Last weekend I watched a fantastic Ted Talk by Emilie Wapnick called Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling. In her talk, Emilie described a category of people in our society who struggle to find what they’re “supposed” to do in life because they can’t pin down what one thing they should pursue. The issue isn’t that they don’t have skills or passions; it’s that they have many, and it makes discerning one’s calling or picking a career difficult and frustrating.
The term Emilie used to describe these widely skilled and passionate individuals is multipotentialite. Unlike people who have specialized interests and skills in one certain area, multipotentialites have a number of different areas they are equipped to excel in—which is why, for multipotentialites, finding lasting fulfillment and interest in just one calling feels next to impossible.
In American society, we raise kids to accept the presupposition that each person has a certain thing to do or purpose in life to fulfill. This puts immense pressure on kids as they grow into teenagers and young adults to figure out their calling in time to pick a college major, graduate, and secure the one job they’re meant to do.
And if they struggle to fit this one-calling mold? Take another career assessment, society says. Pick a new major. Find a new job. Because we’ve been indoctrinated with the belief that if you search long enough and hard enough, you’ll eventually find that one thing you’re supposed to do.
But this couldn’t be further from the truth. I understand the pressure put on young people to figure their lives out, and the sense of failure that comes when there are no clear answers. It’s been the story of my life the past 7 years.
We shame teens, college students, and young adults who struggle to find their “one thing.” Which is why, for someone like me with multiple and varied talents, I’ve inevitably asked the question, What is wrong with me?
The answer isn’t that something is wrong. The answer is that, similar to many others like me, I don’t fit the standard American mold. What’s really wrong here isn’t that people are above average at multiple things (honestly, how is having more talent a problem?); the problem is the American mold that defines “calling” in a very restricted, one-dimensional way.
It’s like trying to fit a unicorn-shaped block into a standard square hole. The issue isn’t that the unicorn block won’t fit into the standard-shaped hole. The issue is we’re trying to shove a block into a structure that doesn’t even account for the fact that there are a heck of a lot more shapes out there than your average circle or triangle.
Emilie described 3 strengths in her Ted Talk that these uniquely-shaped individuals bring to the table. First, we are good at combining our areas of interest and giftedness to create innovative and exciting new concepts. Second, we’re rapid learners who take the skills we’ve acquired from previous experiences and apply them to every new challenge we’re presented. Lastly, multipotentialites are experts in adaptability, a skill that is key to being successful in almost any job, or situation in life for that matter.
Why is it a bad thing to not have one calling, that one thing we’re supposed to do with our lives? The truth is, it’s not bad at all. Whether you’re an expert at one thing or talented at many, we all have something unique we bring to our workplaces, our relationships, and our communities.
We need people of all shapes to keep building a world and future where all lives matter and anyone can make a difference.
I’m a writer, helper, pianist, artist, organizer, intellectual, and companion. Tell me—what’s your shape?