It all usually starts with the question: “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Our education, work life and the expectations of our families have traditionally guided us towards selecting one single clearly defined interest or field. But most professionals could make use of a broader perspective.
A TED Talk recently caught my attention. In it the multidisciplinary American entrepreneur Emilie Wapnick explains how society typically favors experts who have deep knowledge in a particular topic. However, Wapnick herself is interested in people whose interests are broader. She has termed this less acknowledged group of people “multipotentialites.”
The speech made me think about my own path. I don’t fit the description of a multipotentialite: I don’t feel like I have potential to do everything. However, I noticed that my interests and hobbies are quite varied. I have always thought there is a huge amount of interesting facts to be learned about practically every topic, person and phenomenon.
During my time at university I struggled with the fact that I didn’t have a dream career. I didn’t know what I wanted to become when I grew up – at least not after, during kindergarten, an optician told me that I could never become a pilot. To a young social scientist interested in “sort of everything,” finding a suitable job seemed at the very least uncertain.
At the end of my studies I ended up working at a communications agency without fully understanding what a communications agency does. While trying to learn to do the job I realized that very few people there were top experts at anything. My new coworkers were great at taking in new things, discovering connections between things and making difficult things easy to understand. That’s when I finally realized that multidisciplinary people play an important role in working life. According to Wapnick, multipotential people are quick to learn, adapt to different roles and are able create something new by combining information from many different fields. This what I suddenly saw in action at my workplace.
Multipotential attributes are not only required of individuals but also of companies. It’s easy to illustrate this through content. At the core of content marketing lies the idea that a company can’t just blast its own marketing message through various channels – you must find topics related to your own field, ones you can write genuinely useful and interesting content about. This change in perspective is a quite radical one for many: companies can no longer be specialists when it comes to their own products, they must be generalists in their own field.
It’s important to notice that multidisciplinarity by no means means doing a shoddy job. No one benefits from a scratch on the surface or projects carried out with the attention span of a goldfish. Deep knowledge is extremely important. But it’s also a good thing to be interested in the world around you.
Wapnick has nothing against specialists, either. She simply encourages people to take their own inclinations into account – whether they are inclined towards specialization or multidisciplinarity. The best things in working life happen when you successfully marry specialized know-how with broadmindedness.
For me, Wapnick’s TED Talk did a great job at illustrating that you shouldn’t be too strict in defining yourself. Having a wide range of interests is an asset that both individuals and companies desperately need in this day and age. This is an important realization for someone whose dream of becoming a pilot was proven impossible already at the age of four.
Joska Pyykkö is Paper Planes’ new content strategist whose interests include, among other things, cameras, drum machines and changes in working life.