This is the transcript of the introductory speech I gave for my Communications class at Motlow State Community College, March 19, 2019, on being a polymath or multipotentialite.
I’m 48 years old and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. When I graduated high school in 1989, I was at that time a Jehovah’s Witness and I thought I knew what I wanted to be. JWs don’t encourage their young people to go to college, so despite being a very good student with a 3.65 GPA, after high school I became what they call a pioneer, spending 90 unpaid hours a month preaching, and for a while I even went to help with less-served congregations in rural areas.
As it turned out, a pioneer was not what I wanted to be, and in fact a Jehovah’s Witness was not what I wanted to be. Since then I have had many different jobs — I’ve done cleaning jobs, worked in retail, I’ve been a veterinary technician, a medical transcriptionist, a mom, a homeschool teacher, a vacuum cleaner salesperson, and I now make my living creating artisan wire jewelry and some other kinds of art. I don’t want to give you the impression that I can’t stick with a job; some of those things I did for 10 or 20 years. And, of course, here I am in college after 28 gap years, embarking on a new journey entirely.
I struggled with not being able to focus on one area of expertise, for years. Partly, life got in the way. I got divorced at age 27 and found myself the single mom of a 3yo. In those situations, you do what you have to, to pay the bills. But also, I struggled with anxiety when I thought about anything big. I considered going to vet school for a while, and for a while I thought it might be fun to be a history teacher and teach history in a way that students would actually enjoy. But those things involved college, and money, and that spelled COMMITMENT. If I spent thousands of dollars learning how to do something, I really ought to make it my LIFE’S WORK. I wondered what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I settle down and pick something? I’d been convinced in high school that I should be a writer, because I’m pretty good at it. It felt like a calling. I wrote a lot of poetry. I got some of it published. And then I realized that poetry pays in copies of the magazines it gets printed in, and I got depressed. In our society we tell young people that they have to pick something, starting at around age five. What do you want to be when you grow up? Not only do you have to pick something, but once you get to a certain age you’re judged on the respectability of whatever you’ve picked. This felt like a life crisis to me, and a terrible weight.
As it turns out, I’m not the only one who gets fascinated with one thing after another. Some names for this have been around a long time: Renaissance man. During the Renaissance it was expected that you’d have a wide range of interests. More recently we’ve been called Jack of all trades, master of none, which is not very flattering and reflects the Protestant work ethic we have now that says, pick something, show up every day, suck it up. Today Renaissance people are speaking up, and you can find self-help books and TED talks and the endless information the Internet provides. The names for people with a wide variety of interests include scanner, polymath, multipotenntialite.
Polymaths continually get distracted by learning or trying a new thing, getting bored as soon as a new thing is mastered, struggling to choose a major or a profession because you hate the idea of being stuck doing the same thing for the rest of your life. But, I’m really good at picking up new things because I do it constantly. When my husband and I were taking a pottery class he said I was good at everything — not true, I’m just good at faking it at the beginning — and he also tells me if I could just pick one thing, I’d be amazing at it. Maybe. I’m sure I’ll never find out.
Twenty years ago, I met a man at a craft fair who made furniture for American Girl dolls. He excitedly told me about all the things he’d done and shared his list of things he still wanted to try, at age 70. Something resonated in me. I wanted a list, too. And when I heard the voices of other people who feel the same way I do, I settled down, and I started looking at the positive aspects of being the way I am. Trying to fit yourself into someone else’s mold for you never works. I decided I had to find my own strengths and capitalize on them.
Not only is there nothing wrong with being a polymath, but it’s a unique way to be wired that really is a gift if you embrace it. I have learned a wide variety of skills from my various occupations and interests. According to polymath Emilie Wapnick, who gave a TED Talk a few years ago titled Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling, polymaths have 3 superpowers.
- Idea synthesis. When you have skills in a variety of fields, you make connections that people who specialize deeply in one field may not see.
- Rapid learning. We are used to being beginners, and we get really good at it.
- Adaptability. We have the ability to take on different roles in different situations because of our broad list of skill sets.
Last year I stopped working for someone else, took a chance, and moved to doing my own business full time. I make Chainmaille and wire-wrapped jewelry, and I often incorporate other skills into my work. I love watercolor painting, so I painted tiny original watercolors on bisque porcelain and wire wrapped them. I wanted to learn glass working, so I took a couple of workshops on that and made my creations into jewelry. My years as a pioneer have been very helpful in being able to talk to people at craft shows. My work as a transcriptionist has given me computer skills that I regularly use in marketing. My passion for writing means I can write convincing item descriptions when I sell online.
I passionately believe that no learning is wasted. My bucket list isn’t a list of places to go, but things to learn. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to know that I haven’t definitely picked a major yet, but I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to fix the biggest regret I had, not going to college. If you are young and don’t know what you want to do yet, I say, do a little of everything, look for the connections between the things you love and use them to create something new. And don’t let them tell you that you can only be or do one thing.