Not long ago a client said to me, “I’m 41 years old, and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” In fact, many of my clients make some variation on that statement when we launch our work together. Some feel like they’ve had no coherent career path. As a client explained, “I’ve taken good opportunities when they came to me, and I’ve been successful, but I haven’t had a plan. Sometimes I worry that people think I’ve flitted from job to job, even though I can see what ties some of it together.” These clients often worry that there is something wrong with them, and when they do seek a career change, they struggle to articulate their skills and experience to potential employers in a way that feels like a clear and rational career path.
Chances are that all these clients are multipotentialites. That is artist and writer Emilie Wapnick’s term for people who have many, many interests. Unlike the violinist who has known since childhood that he wanted to be a classical musician or the science-oriented person who decided at a young age that she wanted to be a physician, multipotentialites aren’t driven toward a single career path. They have many interests, and they might become bored easily.
Wapnick says that there’s nothing wrong with having all these interests. In fact, she maintains that multipotentialites have some real superpowers that make them terrific contributors in a variety of fields. They are great at synthesizing ideas. They are adaptable fast learners. They are good at big picture thinking. And they are good at relating to people and translating ideas and data between people who may not always understand each other. Wapnick compares multipotentialites to orchestra conductors: conductors have basic training in several instruments, which enables them to get the violinists and cellists and trumpeters and drummers to play together harmoniously. Multipotentialites can thrive in many professions.
According to Wapnick, there are four work models that could serve multipotentialites well. They can take what she calls the “group hug approach.” They may work in a multi-faceted job or business that allows them to wear many hats and do many things. Or maybe they have a slash career, alternating between two or more part-time jobs or businesses. Some take what she calls the “Einstein approach,” having a day job that leaves enough time and energy to pursue other interests on the side. Or you might take the “Phoenix approach,” working sequentially in a single job or industry. Of course, you can also mix and match among these approaches. (To learn more about multipotentialites , check out Wapnick’s TEDx Talk on the topic or read her book, How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What You Want to Be When You Grow Up. )
One challenge for multipotentialites is learning to present their career paths in a coherent way. When I work with clients who are multipotentialites, I often ask them to create a map that records their activities and interests from childhood to the present and then helps them identify common themes and interests. This exercise is based on one created by Katharine Brooks, a career counselor who specializes in working with undergraduates (her book is called You Majored in What? Mapping your Path from Chaos to Career), but I have adapted it for people at mid-career. If you’re a multipotentialite, you might want to try this exercise.
Basically you start by writing your name in the middle of a big sheet of paper or posterboard. Around it put all the interesting or significant things that you’ve done or that have been part of your life. Don’t be afraid to go all the way back to childhood. Include jobs and education, but also include events and activities you consider formative or turning points, hobbies, and achievements. Your map might include everything from that summer camp you attended ten years in a row, a mission trip to Africa, your love of playing the guitar or painting, or your organization of the environmental club at your high school. If you consider it a significant and valued part of your life, put it on your map map. You can see that my map (below) includes everything from childhood 4-H activities to my jobs to my love for organizing events and courses.
Once you’ve got all the major events and activities on your map, begin making connections and identifying common themes. Draw lines connecting related items. Make notes about what connects them. You might color code things, as I did in a crude way. I’ve seen some clients who did lovely drawings and doodles on their maps. Possible themes or connecting threads might include creative activities; things done alone or with others, with people, animals, or machines; things done indoors or outdoors; things requiring special skills and knowledge. Activities might also be connected by similar skillsets they require such as analytical, organizational, interpersonal, presentation or performing, counseling, mathematical or financial, teaching, research or investigative.
Once you’ve drawn your map, it’s time to reflect on what you’ve learned from it. I ask clients to do some written reflection on what common themes emerge from their lives, what they learned from the exercise about what they enjoy doing, and what they value. I encourage them to think of their careers as a body of work. Writer, coach, and martial arts expert Pamela Slim (a multipotentialite if ever there was one), says, “Your body of work is everything you create, contribute, affect, and impact.” It addresses a big theme, cause, or question. For example, my body of work is focused on helping people become engaged and empowered citizens capable of reaching their own highest potential. All three of my careers have been built around that goal, even though the content of those careers has been very different. I recommend Slim’s book, Body of Work: Finding the Thread That Ties Your Story Together, to multipotentialite clients who want to better articulate their career stories. (Read my review of Slim’s book here.)
Your map may not proceed in a nice straight line; mine certainly didn’t. It will probably wander in circles and cross back over itself multiple times. But I’m willing to bet that mapping your career path will offer you some new insights into your own body of work.