue something you’re drawn to, even if you end up quitting.” Finding these “multitudes” in yourself allows you to broaden your perspectives and form new creative ideas (often combining your various experiences into fresh, unique ideas), become a rapid learner on account of trying many things, and also allows you to become adaptable to different roles--whether they are professional or personal.

At the end of the day, she suggests, it’s not about whether you should or shouldn’t be a specialist or a multipotentialite. Instead, it’s about finding who you are and cultivating that. If you have known since you were the age of three that you wanted to be a lawyer, heck, by all means go to law school and do your thang. You are a badass, so own it. But if you are interested in everything under the sun, and are “indecisive” in the whole life’s true calling arena, that’s okay too. As Wapnick suggests, the world needs experts, or specialists, just as much as they need us chameleons. Innovation comes from the two building and working together to create fresh, new ideas, and to make those ideas as good as they can possibly be.

So to all the multipotentialites out there: Instead of narrowing our interests and following the traditional path of one “true calling,” perhaps it’s time to shift our thinking to “embrace your inner wiring, whatever that may be.” She urges us to “embrace your many passions, follow your curiosity down those rabbit holes, and explore your intersections.” And maybe, down one of those rabbit holes, our true calling—however varied and unique that may be—will become clearer, more defined. A fuzzy thing in the distance, slowly beginning to take on a shape, one that we can build and create and mold as our own in the years to come. Here’s to one grand adventure ahead…!