Multipotentiality is an educational and psychological term referring to the ability and preference of a person, particularly one of strong intellectual or artistic curiosity, to excel in two or more different fields.
It can also refer to an individual whose interests span multiple fields or areas, rather than being strong in just one. Such traits are called multipotentialities, while "multipotentialites" has been suggested as a name for those with this trait.
By contrast, those whose interests lie mostly within a single field are called "specialists."
An early instance of the term in the record comes from relevant research in giftedness.
In 1972, R.H. Frederickson et al. defined a multipotentialed person as someone who, “when provided with appropriate environments, can select and develop a number of competencies to a high level.”
In 1999, "multipotentiality" appears in Laurie Diane Shute's doctoral dissertation which was titled "An investigation of multipotentiality among university honors students."
In 2008, on October 22, Douglas Hannay began a blog, lasting some 8 years. His first blog referred to Multipotentializing as excelling in multiple fields of energy. The blog was then copied in its entirety to Facebook on September 22, 2016, after viewing Emilie Wapnick’s TED talk on being a multipotentialite during Oct 2015.
In 2010, multipotentiality appears again in Tamara Fisher's article in Education Week. She defines it thus:
Multipotentiality is the state of having many exceptional talents, any one or more of which could make for a great career for that person.— Tamara Fisher, Education Week
A multipotentialite is a person who has many different interests and creative pursuits in life.
Multipotentialites have no “one true calling” the way specialists do. Being a multipotentialite is our destiny. We have many paths and we pursue all of them, either sequentially or simultaneously (or both).
Multipotentialites thrive on learning, exploring, and mastering new skills. We are excellent at bringing disparate ideas together in creative ways. This makes us incredible innovators and problem solvers.
When it comes to new interests that emerge, our insatiable curiosity leads us to absorb everything we can get our hands on. As a result, we pick up new skills fast and tend to be a wealth of information.— Emilie Wapnick, Terminology, Puttylike
While the term "multipotentialite" is often used interchangeably with "polymath" or "Renaissance Person", the terms are not identical. One need not be an expert in any particular field to be a multipotentialite.
Indeed, Isis Jade makes a clear distinction between multipotentiality and polymaths. Multipotentiality refers simply to one's potential in multiple fields owing to his/her diverse interests and attempts. Polymaths, on the other hand, are distinguished by their mastery and expertise in several fields. In this sense, multipotentialites can be viewed as potential polymaths.
With the advent of the industrial age, cultural norms have shifted in favor of specialization. Indeed, in the modern day, the more narrow the specialization, the higher the pay and respect accorded, for example: PhD graduates, and specialized lawyers, doctors, and engineers. The aphorism Jack of all trades, master of none emphasizes this. Older emphasis towards generalism and multiple potentials such as Renaissance humanism and the Renaissance man were replaced.
However, the convergence economy, Internet age, connectivity, the rise of the Creative Class, and other modern developments are bringing about a return of a more positive opinion for generalists and multipotentialites.
In Specialization, Polymaths And The Pareto Principle In A Convergence Economy, Jake Chapman writes:
Economists tell us that the history of human labor is one of continually increasing specialization. In the days of the hunter-gatherer, every member of the tribe would have been expected to command some degree of proficiency with each task.
As we progressed along the economic continuum from hunter-gatherer through agrarian and industrial and now into post-industrial economies, the labor force has become more fragmented, with workers having more and more specialized skill sets. ... Historically, specialization has been a path to prosperity. Although specialization has certain economic advantages, in the era of technological convergence, well-educated generalists will be those who are the most valuable. It is time for a renaissance of the “Renaissance Man.” ... The Renaissance thinkers recognized both the potential of individuals as well as the enormous value to being well-rounded. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way the idea of someone who dabbled in many fields lost its cultural appeal and we began to praise those who sought deep subject matter expertise.
We now live in a world where distinctions between formerly separate industries are breaking down and the real opportunities for growth are where those industries intersect. Harnessing these 21st-century opportunities will require people who are “jacks of all trades, masters of none,” or, perhaps more accurately, master polymaths.— Jake Chapman
Organizations such as startups that require adaptability and holding multiple roles can employ several multipotentialites and have one specialist as a resource.
In Specialization, Polymaths And The Pareto Principle In A Convergence Economy, Chapman said:
In the modern world, where a very common job might require someone to be a social-media expert, public speaker, writer and data analyst, the polymath wins and the deep subject-matter expert is relegated to a back corner to be used as a resource for others. As an investor, if I were going to pick the perfect team, it would be a group of rock-star polymaths with a single subject matter expert as a resource.— Jake Chapman, In Specialization, Polymaths And The Pareto Principle In A Convergence Economy
Criticism of specialization
Proponents of specialization above cite excellence and its perceived higher rewards compared to mediocrity in everything. Proponents of multiple capabilities below emphasize the importance of adaptability.
In "Master of Many Trades", Robert Twigger goes so far as to coin the word "monopath": "It means a person with a narrow mind, a one-track brain, a bore, a super-specialist, an expert with no other interests — in other words, the role-model of choice in the Western world."
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."— Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love
In an article on the decline of polymathy, Felipe Fernández-Armesto wrote, "Universities bear some responsibility for its extinction. Classical Greece, Renaissance Italy and Victorian England all revered and rewarded generalists, for whom today universities have little or no space or patience. Enclosed departments in discrete spaces, with their own journals and jargons, are a legacy of lamentable, out-of-date ways of organising knowledge and work."
Lives of multipotentialites
- rapid learning and fast skill acquisition (learn how to learn)
- idea synthesis
- translating between modes of thought
- concocting new solutions
- contextual thinking
- novelty and variety
- fit well into leadership roles
- empathize with a broader set of people and cultures
In a world of dogmatic specialists, it’s the generalist who ends up running the show. Is the CEO a better accountant than the CFO or CPA? Was Steve Jobs a better programmer than top coders at Apple? No, but he had a broad range of skills and saw the unseen interconnectedness. As technology becomes a commodity with the democratization of information, it’s the big-picture generalists who will predict, innovate, and rise to power fastest. There is a reason military “generals” are called such.
- lose out on the benefits of specialization, ultra long-term commitment
- distraction and burn out
- depending on person, mastery or competence can take longer to achieve. While there is some dispute as to the degree of prevalence of this phenomenon, it can be a significant problem for those who experience it, leading to overscheduling, high stress levels, confusion, paralysis by analysis, and impulsive or conformist choices in gifted children, and to feelings of social alienation, purposelessness, apathy and depression in the brightest of adults.
For the challenges above, several resources have published coping strategies:
- How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don't Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up by Emilie Wapnick
- Evaluate whether you're a multipotentialite or a specialist who hasn't found a career path yet: Multipotentiality: When High Ability Leads to Too Many Options 
- Integrate several interests into one business with an overarching theme: Renaissance Business by Emilie Wapnick
- The Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One by Margaret Lobenstine
- Refuse to Choose!: Use All of Your Interests, Passions, and Hobbies to Create the Life and Career of Your Dreams by Barbara Sher
In a world that overvalues specialization, the term and its increasing popularity (especially among the blogging community) have contributed to the revival of awareness on the importance of generalists. The concept was even mentioned in a Jamaican newspaper as the subject of a competition's training session.
In the current economy, Creativity and the rise of the Creative Class are linked to divergent thinking and innovative solutions to current problems. Because new ideas can be found in the intersection of multiple fields, they would benefit from the advantages of multipotentialites.
Other notable multipotentialites throughout history excelled in many fields (hence, they may also be regarded as polymaths):
- Juana Inés de la Cruz
- Ibn al-Haytham
- José Rizal
- Thomas Jefferson
- Benjamin Franklin
- Sir Isaac Newton
- René Descartes
- Robert A. Heinlein
- Brian May
- Renaissance humanism
- Jack of all trades
- Generalist (disambiguation)
- Speed learning
- Creative Class
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