From the age of about 5 years old, we are often asked ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’. When we are this young, this question is relatively innocuous and usually provides some kind of cute response like ‘I want to be an astronaut’ or ‘I’m going to be a ballerina’. But as we get older, this question starts filling us with anxiety. What am I going to do with my life? Where am I going to end up? What do I need to do now to ensure I end up doing a job I want to do later? And for someone like me, who has never really latched on to any interest or career path in particular, this is terrifying.
Society expects us to specialise. We are expected to pick a set of subjects in secondary school, narrow those down at college, narrow them down further at university, until we come out the other side with a fully formed career plan and the motivation to achieve it. But for so many of us, this just isn’t the case. I chose my GCSEs, my A-Levels and my degree based on the subjects that I enjoyed, and the ones I was good at. But, despite my expectations, I found myself at the end of my degree with no greater understanding of what I wanted to do with my life than when I started. And what makes it worse, is that as the pressure of specialising into one particular career becomes greater, we start to feel like anything we pursue outside of that career path is a waste of time. For me personally, I felt like reading books that weren’t academically challenging or relevant to my degree was using up time that I could be spending on reading for my dissertation or my exams. I started to feel guilty for spending time exercising, or watching films and documentaries, for learning French, for connecting with people on social media and for taking time to relax. And all this because I thought that it wasn’t going to help me discover the career that I really wanted to pursue.
But I recently listened to a TEDtalk by Emilie Wapnick called ‘Why some of us don’t have one true calling’ which put all of this in perspective for me. Emilie describes a group of people who she calls ‘multipotentialites’. These are people who don’t want to pursue just one thing for the rest of their lives; people with ‘multiple potentials’.
It is true that many people know from a very early age that they want to be a doctor, or a lawyer or a cognitive neuropsychologist. Other people discover this calling later in life, at school or university or even well into their working lives. But many of us don’t. At school, I wanted to be a vet. At college, I thought I wanted to pursue journalism and at the end of my degree I wanted to be a nutritionist. Now, I’m doing a PhD which integrates psychology with atmospheric chemistry as I explore the effects of air pollution on the brain. And I still have so many other interests: international politics, mental health, physiology and exercise, biology, French, physics and nutrition. And what I’m coming to realise is that spending time exploring these interests is not a waste of time. It doesn’t make me defective as a human being to not focus all of my energy on one area of expertise.
Exploring different things and engaging with a variety of interests is a blessing. It helps us think outside the box. It encourages us to make connections that have previously been overlooked. It helps us to be creative and, I think most importantly, it keeps us excited about life. There is so much about this world that we can learn; things that have already been discovered and things which still evade us. Specialism is important. Specialists drill down into the nitty-gritty of an issue and project us forward. Without specialism, all our knowledge remains shallow and, as human beings, we may not gain a deeper grasp of the things which they engage with. Without specialism, we wouldn’t have the amazing surgeons, lawyers, scientists, photographers, journalists and engineers that we have today. But we need multipotentialites too. We need people to join up the dots.
So, the next time you’re feeling guilty for not knowing what you want to do with your life, or you feel like you’re wasting time on an unrelated task. Ask yourself whether pursuing one specific goal is really ‘you’. Do you want to find something you love and throw yourself into it whole-heartedly and never look back? Do you want to focus on something that excites you for a while and then move on to the next exciting thing once your excitement for the first thing has run its course? Neither of these is right, and neither is wrong. There are a lot of things in this world to be worried about, but how you spend your time and how you live your life is not one of them. Pursue what you love. Do what you want to do, and when you’re bored of that, do something else.