Multipotentialite Midlife Crisis

Multipotentialite Midlife Crisis
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I learned a new word! Not just any word, one of those words that makes the seemingly random events in my life morph into a meaningful pattern.  One that coincidentally seems to speak to my soul, with things I’ve been stressing out with turning thirty on the horizon. Drumroll, please…

“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 

Sound like you? Well, this is definitely me. Yes, from the first day of kindergarten, I knew I wanted to teach and from the first day of high school physics, I knew I wanted to teach physics. Because I always knew what I wanted to do, my “multipotentialism” had remained hidden but it’s always been there. As an undergraduate, I picked up a minor in Asian Studies “just because”. Sure, I ended up pursuing a doctorate in Physics Education Research (PER) which is a mixed field- I’ve always “lived” in physics departments and had to take the same qualifying exam as any PhD but at the same time, I was taking courses in English departments on analyzing qualitative data, in Psychology about tests and measurements and in Statistics. Lately, I’ve been interested in organizational change so reading a lot change management books from business.  While I believe physics departments need people with expertise in the discipline as well as research-based strategies about how to best convey that information to undergraduates, this is not always well received. The “real” physicists may judge me for “diluting” my degree with education, but I knew I could not do “just physics” all the time.

Is this what a physicist looks like? Me in Tel Aviv

Is this what a physicist looks like? Me in Tel Aviv

I suppose I love learning, so as an undergraduate and graduate student, this tendency served me well. In graduate school, fellowships and teaching opportunities through physics facilitated my ability to travel internationally to an extent that I became nomadic for a few years. Traveling has become a huge part of my identity, almost as much as “teacher” and “physicist”.
Traveling led to me to experiment with writing. I started my own blog, started “interning” for an online magazine about food, wine and ethical travel then scored a freelance gig for a South American travel company. Despite always thinking of myself as a “numbers” person instead of a “words” person, I was amazed how my writing was getting published alongside people who devoted their lives to literature. When the tourism board of Colorado invited me on a press trip, it was humbling to be surrounded with people who worked for NPR, the LA Times and Oprah magazine.  Then it was my turn and I raced through my introduction to disguise the fact that I didn’t feel I belonged, “I’m Katie. I graduated with a PhD in physics was last week. I write for Epicure & Culture”. No one was more amazed than me, that dabbling in something opened doors to new worlds; it required curiosity more than “skill” or a massive amount of effort.

But what do I want to do with my life?
Within the month, I’ve started a new job in Vancouver but as a non-tenure track position in another city with unaffordable housing, I’ve also been wanting to “settle” somewhere more permanent, which means thinking about a “long term” job. I don’t feel like I’d fit the typical “tenure track” mold but that’s the most obvious choice for the path I’ve been on. I’ve always been curious and love the challenge of trying new things but quickly lose interest once I feel like I’ve “figured something out”. When I already seem to be losing interest in this temporary job, I wonder whether “long term job” should even be in my vocabulary. The department head at Auckland said he pictured me as galloping on a horse in a “wild west” situation, leaving a trail of improved physics departments in my wake.

“The man who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The man who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before” –Albert Einstein

There’s a pervasive attitude in society that starts from the first time someone asks “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, implying that we should BE one, singular thing. For me, I don’t know if my “calling” exists in the form of one job, one career path, one destiny to commit to for the rest of my life. Society seems to define success as specializing and becoming the best at one skill or one topic. This isn’t enough for me and it’s becoming more and more obvious that staying a “normal” course in life doesn’t satisfy and fulfill me. Some people find comfort in routine but repetition makes me anxious. It’s scary and challenging to be constantly creating my own path through life, instead of following well-trodden ones but, usually it’s the difficult things that are most worth doing.

On the path to where? (this was me on the Great Wall)

On the path to where? (this was me on the Great Wall)

It’s so unfortunate that our culture pushes us toward uniformity. I felt it was especially pronounced in New Zealand where “tall poppy” syndrome was mentioned almost daily at the university.  Like the tallest flowers in the field, the prevelant attitude was people who stuck out would be cut down to match everyone else. Canada feels similar but the truth is, that the United States suffers from the exact same thing (see book recommendation below). This idea that we need to fit this externally defined idea of “success” as going to college, working 9-5 and waiting until retirement to pursue “lesser passions”. Most people are terrified of standing out and creating a unique place in the world. People will do what is expected of them even if it bores them, to avoid revealing that part of themselves that might be a little different from everybody else. Why do we equate “different” with “bad” when that’s what makes life beautiful and interesting?!?!

“Normality is a paved road. It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow” -Vincent van Gogh

Belonging everywhere but nowhere
Because I have so many interests, I’ve never had trouble finding people to talk to or making friends but I never felt like I belonged in just one group. This irony of fitting in everywhere and nowhere is probably common to multipoles. As an undergraduate, I’d drink bubble tea with my friends from the Asian American Association (which ironically I was Vice President of, despite having blonde hair and blue eyes), then throw Frisbees at trashcans with the physics boys and complaining about classes then return to my dorm where my female roommates were drinking pink cocktails and talking about their feelings. Between all these experiences, I had a full and satisfying social life but if I hung out with just one group too long, I’d start to get antsy.
When it came to dating, I guess I’d say that many of the people I was attracted to might seem to be “loners” at first glance but there were multipotes too.

Recently united with some of my "Asian club" friends

Recently united with some of my “Asian club” friends

My Kiwi ex grew up playing every sport that existed (plus chess), dabbled as a pastry chef and an outdoor educator before getting a diploma in engineering. He worked in a wide variety of jobs related to that from testing helmets and safety gear, working with sewage systems and even freight trucks before deciding to go back for a degree in business, which scored him a prestigous summer internship but he’s struggling with the corporate environment. Another ex spent almost a decade as an undergraduate because he wanted to major in history, art, math, physics and secondary education (at least!  I remember asking him his major and he went on for about ten minutes). He played in a punk band, started boxing and swing dance clubs at his university, was obsessed with comics and video games, memorized the constellations and designed his own tattoos. The guy I sailed to Dry Tortugas with worked for the army as well as on oil rigs.  Additionally, he was an amazingly talented artist (painting and he even used an Excel spreadsheet to project an accurate map of the stars which he wired up), motorcycle stuntman, he ran ultramarathons, aimed to hike the highest peak in every State and eventually bought a sailboat and now does charters in Miami. One of my first friends in Vancouver worked as a lawyer, firefighter, entrepreneur, truck driver, real estate agent and is currently learning carpentry, writing a book in two languages and starting a cumbia band. They’ve all been amazing, fascinating people but so far, two commitphobes don’t make a lasting relationship.  For myself, and for them too, I wonder how well monogamy works for multipotes.

Hanging out in Vancouver

Hanging out in Vancouver

Now what?
Now I’ve found a word that describes the source of my recent struggles. It helps to know that there are other people struggling to balance all their interests, other people who fear settling for something long-term. In an age when access to information is omnipresent, I think multipoles who straddle disciplines, can synthesize seemingly disparate ideas and can engage increasingly diverse audiences will be some of the powerful leaders of tomorrow. I suppose the best plan of action for the moment is to embrace what makes me unique, my wide variety of interests, passions and experiences and see where that takes me.  I should concentrate on what feels right for now instead of freaking out about forever.  I should also let go of the idea that one place, one job and/or one person is going to make me feel complete (but that idea is SO ENGRAINED IN MODERN SOCIETY).

“Perfectionism is merely an endless treadmill of self-destruction that’ll only build momentum until you’re running at unsustainable speeds. Rather than remaining a slave to the illusions you perceive as safe, step off the treadmill and live as the piece of art you are: messy, colorful, fluid and adoptable to change, mistakes, shifts, surprises, pain and of course immeasurable moments of beauty.
It is there outside the grey walls of perfect self-imprisonment that you shall touch the meaning of freedom” –Victoria Erickson

Songs of the moment: Traveler– lostboycrow & Oh Child– Robin Schultz

“Oh child, do what you love because you won’t get this life again”

Book of the moment: Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite by William Deresiewicz (I’ve recommended this book in my blog before but it relates strongly to what I’m discussing here. It talks about how American universities place pressure on students to be good at everything, and doing everything means you can only devote minimal effort to anything, which produces cookie cutter people who haven’t taken the time to think about what makes them special)

Relevant TED talk: Why some of us don’t have one true calling– Emilie Wapnick

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