A friend and former coworker recently sent me a link to this video (which you should watch). A second friend sent the same, accompanied by the message “this makes me think of you.” A TEDx by Emilie Wapnick, it introduces the concept of the Multi-Potential-ite, or a person who has many things that they do well instead of just one. In other words, a person who does not specialize.
As Emilie describes, the advantages of being one of these people is that you learn quickly, synthesize ideas from seemingly unrelated sources easily and are endlessly adaptable to the needs of any situation. The disadvantage is there's not really a dignified place for you in a culture that endlessly praises and prioritizes specialization.
I love the message of Multi-Potential-ite but have to disagree with the word "potential"--it's not strong enough. It’s not that we Multi-Potential-ites have mere potential in multiple disciplines--it's that we are already conversant and effective in multiple disciplines. So what then, Multi-Functional-ite? Multi-doer? Yeesh, let's try something else.
It’s darn hard to find a word for non-specialists that is neither disparaging nor alternately, super douchey. Please review the graph below.
Can you imagine saying to someone, “Oh hello, I’m a polymath” and them not punching you right in the nose? I cannot.
Limited vocabulary options for non-specialists are a reflection of a culture that pushes exclusively towards specialization. The example Emilie brings up is one we all know well:
Being asked as a child what you want to be when you grow up. The expectation is a singular answer: “I want to be an astronaut”—not “Well, I want to be an astronaut and I’d also like to spend the early part of my working life as an oil painter and then move into neuroscience later in life.” Nope.
In college you choose a major. As an adult, you choose a job, which then becomes synonymous with your identity.
You go to networking events or on dates or just meet people in regular life and constantly answer the question “So, what do you do?” This one question is much-despised by non-specialists (and probably specialists too—what if you’re doing something specialized that you hate just because you need the paycheck but it doesn’t reflect your skills or who you are or where you’re going?).
Most of us choose one specialty to get out of the “What do you do?" line of questioning as quickly as possible. I for example say that I’m an illustrator—not because it’s everything I believe that I do but because it is a thing I do, enjoy, get paid for and find easy to explain. And, current culture demands that I pick something.
The curious thing is that everyone understands the value that non-specialists bring outside of the workplace. Your non-specialist friends are the ones you love to spend time with because we're always following our curiosity to new people, places and things, and sharing those with you. We’re the friends whose random email links you actually read. We’re the ones whose social media posts you share because they’re interesting, and varied. We’re the ones you turn to for advice and brainstorming again and again. And you don’t first stop to ask yourself if we are sufficiently qualified specifically in romantic advice or office layout advice or “should I hire this person?” advice. You just ask, because you know we’ll bring a different perspective and help you arrive at the answer you need, and that is valuable to you.
But then, all of a sudden, when faced with either hiring or referring or talking about your non-specialists friends in a work context, the tables sharply turn. “Well, I don’t really know exactly what you do so I’m not sure what kind of work I could recommend you for.” If I had a goddamn nickel for every time... I’d just quit writing this and go retire on an island. What you’re saying is since my skill set is not easily described, the value I bring to your "life world" doesn’t translate to value in your "work world." The only contributions that matter are those that fit within a standard category or check a specific set of boxes, ie those that easily answer, "So, what do you do?"
That is a preposterous double standard.
But, to be fair, it’s not entirely your fault: you’ve grown up in an educational and economic framework that forces specialization and rewards specialization. You study one discipline, start your career in that same discipline and move up the ladder in that discipline, earning progressively more and becoming more “successful” in everyone’s eyes (including your own). Besides being a gigantic insult to natural human curiosity, culturally-forced specialization creates an environment where only the work of specialists is valued. If there is no place, no positive categorization and no (monetary or otherwise) incentive for non-specialists, then how can we expect to have the language to talk about non-specialists and the contributions we bring?
And what are those contributions? Non-specialists, by virtue of our explorations, have the ability to connect seemingly unrelated concepts, ideas, products and industries with ease. We jump from concept to concept because we are unburdened by narrow categorizations of our roles or what we "should" be taking information from. Non-specialists are professional synthesizers and our efforts produce new and interesting approaches, which in turn produce new and interesting solutions. I get it, that’s not a traditional deliverable. It is not an excel spreadsheet for making sales calls. It is not an expense report. It is not a website redesign. It is not a marketing campaign. And it never will be, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t bring value just the same.
My hunch is that there are many more non-specialists than any of us know. The thing is most of them have been forced into specialization by culture and circumstance (gotta make that cash mo). There’s a lot of untapped potential out there that we could unleash if we provided an equally dignified path and positive identity for non-specialists. The problem is not with non-specialists themselves but with a system that refuses to acknowledge us and the importance of what we bring to the table.
First order of business: Give non-specialists a name. Something to be called that isn’t disparaging or alternately, pompous.
You may have noticed I haven’t figured that part out yet. But I’d like to continue the conversation.
Non-specialists, please reach out here or @valbrains. Comment below; share your thoughts and experiences and your vision for a deliciously non-specialist future. And any tips you have for how to describe yourselves to others.
Specialists, if this reminds you of someone you know, forward it on.