The problem with multipotentiality

Ryan Yan
3 min readJan 5, 2020
An image of a light bulb….

I’ve met more than a few people over the years who have proudly branded themselves as “Multipotentialites”. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, one of my favorite authors captures the sense nicely:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Many of us believe there are a certain set of character traits that are universally “good”. Things like empathy, diligence, courage, etc. Naturally, you may want to work towards becoming the “best” in each of those traits. Each day holds the opportunity to improve yourself, and therefore, you might also view progress in life as clearly unilateral. Some days I moved forwards, others I stumbled and moved backwards, but my progress was clear cut. Because we are either bolder, more empathetic, and more knowledgeable today than we were yesterday, or less.

Despite the alluring simplicity of this sentiment, it’s very much misguided.

It’s all relative…

The truth is that any trait, seemingly virtuous, is only as valuable as its environment allows it to be. What is confidence in one situation is arrogance in another. The mask of self-assuredness instilled by a lack of introspection leads to stagnation. And while introspection can lead us to self-improvement, an overabundance of self-questioning leaves us second-guessing our every decision.

Yes, personality is fluid. You can become better each day, but I no longer think of myself as becoming an entirely better version of myself than the day before. I don’t think I’ll ever be as selfless a person as I was in the past, and that’s something I’ll miss. But that’s by choice. Personal growth requires a goal in mind and the discipline to follow through with it.

The best marathon runner cannot be the best MMA fighter simply because they require maximizing competing traits.

And that’s the problem with multipotentiality. There are plenty of highly motivated, intelligent individuals who are young and ready to do anything and everything to change the world. They all think they’re unique and special and capable of anything. And they are. But I think what they find is that the reality of work, the gap between the idealized work that would utilize their passion and their strengths to the fullest, and real work, requires them to give up important parts of themselves, and that they might find this process to be too unconscionable to undergo. And so they settle for a happy mediocrity.

Decide what you want. Mastery lies at the extremes, but happiness could be finding the balance that works for you. This doesn’t mean you can’t be a great chef, athlete, musician, and computer scientist, but to become great at anything will take real sacrifice.