The ability to do multiple things well, or multipotentiality, is a big problem for some people. Why? Because they’re often stuck having to choose one thing.
Sometimes, it sucks to be talented at multiple things. Just ask Louis C.K., the multi-hyphenate comedian, director, actor, producer, editor, and whatever else. Because he’s in film and television, he’s a member of a bajillion unions, and he has his own production company. One benefit of working for a union is that they help you cover your health care and contribute to your pensions, but Louie’s production company has in recent years been stuck in a lawsuit with some of the unions, because it didn’t contribute enough money for some of the jobs he did on Louie. He’s one guy, doing five jobs on a single show, and there aren’t 200 hours in a week. But the unions wanted him to pay for his health and pension like he was working full time in every discipline, despite the fact that he clearly wasn’t. And, in the end, the unions won, legal fees and all. Yes, it sucks to be talented in multiple ways. Today’s Tedium explains the pain of multipotentiality.
The problem with being good at multiple things is that people usually want you to choose one.
The reason that Louis C.K. has managed to stand out as an entertainer in recent years is largely in part because he’s a singular talent. Yes, stand-up is his forté, but he has other artistic wrinkles he’s learned over the years, some of which he picked up when working on other things.
He spent years as a writer for a number of late-night shows, and he gained his chops with the camera by working at a public-access TV station when he was a kid. Every little failure eventually turned into a success.
And not everyone can do that, but Louie is fortunately in a field where such ingenuity is rewarded. Mitch Hedberg had a great joke about this, which you can watch here or read below:
I got into comedy to do comedy, which is weird, I know. But when you’re in Hollywood and you’re a comedian, everybody wants you to do things besides comedy. They say, ‘OK, you’re a stand-up comedian—can you act? Can you write? Write us a script!’ They want me to do things that are related to comedy but are not comedy. That’s not fair. It’s as though if I were a cook and I worked my ass off to become a good cook, they said, ‘All right, you’re a cook—can you farm?’
Hedberg, who died in 2005, was the opposite of Louie in every way that matters—he was a gifted joke-teller but one who leaned more on wordplay and one-liners than observational storytelling, and, like he says above, he got into comedy to do stand-up, not a bunch of other unrelated things.
That’s OK! Plenty of people are good at just one thing, but the problem is that, unlike in the entertainment industry, we expect people in most fields to stay in the lines. If someone is a good writer, we don’t ask them to design the cover for their book even if they have an eye for layout.
We don’t want our scientists to pursue creative interests, and we think our MBAs should be focused on the bottom line, not their garage bands.
But is it OK to be not just a jack of all trades, but a master of more than one?
“The notion of the narrowly focused life is highly romanticized in our culture. It’s this idea of destiny or the one true calling, the idea that we each have one great thing we are meant to do during our time on this earth, and you need to figure out what that thing is and devote your life to it. But what if you’re someone who isn’t wired this way?”
— Emilie Wapnick, the founder and creative director of Puttylike, speaking at a TED conference last year. Wapnick is an advocate for “multipotentialites,” or people who don’t have a singular creative focus—and she just so happens to be one of those people. She graduated from law school, spent time as a singer-songwriter, has web design skills, and (as you might guess by the fact she did a TED talk) is a talented public speaker. And Wapnick tends to give things up all the time! “Once I no longer feel inspired in a field, I simply move on,” she explains on her website. “Some people call this ‘quitting,’ I call it growth.”
Multipotentiality is cool, but what if you’re stuck trying to make up your damn mind?
The problem for “multipotentialites” is that, unfortunately, you can’t always combine your many interests into a single job, or even two jobs.
You may be a good writer, a budding scientific mind, an innovative visual artist, someone who knows their way around a Unix command line, and even a masterful home brewer. But the odds of you finding a job that brings together even two of these skill sets is extremely low. And that leaves you in a position where you have to decide: what the hell do you want to do with your life? Where will you make your money, and where will you allow your freak flag to fly?
Some folks, like author John Green, have managed to combine their skills in unique ways—he’s an author who moonlights on YouTube and is really talented at hanging out with his brother. But those people are few and far between. Combining skills is simply really freaking hard, especially if you’re working on someone else’s dime.
(Image credit: Gage Skidmore)
I don’t personally consider myself a multi-hyphenate—more a wanna-hyphenate, really—but I think the strategy here comes down to a willingness to embrace the side project, to admit that sometimes, fun is work and work is fun. That requires a degree of wanting to go into business for yourself, or maybe even admitting to yourself that you’ll never make money off of your passion project.
But sometimes, you might just be better off turning off or killing talents that you don’t really have any use for—not that you won't feel any pangs of guilt about it. That’s one argument made in “The Too Many Aptitudes Problem,” an essay by Hank Pfeffer, a guy who seems to be immensely talented, but is only known for one thing—this essay he wrote.
“Some of the feelings associated with strong talents are negative,” Pfeffer writes in his piece, which I recommend you read in full. “An unused aptitude is a source of frustration and restlessness. A talent is also a need. Ongoing in its functioning, an unused aptitude must either be stifled or ignored. It takes energy to stifle a part of yourself and to neutralize or ignore a natural and ongoing tendency. It also doesn’t feel good. This takes its toll in the long run. Motivational energy seems to be finite—the extra effort needed to stifle a part of yourself is an important factor in burnout.”
If Ryan Adams decided one day that he was interested in accounting, he wouldn’t have the bandwidth for it because he’s already decided his lot in life—unless, that is, he decided to drop his steady job as a musician and try on something else for size. He could always create an album about accounting (suggested title: “Mathbreaker”), but ten to one, he would probably alienate the audience he has doing the one thing he’s good at.
The problem is that lots of people with multiple skills aren’t like Emilie Wapnick, able to disengage easily. They have a bunch of things that they like, but they have no clue either how to get rid of any of them, or how to keep them around. For example, I can play guitar (barre chords and all), and I love doing it, but ultimately, I pull out the guitar maybe six times a year—not because I don’t like it, but because I can’t balance my desire to become the next Ryan Adams with my job and my newsletter.
I’m never going to make money being a rock star. I do, however, have a shot at getting a paycheck from writing. So writing takes priority, as much as I enjoy playing the ’ol Washburn.
(Image credit: ...some guy aka Flowizm)
So going back to Louis C.K., the question I go back to regarding his very expensive creative process is this: how does he manage to fit all that stuff in without going insane trying to balance all those skills? He manages to have his cake and eat it too, somehow, and as I mentioned above, that is not an easy thing to pull off.
In a 2014 essay for The Hollywood Reporter, he credited his network, FX, for leaving him alone so he could actually create things at his own pace, without shaking up the balance:
My process is very organic. It’s kind of like a garden, the way it comes out. And I’m only able to do it this way because FX doesn’t oversee the writing. If I had to go through the broadcast network approval process, I’d have to congeal every idea I have into an episode script! I’d have to know exactly what is going to happen throughout the season and then rewrite it over and over before shooting. FX approaches my show as if we are telling stories and being artistic. They’re never worried about stuff like, “Is this guy likable or good-looking enough?”
Now if he could only get the unions to follow the same strategy.