We were sitting on the bus driving back to school after a swim meet, talking about our futures in the way only 16-year-olds can and I commented that I wanted to be a teacher. Or maybe write novels. Or work in a museum. Or maybe be an archeologist.
My friend, Steve, just looked at me long and hard in the special way that particularly driven young men seem to excel at and finally said, “You do know that you are going to have to pick ONE, right? You can’t do everything, Cindy.”
“Sure, I guess,” I hedged uncomfortably.
I had a flashback to that conversation a few years later in my college advisor’s office when Dr. Hudson looked at me in exasperation and said, “You cannot have more than three majors. The university doesn’t allow it. And if you have three majors, you can’t have minors. You have enough credit hours for majors in history, political science, english literature, and anthropology, and are well on your way to outdoor education, but you haven’t finished all of the gen-ed requirements to actually graduate, so maybe take a math class before you go any further down any of those roads. And for the love of god, girl, declare your bloody majors.” (he was delightfully British, in case you couldn’t tell…)
If I could have come up with the money, I would likely have left no major at that university unstudied. Well, maybe math. I tried, truly I did, but the math gods lost me somewhere along the way and I think it really might be the single area of learning in the entire world that holds almost zero appeal for me. But I digress.
It’s something I heard in variation all of my life, “Cindy, if you keep this up, you’ll be a Jack-of-all-trades and master of none.”
But you see, I didn’t want to master ONE thing.
A life spent on a single pursuit sounded suffocating to me. It sounded like standing on the edge of an enormous field of wildflowers only to be told that the only flower I could smell or look at was the one in the pot beside me. All the others must stay behind glass, untouched, unsmelled, their myriad wonders unknown.
So I resisted every form of this advice, every version of the “pick one thing” life.
And over time, I happily became a Jack-of-all-trades and a master of none:
I triple majored but have sufficient credit hours for five and loved my classes.
I have a law degree that stretched my brain and capacity for understanding in untold ways.
I’ve spent more than a decade photographing weddings and portraits and landscapes and travel and it’s taken me all over the world and into the lives of the most amazing people.
I’ve worked as a river guide and a wilderness guide in some of the most beautiful places in this country.
I've worked as a certified personal trainer and a professional organizer and I’ve built websites and I've written articles and stories for publications.
I was never the best at any of these things, though I continue to learn and grow in most of them. I would never claim mastery of any of the interests I’ve pursued or work that I’ve done, though I have come to them with real commitment to ongoing improvement and understanding.
I thrive on that learning and stretching and growing. I’m happiest and most productive when I’m juggling multiple projects that use a variety of my skills across them in different ways.
Here’s the thing about the whole-multi-passionate existence that no one talks about: when left unchecked, “multi-passionate” can become an excuse.
It can become our get-out-of-jail-free card for never committing long enough to something to really explore the true depths of our potential there.
And that’s problematic.
Because not exploring the depths of our potential means we never get the chance to reach it. And our potential is where our gifts are hiding. Gifts that we owe it to the world and to ourselves to dig into and share.
Our curiosity has to reach deeper than the superficial. It has to drive us to explore further, go past the obvious and the easy and the comfortable to see what secrets lie beneath.
This does not mean we exclude everything else forever and that we only get to have one “passion” (good lord…can we please, please stop using that word? I’ve never had a single “passion” in all my life except for pizza and somehow I don’t think that’s what anyone ever means when they say “find your passion” because I can find good pizza blindfolded and in my sleep...).
What it does mean is:
1.We have to prioritize our interests. While it is, indeed, possible to have a full-time job and learn to speak fluent French and to play the guitar and to write a grant and to run a community garden and how to hand-sew a quilt in the Amish tradition all while reading books on 18th century American history as well as keeping up with our novel for book club, it is NOT possible to dedicate equal time, attention, and energy to all of these things.
What matters most to you? What matters least? What can simply be something you play with just for fun when you have a spare few minutes rather than a major commitment?
We all have the same 24 hours in a day and when we try to give equal attention and energy to too many things at once, we tend to end up with a whole bunch of half-finished projects and frustration and no time left for things like sleep and the occasional Netflix binge.
Prioritization is the difference between “multi-passionate” and “attention deficit disorder” (in the non clinical sense, in case I need to spell that out lest the angry emails begin). It’s how the important things get finished, the important pursuits get dug into deeper, with the attention and care they deserve without becoming the only thing we do or learn.
2.We have to hang out longer than we’re naturally inclined to. This can be the tough one for a lot of us “multi-passionate” folks. And it’s where we most often let it become the excuse to bail before we’ve truly reached our potential. We get to a certain point and then drop the “thing” like a hot potato and move onto the next pursuit, often saying something along the lines of, “Well, I guess that wasn’t my special purpose either…"
Maybe we’re on our fourth business and it’s gained a little traction but not quite enough and we wonder if this is really what we’re meant to do or perhaps we should cut our losses and move on to try the next thing. Or maybe we’ve reached a relatively conversational level of French but we’re not yet fluent, but Rosetta Stone just sent us a coupon code and we could begin Spanish and French has become a little bit of a slog, so…you know where I’m going with this, right?
Do you ever listen to NPR’s This American Life? One of my favorite things in the show is the way Ira Glass says, “stay with us,” before every break…it’s iconic. I imagine (in his voice) that’s what all of our unfinished projects, all of our middle-stage learning, all of the businesses we’ve started but are in the uncomfortable keep-at-it stage, all of the dreams that we’ve taken first steps toward but have questioned as we reached unsteady ground, are saying to us. Stay with us. Stay with us.
Stay with us.
See what happens if you keep trucking just a little longer. What happens when you dig a little deeper. What happens when you hang on and don’t let the appeal of a new pursuit pull you away from one you’ve come this far with. What happens when you turn your endless well of curiosity toward finding out just how far you could take the things you’ve already begun. When you turn that multi-passionate skill set toward whatever dream is up next on the docket.
If you are one of those blessed people who have a calling, a one-true-passion that drives all you do and brings meaning to your life on every level, I salute you! It happens for a lucky few and I’m so glad for the clarity and purpose it’s brought to your life.
For the rest of us, though, the ones who weren’t there the day the universe was handing out lightening strike epiphanies, we can take comfort in the fact that we may actually have a few great purposes in our life that take their place at different points along our journey. They don’t always even look like the grand purposes that they are until we look back years later. And that’s okay, too.
We multi-passionates may not have the single-minded focus of one clear calling, but what we can bring to our pursuits is a broad wealth of skills and problem solving alongside our aptitude and deep joy of learning that can be the flexible and adaptable springboard to success in whatever we’ve set our minds to when we harness it through prioritization and commitment to staying with it past the new and shiny stages.
Being multi-passionate, being inherently and deeply curious, can be our greatest strength if we let it.
So let’s let it.