What Do You Want to be When You Grow Up?
As children, grownups would ask us: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And kids would shout out: Nurse! Veterinarian! Mom! Firefighter!
My stomach would churn, and I would remain in the back—small, quiet, hidden. I had no idea what I wanted to be. The only label that seemed to fit me was the one that hurt the most: Outsider.
Or, perhaps, Professional Observer. Because I was that kid who modeled my behavior—how to stand, how to laugh, how to smile for the school pictures (teeth or no teeth?)—by watching others. I did it because I wanted to belong, to fit in, to find my place.
I was intensely self-conscious. I was curious about human nature as if I wasn’t human myself. This manifested in me watching adults with a combination of fascination and fear—how will I ever become one of those? And which one would I want to be? I studied my peers to the point that I got teased for staring. I sometimes forgot that if I could see others, they could see me, too. I just wanted to know their secret: how did they know who they were and where they wanted to go in life?
What did I want to be when I grew up? If I could’ve voiced my feelings, I would have said: Understood. Accepted. Not alone.
Declare Your Major
As I moved into college, the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” morphed into: What’s Your Major?
I declared my major “Undecided.” This wasn’t because I couldn’t find anything that interested me. Quite the opposite. It was because everything interested me: English (I got to study people’s lives and not be called out for staring), math (simple formulas, easy answers), psychology (obviously) and astronomy (because I was pretty sure I was from a different planet).
As a Professional Observer, I’ve also always been a quick learner. So, choosing my major was not as simple as answering the question, “Well, what are you good at?”
Perhaps the “Jack of all trades” title might fit—but no, that isn’t quite right. When I see a rabbit hole, I dive first, think later. I let myself be consumed. I’m no dabbler. In fact, I immerse myself so completely that even I start to think, “Finally! This is who I’ll be for the rest of my life!”
Until it’s not. Until I feel that emptiness inside that tells me that the fire of passion has gone out, and my well of curiosity is dry, and it’s time to find something new to spark it up again.
Find Your Purpose
Everywhere I turn these days, someone is offering a workshop or seminar that declares: “Find your purpose!”
When I hear this, I get that same stomach-churning feeling I had as a kid—the one that makes me feel like there’s something not quite right about me. It takes me back to the pressure I used to feel when I couldn’t declare a major. “Find your purpose” is the grown-up equivalent of “what do you want to be when you grow up?”
Our society has certain unspoken expectations of us—to find out who we are so we can easily answer the question, “What do you do?” at dinner parties. These expectations follow us through life like a stray dog. The assumption is that a defined label will make us happy. But in truth, it has more to do with making other people comfortable than it does making us happy.
For some of us, happiness is not having a defined purpose. It’s not ever having to declare a major. It means staying in that place of curiosity about all the things we could try, at any age or stage of life.
In some ways, I’m still that child in the back of the room. I’m still intensely self-conscious. I still observe people to the point that I need reminders that people can see me watching them and might not like being watched.
But the difference between then and now is this: today, I claim my outsiderness. I defend it, even. I claim and defend other people’s outsiderness, too—if I see someone struggling to “find their purpose,” I’ll quickly try to rescue them from drowning in the belief that a single purpose is what’s missing in their life.
Are You a Multipotentialite?
In my life so far, I’ve been a dance teacher, a programmer, a sales associate, a mother, a yoga teacher, a studio owner, an alternative health-care provider, an energy healer, a writer, a self-publisher, and more. I’m not done yet. And whereas I used to feel confusion and even shame around my inability to pick something and stick with it, I now embrace my approach to life.
In fact, I’m happy to say that I finally found a label I will wear. It’s called a “multipotentialite,” and I heard about it in this Ted Talk by Emilie Wapnick.
According to Ms. Wapnick, multipotentialites are people who never fit neatly into any of society’s prescribed boxes. Not because they don’t want to—some of us go to great lengths to try to fit in, even cutting off parts of ourselves to do so—but because we’re not supposed to fit in.
We’re supposed to work on the margins, in the in-between places, at the intersections. We’re supposed to focus on the “ing” of what we do—connecting, analyzing, creating—not the role or title we do it through.
As multipotentialites, we come to this planet destined to try out all kinds of different roles and titles. For us, no single role will last or keep us happy for a lifetime.
Instead, we’re here to learn and grow through our various titles and roles and then move on to something new. For us, our curiosity and hunger for learning are what identifies us—not our role.
If I force myself to try and stay put in a role—because I remind myself about the money I’ve spent or the trainings I’ve undergone—I eventually get physically sick to the degree that I’m forced to leave. So, I’ve grown wiser over the years, and pay close attention to the signs well before such drastic measures are needed.
Roles and Labels are Temporary “Skins”
To me, the various roles and titles I play in this life have become nothing more than skins that are eventually meant to be shed, like a snake. I don’t (anymore) let myself get too attached to them. Who am I, you ask? I am who I am—for now. Until it changes. Until I feel the impulse to move.
If we look to the snake for inspiration, we will find that it never resists the process of shedding. When the time comes, the snake pulls away from daily life and prepares itself for shedding the old and stepping into the new.
Choose Your Own Adventure
If you find that you identify with this concept of a multipotentialite, then you’re someone who loves to learn and be exposed to new things. This is an exciting approach to life, one that should never be tampered with.
How long we stay in any given “skin” should never be decided by how much money or time we’ve already invested in it. It can’t be refunded, anyway. So if you feel the pull of curiosity, follow it! It might confuse people because you took that three-year training and you don’t even use it anymore, or you spent years and money building up a brand only to burn it down.
But do not let society’s expectations keep you from your natural forward movement—it’s society’s problem, not yours, that it doesn’t understand. And, the more we challenge this concept, the more it will fray at the edges, the more likely we’ll reconsider the seemingly innocuous questions we pose to young children.
Choose your own adventure, the children’s books used to tell us. If your soul craves movement like mine does, a life following our curiosity and nothing else is the only life that will ever satisfy it.