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Multipotentiality and Polymathy: Making Sense of the Concepts and Vocabulary

What you become when you refuse to be one thing

By Jūlija @beeofjulyPublished 5 months ago 15 min read
Multipotentiality and Polymathy: Making Sense of the Concepts and Vocabulary
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
  • Are you someone who has way too many passions and ideas to be able to choose just one?
  • Does the thought of following a single career path make you feel trapped into something that could never satisfy you, like even if you really, really loved that job, you couldn't stand it if it took all your time?
  • Do you crave variety and novelty so much that you struggle to function when what you're doing does not satisfy this need?
  • Do the words and phrases ‘specialization’, ‘narrowing down’ and ‘focus on one thing’ induce somewhat an allergic reaction?
  • Is your mind constantly generating new ideas and projects in all kinds of “unrelated” fields?

If you answered these questions with a YESSS, you're not a fickle weirdo. You are a multipassionate, meaning, a person with too many serious passions to be able to choose just one of them as your main, and much less only, path.

Now, most people have multiple interests, and it is very rare that someone has this one single interest that they're married to for their whole life, never looking in any other direction, never even considering something different, and feeling fulfilled from this passion alone for all days of their life. Maybe there are such people, but they're rare.

However, there is a significant difference between a multipassionate person and a hobbyist. A hobbyist has no problems being a specialist as long as they have enough time to live their personal lives, to relax and play with their hobbies, and they would feel comfortable identifying with their job role (in terms of career). A multipassionate, meanwhile, would not. It’s not always that they couldn’t pursue a thing to great depths, it’s that they would not be okay with being, let’s say, a doctor who sings in their free time. They would need to be a doctor and a singer, and a writer, and a painter, and... get the point?

But that's impossible! To succeed, you need a tunnel vision, you need to dig deep into a single domain until you master it. Otherwise, you're just a jack of all trades and master of none.

Well, as it turns out, nowadays the saying has an ending you may or may not have heard of: "Jack of all trades, master of none, but often better than a master of one."

Numerous successful people of all times are multipassionates, ranging from scientists to creatives and entrepreneurs, and those who are all three.

And no, it's not because they're geniuses. Success in multiple domains is not something reserved for certain special people. These people succeeded because they were brave enough to bring their full self to the table, rather than force themselves into a box they could never fit themselves into. Multipassionates who seriously pursue their passions and find their way of balancing it all are quite likely to succeed, and not in spite of their many interests but because of them. They're the ones that see connections between everything, learn quickly, and think in innovative ways.


Feels like you just got your Hogwarts letter? So did I when I had just discovered multipotentiality was a thing and people (not just geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci) could succeed in multiple domains.

Whether you have been part of the multipassionate community for a while or this is the first time you've heard about such a thing, you may [have] come in contact with various terms (even within this article) such as multipassionate, multipotentialite, Renaissance soul, generalist, scanner, polymath, and perhaps yet others, some of which are the same and others overlapping in meaning. Since intrapersonal diversity is not a mainstream area of focus, there is no unified approach to how these phenomena should be called. Therefore, in this article, I'd like to clear up the confusion by offering a logical framework for understanding various multipotentiality-related terms.

Multipassionate = multipotentialite = scanner = Renaissance soul

Imagine this: having carved your path as a creative and curious person with numerous interests and helped others do the same for decades, you're now convinced that there is a certain part of our society for whom the conventional career advice does not work, and you're ready to spread the message to others like you. Now, how do you call this kind of people?

The term I encountered first was multipassionate, though I don't know who came up with it. Emilie Wapnick popularised the term multipotentialite. Barbara Sher called this type of person a scanner. Margaret Lobenstine used the more poetic name Renaissance soul in her book due to the popularity of broad and multifunctional knowledge during the period. Perhaps there are more such nicknames, all meaning the same thing, a person with many passions.

Personally, I prefer the term multipassionate, since the meaning of this word could be figured out even if nobody told you the definition, and, in my opinion, it conveys the meaning perfectly.

Multipotentialite is also quite popular. However, maybe I'm wrong, but it sounds a bit pretentious to me, like, 'you specialist guys only have potential for one thing, while I am a person of many talents', which is not exactly the case. I understand that the term is used to uplift the multipassionate community not to debase the rest, but it does sound to me like its focus is more on potential and talent than on interests and identity.

However, there comes the linguistic need for a noun that would express the quality of being multipassionate. Multipassionality? Multipassion? Multipassion-ment or -ship? Doesn't sound quite right, does it? Meanwhile, multipotentiality is a valid term, so I do use that.

Defining multipotentiality: a lot about a little vs a little about a lot?

In many instances, I've heard people define multipotentiality as wanting to know or do a little about a lot, rather than a lot about a little, as specialists do.

Is that accurate? I'm not sure. I would agree with the need to know about a lot, and I would agree that as a multipassionate, I prefer dividing my time to multiple interests, even if it means progressing a little slower, to devoting all my time to one single thing to dive deep into it. However, I don't want to know a little about things, I want to know a lot - a lot about a lot... though also a little about a lot of other things, so I guess the definition is not completely off.

I suppose it depends on the multipassionate in question. Some like to wander around, exploring various topics and moving on when they've gotten what they wanted. Some others like to dive deeply into several 'official' interests. Yet others like to dive deeply into a few main interests, as well as dabble a little in other domains (that would be me). All these styles are equally valid, as long as you can sustain yourself (economic viability) and provide value to others (meaning).

Returning to the definition, I suppose that depending on their lifestyle, a multipassionate may know less about one single topic than a specialist in that area, yet their knowledge in other areas will make prove useful at that domain as well - better at connecting the dots and learning new information, as well as times able to apply their skills in one domain to that of the other.

Defining multipotentiality: multipassionate vs specialist?

The Cambridge dictionary defines the word specialist as 'someone who has a lot of experience, knowledge, or skill in a particular subject', meaning, specialization is not a personality trait, it is a lifestyle and an accomplishment.

What follows from this is that while a unipassionate (read: rare unicorn) or a hobbyist would feel comfortable being a specialist, a multipassionate would most likely not, though they could become one. However, depending on the type of multipotentiality, a multipassionate person who designs a life around their preferences and strengths might still become a specialist but they would do so in an interdisciplinary area that would provide them with the variety they crave.

There is no dichotomy of “interested in many things” vs “interested in just one thing”. Rather, if we must simplify this trait, people could be placed on a spectrum based on their predisposition to low to high intrapersonal diversity, a term popularized by Dr. Angela J. Cotellessa in her thesis (In Pursuit of Polymaths: Understanding Renaissance Persons of the 21st Century) and on her YouTube channel Polymath's Place.

Intrapersonal diversity

In microbiology, the biological diversity of a sample is measured by two criteria: how many (distinct enough) microbial taxa are present in the sample, and how evenly are they distributed. The more phyla/genera/species are present and the more equal is the number of specimens belonging to each taxon, the higher the biological diversity of the sample. The same concept is used in other fields as well in the sense that a 'sample' could be any ecosystem (including a society).

Dr. Cotellessa defines an intrapersonally diverse individual as someone who “has a wide breadth of functional experiences”. By applying the principle described above, we find that the intrapersonal diversity of an individual could be (relatively) determined by

  1. the amount of knowledge and skills they have,
  2. the distribution of these skills throughout different domains.

Meaning, the richer and more sophisticated is your learning and experience across multiple domains, the more those domains diverge from each other, and the more equal is your expertise across all of them, the higher your intrapersonal diversity.

This means that intrapersonal diversity is still a property that describes the lifestyle, career, and experiences of a person, even though the concept may take interests into account as well. Thus, a multipassionate, or any person for that matter, could be anywhere on this spectrum, based on their life and achievements. However, the concept of intrapersonal diversity could be used in defining multipotentiality in the sense that all multipassionates have a high predisposition to high intrapersonal diversity, meaning, someone who is multipassionate at heart would be born with a natural curiosity and a desire for variety, which would result in them deliberately seeking out novel experiences and thus acquiring new knowledge and skills.

The true antonym to 'specialist'

So, if multipassionates can be specialists even though have the opposite personality to unipassionates and hobbyists who are comfortable with specialisation, how do you call a person following a work-life approach that allows for and even requires high intrapersonal diversity?

The name for that you probably know already know. It's generalist, defined as someone with a range of knowledge and skills. This term is used in a variety of contexts.

The word can be used in a narrower sense, referring to someone who has broad knowledge in both one field (e.g., an internal medicine practitioner who is trained to diagnose and treat a wide range of complex diseases affecting various organ systems but may still have to consult other more specialised doctors who have deeper knowledge in a certain topic). Such a person could still be called a specialist, but their niche is not as narrow - they still specialize in a specific domain, but they don't limit themselves to a deeper study of one specific subdomain. I call this type of generalist specialized generalist.

Meanwhile, a generalist in the broader sense has a wide range of knowledge and skills in general, spanning multiple domains. For example, they may be able to program an app, do digital design, write popular science articles on quantum physics, and create jewellery.

Multipassionate work-life approaches

The classic work-life approach that suits a specialist (finish school, get that job, focus, focus, focus, and work your way up the career ladder to the top) does not suit a multipassionate. Not only would putting blinders on and focusing on one thing limit their opportunities of putting a multipassionate’s creative superpowers to use, such a strategy would actually reduce their chances of succeeding in that one domain, as that kind of thinking would make the multipassionate more likely to quit something they love when they realized they also love that other thing and choosing only this passion would make their lives miserable.

Okay then, how does a multipassionate build a career that fulfils their desire and potential for a high intrapersonal diversity?

There are various ways people go about this, so in the future, I might dedicate a whole article on the topic, but the main approaches are sequential or seasonal careers, umbrella careers, and slash careers. Specific kinds of multipassionates gravitate strongly towards interdisciplinary pursuits, and many multipassionates prefer the freedom and flexibility of being their own boss, thus becoming freelancers or business owners, which allows for more variety and control over how much time they want to spend on what activity.

Polymath = Renaissance person - the highest accomplishment status for an intrapersonally diverse individual

What happens when a person studies a lot of things to a deep level? Well, eventually they become an expert in several areas. They are still a generalist, though a more than the typical generalist in terms of depth and, at the same time, probably less in breadth. Such a person is called a polymath.

A polymath (Greek for much+learned), sometimes also referred to as a Renaissance man/woman (again, due to the popularity of polymathy during that age), is defined as a an expert in various fields, someone who has achieved deep understanding in and contributed to many (most seem to agree that ‘many’ here means ‘three or more’) fields and is able to draw on their breadth of knowledge to solve complex problems. In other words, a polymath is necessarily a generalist, but rather than a jack of all trades and a master of none, s/he is a master of several (and perhaps a jack of yet more).

Though it is mostly agreed on that that polymathy entails breadth, depth, and integration of knowledge and skills, the exact definition of the term is by no means clear or universal. Why? Because it's hardly as easy as it seems to define and determine how broad must a polymath's knowledge be, how distinct should their various specialties be, and how deep is deep enough, since everything in this world is interconnected and full understanding would involve not just knowing all the data points in the world but also all the connections between all of them. Besides, the word 'polymathy' usually refers to more theoretical, academic kinds of knowledge, though more hands-on, creative, or communicative skills are, of course, always taken into account when describing the intrapersonal diversity and accomplishments of a polymath. If a person is an expert in multiple less academic areas, Renaissance person may be a safer and less pompous term to be referred to as. In the future, I may dive deeper into what polymathy is exactly, attempting to make sense of it and offering my own understanding.

What does this look like in reality? Well, to give you some examples, here are three prominent polymaths:

  • Leonardo da Vinci - painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, engineer, scientist (made drawings and notes on anatomy based on the dissection of 30 bodies, as well as on astronomy, botany, cartography, and palaeontology);
  • Benjamin Franklin - writer, scientist, inventor, statesman (a US Founding Father, one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence), diplomat, printer, publisher, political philosopher;
  • Thomas Young - doctor and medical researcher (vision, haemodynamics, dosages of drugs for children), physicist (known for the wave theory of light and vision, colour theory, double-slit experiment, Young's modulus in elasticity, theory of capillary phenomena based on the principle of surface tension), linguist (proposed a universal phonetic alphabet, compared 400 languages, introduced the term "Indo-European languages"), Egyptologist (contributed to translating the Rosetta stone), musical theorist.

Impressive, isn't it? Young is my personal favourite.

These people are admirable and inspiring, there's no doubt about that, and the range of groundbreaking contributions they've achieved is simply stunning. However, we would be mistaken to think that there is something inherently different or special in those who achieve polymathy. The fantastic news is that anyone can become a polymath. Though personality aspects certainly play into this in the sense that, for example, multipotentiality stimulates the development of polymathy in the sense that a multipassionate is more likely to want to become a polymath, multipotentiality is not required to become a polymath. Only willingness and work are, and preferably a creative and curious mind able to see connections between various concepts.

Paths to polymathy

One of the most beautiful things about multipotentiality and polymathy is the uniqueness of the journey of each multidisciplinary person. One person's intrapersonal diversity will differ vastly from that of another person, and, inevitably, so will their journeys. Some may start early, others may only realize their multipotentialite calling later in their life; some earn a dozen PhDs (yep, such people exist), others achieve expertise through self-education (also more possible than you may imagine, especially in the Internet age).

Some of those who eventually become polymaths may start out narrow and expand eventually. Their journey might look somewhat like this:

specialist → T-shaped person → multidisciplinary person → polymath

Others may start out broad and then develop depth in multiple specialties in a successive or parallel manner:

generalist → multidisciplinary person → polymath

However, it is hard to define a specific step-by-step plan a person must follow to become a polymath, as the perfect path will depend on each multipassionate's personality, interests, values, and life circumstances. What every multipassionate needs to find their path, though, is

  • curiosity (a thirst for learning),
  • adaptability (ability to make the best of their circumstances),
  • growth mindset (the belief that they can improve and the willingness to do so),
  • introspection and reflection skills (ability to understand themselves, their goals, how their mind functions, how well their current work methods work and why, and what could be done to improve their situation and move forward with their goals).

Once you have these, figuring out your productivity system and making your dreams come true becomes totally doable.

It is worth noting, though, that polymathy is not something you can just reach and check of your to-do list. No matter how much you learn, all your knowledge will be but a grain of sand compared to all that there is to know. Even in your own fields, there might be topics that would easily confuse you. Besides, how do you objectively evaluate the depth of your knowledge or the significance of your contributions?

Because of this, I humbly choose to leave the honorific titling act for others to figure out whether they find me worthy of being called a polymath after my death. Or before that, if I happen to be blessed with such achievements. Until then, though, I think it’s best that a person’s focus should be on giving the best of their self and having fun in the process. How do you call yourself then? Whatever you are in general or at a specific point - a multipassionate, a generalist, or a multidisciplinary person.

Is polymathy the ultimate goal?

Society may frown upon those who "lack focus" and "can't stick to one thing" and view multipassionates as eccentrics and plain weirdos. Yet, at the same time, those who do go against the grain and fulfil their diverse potential as a result, achieving success in more than one area, are admired and praised.

It could be argued then that for this reason, polymathy is the highest success level for multipassionates. However, this measure of success may not be every multipassionate's desire. Some would prefer to be broad generalists, acquiring a wide variety of experiences. Others would prefer to achieve mastery in, let’s say, two domains or several not-so-academic pursuits. And after all, specialists are still just as valid, though it would be recommended that they become T-shaped, meaning, that everyone have enough broad knowledge (the horizontal line) outside their domain (the vertical line), so that they could take advantage of some of the superpowers of intrapersonally diverse people as well as their specialist strengths.

The future of multipotentiality

The rapid technological advancements we see nowadays are transforming our world from one where the road to success may have been paved by single-minded focus to one of change, uncertainty, interconnectedness, and information overload. As old professions are most probably bound to disappear with new, unheard-of job titles replacing them, developing a variety of skills, as well as the ability to adapt and learn quickly may be the best way to ensure that you'd thrive no matter what comes at you.

With all the new scientific and technological developments, as well as the opportunities that online work offers, many are beginning to recognize the necessity for a more holistic and interconnected view of the world, as well as the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration. For example, we see research in healthcare is shifting back from reductionism to more systemic and interdisciplinary approach. This, again, is where multipassionates thrive - and where they can give their best to the world.

Perhaps in the future, as awareness about multipotentiality increases, the current terminology will lose its importance and new words will be created to describe all the variety in the area of interpersonal diversity. Whether that is going to happen, though, depends on multipassionates being themselves, on them going out there, pursuing their many talents and passions and proving the world that success in multiple areas is indeed more than possible.

Some people succeed because of their single-mindedness. Some people succeed because of their intrapersonal diversity. We all have different gifts and different talents that we can use for each other's good, and that is amazing.


About the Creator

Jūlija @beeofjuly

Heyo, I'm a multipassionate with a love for medicine, natural sciences, linguistics, music, math, and writing, which I use as an excuse to explore anything that captivates my heart and mind.

To learn more or support, click here 🌵.

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    Jūlija @beeofjulyWritten by Jūlija @beeofjuly

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