Book review: How to Be Everything

How to be everything image

It’s been a while since we have reviewed a book over here on Career Linguist, but a conversation over on the CL (Mighty) Network today reminded me about how much I appreciated Emilie Wapnick’s book How to Be Everything and I thought I would share some of my thoughts by way of kicking off a summer “work books” series. Stay tuned for more thoughts about books that tackle subjects like finding meaning and purpose in work, and please recommend your favorites! @careerlinguist

Reading this book was one big huge “a-ha” for me, in ways that I think that many folks who have pursued a PhD will recognize. Emilie is known for having coined the term “multipotentialite,” aka “multipod,” aka “multi-passionate” or a variety of other descriptors (scanner, renaissance person, generalist). As I read this book, and worked through her “you may be a mulitpotentialite if…”s, I recognized myself in many of the attributes she describes, including that I love to learn, I am typically looking for a new challenge after about 3-4 years on any project, I can often be found at the intersection of two (or more) ideas, trying to work out how one thing may be applied to / used as a way of understanding the other, and that I seem to gravitate towards / thrive on work that pulls my attention in various directions simultaneously.

An important caveat before we proceed any further: this book is how to BE everything, and not how to DO everything. We all have limited time and energy, and although we may have many interests,  the goal is to have a good life, so we need to think about ways to strategize.

So, to begin with, one very helpful analogy she gives is that of the stovetop. We can only have so many things simmering at once, and likely at least a couple of them are on the back burner (at least for now). That said, her book offers four main approaches to moving through varied interests sequentially or simultaneously (or both): the Group Hug, Slash, Einstein, and Phoenix.

For a more in-depth exploration of these ideas, I refer you to the interview with Emilie Wapnick on the Happen to Your Career blog, which also contains a wealth of career resources, courses, and wonderfully inspiring stories!

So, the four ways to approach being a multipotentialite at work:

The Group Hug Approach is to find a job that is inherently multi – or inter-disciplinary. In the book, Emilie names teaching, urban planning, and architecture as worlds of work that would allow someone to wear many hats and shift between several domains. In my own professional life, I have found that work in consulting, editing, career development, and translation and interpretation also allow for the exploration of many domains, and additionally feature built-in opportunities to learn and do research as part of the job.

Another aspect of this strategy – which as I reflect on it has been a big component of the advice I offer to Career Linguists – is to approach hiring managers (for those who are currently job seeking) or existing managers (for those who are currently employed) with your innovative ideas for application and connection.  Your out-of-the box thinking and ideas for how to expand and grow an existing position may well be something that they are excited to (or at least willing to) let you try out, although of course, as Emilie advises, it is always best to frame in terms of how the organization will benefit – what’s in it for them?

The Slash Approach Is best for folks with interests that widely differ. The idea here is to pursue multiple jobs that are intentionally part-time so as to allow for expression of completely separate passion projects.

One expression of the slash is the “side hustle” , which I will explore more in subsequent book reviews for such titles as Escape from Cubicle Nation: From Corporate Prisoner to Thriving Entrepreneur , Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas , Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World and Leap First: Creating Work That Matters

For now, know that most of these authors encourage would-be “leapers” to try the “side hustle” for a while before up and quitting a main gig if it is not sufficiently “group-hug-gy”.

The Einstein Approach is about finding a full-time job gig that fully supports you financially (named for Albert Einstein, who famously worked in a Patent Office full-time and did his scientific experiments before and after work and on the weekends), but which leaves you with the time and energy to pursue your other passions on the side. Crucial to this strategy is finding something that is mentally simulating rather than mentally exhausting, but at the same time is not so engaging that it is all consuming. Wapnicks’s observation is that one key to success here may be choosing work that draws on completely separate interests and utilizes different parts of the brain for the two so as to allow for the energy to work entirely outside of a day job. My personal take here is that such arrangements were easier to find in Einstein’s day. That said, technology and modern approaches to remote work, and more flexible work schedules – including part-time arrangements) may make up the difference in many ways.

And finally, there’s The Phoenix Approach which I guess would be the best way to describe my own career path, especially if you start the clock back when I was an investment banker in the 90’s. The Phoenix works in a single industry for a period of some duration and then moves to “something completely different” to quote our friends at Monty Python.

Taking a step back, I would argue that many academics were likely attracted to academia in the first place because of their own multipotentiality.  My own deciding to quit my job to go back to grad school in 2001 could well be seen as an expression of my “Phoenix” approach.  And because we also love to learn, we are drawn to institutions of higher learning, but the trouble is that if/when the academic route doesn’t work out, or ceases to be as interesting as it once was for any number of reasons (including a possible “call of the Phoneix”), we get stuck in thinking that the academic context is the only place where we can find such autonomy / flexibility / continual learning.

Bottom line: The world of work is changing, and one of the major ways in which it is changing is that change is now going to be the norm.  Having many interests and being good at a number of things is a strategic advantage.  I am deeply grateful for this way of thinking about career navigation and orienteering, and I welcome your own thoughts and experiences: do you see any of the multipotentialite in you?

For more from Emilie, listen to her TED talk, check out her community – the Putty Tribe and/or buy her book:

As for us, what should we read and review next?  I am always on the lookout for great books that help me think about ways of building meaning in work and life. This month in the CL (Mighty) Network, we are reading and discussing Daniel Goleman’s book Focus. Join the network to join us for that discussion on June 26th!


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