“The crowning fortune of a man is to be born to some pursuit which finds him employment and happiness, whether it be to make baskets, or broadswords, or canals, or statues, or songs.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
“I’ve learned that making a ‘living’ is not the same thing as ‘making a life’.” –Maya Angelou
Writer. Waiter. Actor. Maid. Tennis Instructor. Librarian. Secretary. Manager. Laborer. Teacher. Personal Trainer. I could go on if I had to. I have made money doing all of these things at various times—sometimes at the same time—of my life. Most of them I have found interesting and have been quite engaged in. A couple I even thought of as “my career” at the time, and even now when I look back, I might say, “That one was my career.” But none of them have lasted. None have had me saying, “This is all I am going to do until I am 70 years old. I’m good now.”
It seems like the overriding message that our culture sends to our young people is that you go to college (or trade school or whatever) to get a specific degree that will get you a specific job in a specific field, and you are meant to stick in that specific field until you retire. Get a hobby if you want, but your career—that thing you answered when asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”–is meant to last until retirement. So, don’t jump ship. No “mid-life crisis” career changes allowed. No new callings. Stay In Your Lane! I think that works for a lot of people, too. Most, really. It just hasn’t worked for me.
I thought I was more or less alone with my wandering eye for new paths, new skillsets, and new areas of expertise (and, frankly, felt pretty ashamed about that across my lifetime, like it made me a quitter). But a couple of weeks ago, I came across a book called How To Be Everything, and it turns out it is written directly at me. Or, more accurately, the author seems confident that there are enough people like me that she wrote it for this large, scattered, anonymous collective called us. I was floored. She (Emilie Wapnick is the author) calls us “multipotentialites,” but there are other words for us (e.g. “polymath, generalist, Renaissance person, scanner”), in contrast to “specialists,” regular folks who really can tolerate and enjoy doing one thing for the long haul. I am only a little bit into the book, but needless to say I am quite taken by the idea that a misfit like me not only has peers but may also have something in my wide combination of interests and skills that might even be usefully combined in a career or series of careers that mainstream society could appreciate. It has me wondering: How many people out there are made for more than one gig, and how many are actually pulling it off?
I am trying to think back on my ancestry and immediate family for clues to my proclivity for multiple passions and interests and inability to settle on just one thing forever. One of my grandfathers was a lifelong dentist but also was in charge of the family farm, so I suppose that could be something. My other grandfather managed a lumber yard, but he also liked to build homes on the side and was into the stock market. My Dad was always a business guy and has been in his same job forever, still not retired yet at 80 years old. He, too, likes the stock market, but other than reading, I have never thought of him as someone with hobbies. My Mom started as a teacher very briefly before becoming a full-time Mom, then eased back into the workforce doing some advertising and eventually selling real estate. I wouldn’t necessarily associate any of them with the “Renaissance person” or “multipotentialite” moniker. I am quite sure my inability to stay on one track has caused them all some frustration and disappointment along the way, as I am plainly the apple that fell furthest from the tree. As with most everything else, my siblings are better at staying on the expected path than I am.
Growing up, I always assumed I would be a doctor. That’s what you were supposed to do if you were smart. I never questioned it until I was deep into college and started learning a bit about the arts. Suddenly I felt as if committing to medical school would keep me from exploring anything else I might be interested in. I decided I wanted to become an actor. It was completely different in every aspect of my life. I loved the acting part—the variety of characters to explore was fascinating–but not really the rest of it. I spent some years just reading nonstop about tons of topics but was primarily interested in religion and spirituality. I then went back to school, and after some debate between becoming a therapist or a sociologist, I settled on becoming a Philosophy professor and activist. When I had had enough of that—it didn’t take long—I had a panicked, “Oh my gosh, I am getting old, so what am I going to do for a real career?” moment and decided to go back to the thing that I had always loved but never thought of as a career: coaching tennis. It wasn’t long into that before I realized I not only wanted to teach but also to be in charge of the program. That combination of private coaching, group coaching, teams, and then managing a group of people within a large corporation—with budgeting, payroll, hiring and firing, ordering, planning, marketing, and so much more—gave me the kind of variety and challenge that my mind thrives on.
But then I had kids, and—shocker to no parent ever—my perspective changed. The career was suddenly not so important if it took me away from them. I gave up the management aspect and just continued the coaching, spending far fewer hours at work than ever. It was really that change that, as I look back on it now, got me away from feeling like I have a real career and into feeling like I just have a job. I loved to teach still, and the beautiful uniqueness of each character kept me engaged, but how old can one be and still chase a tennis ball around all day long? So, I decided to manage a store, the main selling point being not the work but that I could keep being around for my kids for whatever they needed. I realized I was settling for less than a career I was passionate about so long as it fit into the bigger priority. When I took my next job at a school, it was the same. I was willing to be uninspired by my work as long as my bucket got filled in the hours I was not there.
It is hard for me to admit to myself that I am not going for it all, accepting less than having everything up to my standards, being fully satisfied in my work life, family life, and all of my hobbies. It feels a bit like giving up, which bothers me, but I also know that Life goes in seasons. I know this time with my kids is fleeting, and giving up some career aspirations in exchange for a completely engaged, no-regrets kind of parenthood is a bargain I am willing to make (though I have plenty of moments when my passions tug at my sleeve like, “Hey, buddy, did you forget about us?”).
It is a good thing that I have so many interests to study and explore, and that each new thing seems to open doors to several new others, making Life an endless maze of discoveries and growth. I have been writing these letters to you through Journal of You for seven years now, and threw in a book partway through. I took courses in Life Coaching, which was quite enlightening and inspiring. Through books, documentary films, and the Internet, I have learned about a wide array of topics that sometimes seem directly connected to the previous thing, sometimes a world apart. I am dying to know more. I am all in on my health and fitness. Music continues to enthrall me. My eagerness to be outside and connected to Mother Earth is strong, and my interest in the workings of my own mind remains as strong as ever. I love to document it all with my pen and my camera. All of these keep me excited to get up in the morning and deeply engaged until bedtime. There is never a day that ends with me thinking I had enough time to do all of the things I wanted to do. Even with a pretty dull work experience.
Because in the end, I understand that it is really about having a satisfying, engaging LIFE. That is the real goal. In some seasons of Life, the career part may be deeply meaningful, and hopefully the hobbies and people in my life are, too. In other seasons, like this one for me, the “career” is just a job and it is the rest of my life that is there to fill my bucket. I have mostly made my peace with it for now—like I said, I like it when I have everything my way—but I know it won’t be this way forever.
So, what is next? The one thing I think of as the “career” I had was a tennis coach and program manager. The other things I think of as jobs along my path. I guess I am wondering now if the next 20 years or so are going to be about another thing that feels like a “career,” or will I just keep piecing jobs together until I get to the end of the road? And also, because of my multipotentialite mind, will I ever be satisfied in just one job for very long, or will I need to have multiple jobs at once or a series of short “careers” just to keep my curious mind engaged? Maybe there is even a multidisciplinary job meant for a guy like me who has a wide range of talents and a need to utilize them all in order to be satisfied.
I think often about my options and my evolving interests. Just recently my wife bought me a new lens for my camera, and it got me thinking of what it would take to earn a living as a photographer. I think I would like the variety of subjects and the opportunity to use the artistic part of me. That is how I think about writing. I love it every time I sit down to write to you: it’s challenging, it’s different every time, it lets me feel like I am putting something positive out into the world. It is something I would feel comfortable having that real career feeling about. I could see that about the Life Coaching thing, too: I felt like it was using my skills to do help a lot of people while satisfying my need for variety and challenge. I think if I had more years left in my career era, I would consider going back to school for some kind of counseling or therapist training and make a go of that. My Mom used to say I should be an addiction counselor at a rehab facility. I can see commonalities in the things I am drawn to: helping others to reach their potential while facing somewhat new and different circumstances and puzzles every day for my mind to find the best way forward.
Who wants to pay me for that? Anyone? I know there are jobs out there that would be better suited to me than ones I have done in the last decade or more. Mine have worked because they were in the mold of my children’s schedules, but maybe I should have been more ambitious or more selective. I know I have been held back from things like freelance writing or Life Coaching because I am a terrible entrepreneur. For all of my skills and my great desire to work alone and not be managed by someone else, I am really not good at marketing and digging up business. It’s a problem that may ultimately dictate the fate of my employment future. Will I have a job—a career, even—that perfectly suits my talents and my temperament for the long-term? Will I skip from one thing that interests me until I learn enough about it to become bored and then on to the next thing that interests me, having lots of temporarily satisfying mini-careers? Or will I just keep doing what fits in my family’s schedule and save all of the meaningful and rewarding stuff for the hours outside of work? All of those seem like legitimate possibilities at this point. And honestly, though some look like much more satisfying options than others, I believe that I could live a happy life in any of the worlds. Not necessarily a happy work life, but a happy life overall. I have no doubt that no matter which job or jobs I choose to do, my curiosity and thirst for fun and adventure, coupled with the people I spend my time with, will succeed in filling my life with joy and fulfillment. But hey, why not have it all? I will work on it.
How about you? How many different careers are you meant to have over your lifetime? Open up your journal and think about your working life to this point. Make a list of all the different jobs you have ever held. How many felt like just jobs, and how many, if any, have felt like your career? If you have a career, what is it that appeals to you about your specialization? Have you always known you would do something like that? When you were younger and were asked what you wanted to be or do when you grew up, what did you say? Did that dream career actually fit your personality and talents? Whether you consider yourself to be in a career or not, what kind of career are you truly best suited for? Do you have the right temperament to be a specialist, someone who can do the same job day after day, year after year, as most people do? If that is you, do you make up for the monotony at work by having lots of things outside of work that satisfy your need for variety and meaning? Now make a list of all the different jobs that you have ever fantasized about doing before you retire. How different are those jobs from the one you do now? How different are they from each other? Would you be able to stick with only one for the long haul, or would you more likely have to cycle through them, either one at a time or doing multiple gigs part-time to sustain your interest? What are you most looking for in a career? If every career made the same amount of money, which would you choose from among your talents and interests? What needs do these fantasized careers fill for you that your current career does not? Before you retire, how many different twists and turns do you imagine your career path taking? Is that more or less than you imagine other people’s paths taking? Would you consider yourself a multipotentialite or Renaissance person? If not, how far from that are you? Are there people close to you whose interests and passions vary widely and who feel compelled to pursue them no matter how often that sends them off the career ladder? Is it harder for you to empathize with a specialist or a multipotentialite? Are you a big believer in people pursuing their passions as a career no matter what, or do you look at it more practically and suggest people pursue their passions as hobbies outside of work instead? If you had one more career to choose today and stick with until the end, what would it be? Does that thought experiment stress you out, or is yours an easy answer? Leave me a reply and let me know: How winding and disjointed is your career path meant to be?
Live your Truth,
P.S. If this topic resonated with you today, please share it with your community. Let us all explore the beauty of our differences.
P.P.S. If this way of introspection appeals to you, consider buying my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.