When I grow up, I want to be a generalist

Like many other kids, early in life I was confronted with questions about what I would be when I grew up. What one single area of study, profession and career would I build my life around? I gave the question all the weight it seemed to deserve because I didn't really know another option.

When it was time to pick a focus in college, I considered a lot of different paths; minister, writer, diplomat, teacher, political activist and computer scientist were among them. But I thought I needed to pick one. Technology was the area where I had most consistently thrived in what I did, so I made my choice.

For the almost twenty years that followed I thought I had my thing I would be when I grew up.  I was a tech guy running a tech business. I did a lot of different things as a part of that role, but there was a strong overarching theme I could easily explain in answer to, "what do you do?"

When I started working for someone else, I was sheepish about it at times. I liked the work itself but I was slow to adjust to the public identity of "tech employee," worrying that it was a step backward from "tech entrepreneur." And because employees are ultimately carrying out someone else's vision (no matter how much they share in it), I wondered if I had lost access to my own driving, anchoring passion for what I was doing with my life.

It didn't help that the popular narrative about how to be GREAT is to pick one thing and devote your life to it. One day when I was feeling particularly disoriented about what I wanted to be when I grew up, I encountered something along the lines of this tweet, presumably written in response to the question "how can I be amazing?"

You pick something you want to get good at and you devote every day of your life to it. That’s it. No secrets.

Oh dear. I had many things in life to be thankful for and happy about, but did I have the one thing I wanted to devote every day of my life to, professionally speaking?

It was neat that I'd run for political office, performed as a magician, taught college classes, organized conferences, hosted a podcast, learned to fly an airplane and run a company, but was enough enough?  Was it time to stop messing around with side projects, passing interests and skill-building that was tangential to my "one thing," whatever it was?

Was it time to really grow up?

Then I encountered Emilie Wapnick's book, How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don't Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up (affiliate link).

And thank goodness I did! As I read Emilie's words, I came to identify strongly as the type of person she calls a "multipotentialite," sometimes also referred to as a polymath, renaissance person, jack-of-all-trades, generalist, scanner, or a puttylike person.

I highlighted so many passages while reading How to Be Everything, but here are a few worth excerpting (page numbers from the HarperCollins Kindle Edition):

that the key to thriving in an uncertain economy is having “a mind-set that embraces instability, that tolerates—and even enjoys—recalibrating careers, business models and assumptions.” In the postrecession era, adaptability is not merely an asset; it’s a necessity. (pp. 26-27)

[On studying the components of a happy multipotentialite:] They had all designed lives that provided them with three common elements: money, meaning, and variety—in the amounts that were right for them. (pp. 34-35)

For multipotentialites, productivity is about more than just getting things done. We need to make sure that we’re working on the right things, that our schedule is conducive to getting things done, and that we understand when it is time to abandon a project and move on to the next. (p. 147).

The principle goes like this: the majority of our activities can be divided into three categories: creating, connecting, and consuming. Creating involves bringing something new into existence. Connecting involves reaching out to others and can include activities such as responding to e-mails or posting on social media. Consuming is any activity that involves research or learning. It can consist of reading books or articles, watching movies, listening to podcasts, and so on. All three categories of activities are important. But to get the most out of them, you should respect the combining rule: Connecting and Consuming activities can be combined, but should never be combined with Creating. (pp. 171-172).

One of the most common concerns for multipotentialites is that we won’t measure up to specialists who have been working in a field for decades...Being effective matters more than being the best...Your work should be about delivering, not about reaching the top of your field. (pp. 185-186).

What does it mean to lead with your multipotentiality? It isn’t just about accepting and embracing your inner wiring. That’s only the beginning. To lead with your multipotentiality is to build a sustainable life around your plurality. It means figuring out, in practical terms, how to get the money, meaning, and variety you require so that you can flourish. (pp. 201-202).

These were just some of the passages that had me nodding along vigorously, feeling understood and spoken to in ways that rarely happen when reading a "professional development" book. I am a multipotentialite! And I'm really happy about it.

In the struggles I mentioned above, I had been trying to find my new "one thing."  The book helped me see both that my past approach to life and work was not as single-minded and focused as I thought it was, and that what I actually want professionally and personally is the freedom to explore a wide variety of interests, practices and experiences.

When I was running my website development business, I wasn't just a tech guy running a tech business. I was a software developer, graphic designer, project manager, accountant, lawyer, sales person, marketing person, manager, personal coach, and so much more. I also managed to find time to be a community volunteer, non-profit board member, and even candidate for elected office.

As Wapnick says, "The easiest way to work for a boss who lets you wear many hats at work is to be your own boss. There are few careers more multifaceted than entrepreneurship." This was so true for me; co-founding and running my own business was one of the best things I could have done for embracing my multipotentialite nature.

Fortunately, my current job also allows me a lot of potential to live out my best multipotentialite self. Working for a distributed company that values "what you deliver" over many other things, and in a field that's at an intersection of so many of my current interests (software engineering, journalism, writing, the open web, democratizing publishing) is amazing. I don't have to hide my long lists of things I'd like to try. I can pursue my passions so much more easily than if I were commuting every day to a single location with a narrowly defined role whose success was measured by how many hours I appeared to spend on it at my desk.

Wapnick calls this the Einstein approach, "having one full-time job or business that fully supports you, while leaving you with enough time and energy to pursue your other passions on the side." It's one of four different models for living a multipotentialite life that she describes, the others being Group Hug ("having one multifaceted job or business that allows you to wear many hats and shift between several domains at work."), Slash ("having two or more part-time jobs and/or businesses that you flit between on a regular basis."), and Phoenix ("working in a single industry for several months or years and then shifting gears and starting a new career in a new industry").

The book did a great job of laying out some strategies and tactics for thriving within each of these models. I am always in danger of distraction, feeling bad that I don't have enough time for all my interests, or wrestling with what to say when people ask what I'm up to these days. Having advice on how to manage all of that while making sure I give the things that are important to me my best energy was really great. (The related article on 9 Ways to Explain Your Multipotentiality to Non-Mulitpotentialites was also really helpful - it's what resulted in the "Deep Generalist" label I'm now using for myself on social media and elsewhere.)

If any of what I've said about being a multipotentialite resonates with you, even a little bit, I can't recommend How To Be Everything enough. I'm planning on reading it again soon, if only to work through some of the exercises and questions that accompany each chapter in a little more depth. And if you're REALLY interested, Wapnick also started The Puttytribe, a community of multipotentialites looking for conversation and support.

I'm grateful to have found a framework that gives new meaning and structure to my past and present pursuits, and that makes me even more excited to think about the future.

Andy Weir's Artemis

I recently finished reading Andy Weir's new novel, Artemis, and really enjoyed it. I've been immersing myself in political non-fiction lately (reviews coming soon) so I really needed a fun, smart page-turner to balance things out, and Artemis fit the bill perfectly.

If you're not already familiar with Weir, he wrote the bestselling book The Martian (mentioned here) which then became a surprisingly great 2015 theatrical version starring Matt Damon. It was so well-written, engaging and scientifically grounded that high school physics teachers convinced him to release a profanity-free version that they could teach their courses from.

Similar to The Martian, the book centers on a smart, extraordinarily resourceful main character who seems to be in an uphill battle against life-or-death surrounding circumstances from start to finish. Unlike The Martian, for this new main character the circumstances are much more derived from her life choices and penchant for non-traditional ways of generating income, and the experiences that unfold are much more intertwined with the choices and personalities of other people.

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Mini book reviews

It's been a good year of reading so far. Here are some mini-reviews of what I've been taking in. As always I’ve linked to an online purchase option (with a small referral fee coming to me if you actually buy), but please consider buying from your locally-owned bookseller or visiting your local library first.

Purity: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen

I hadn't read any of Franzen's work before picking this up, but I'm planning to now. Purity's storyline takes on several generations of culture, world events and political-technological evolution while remaining a very personal and rich study of a few particular relationships. I enjoyed the way journalism, social media and other tools of the digital age were woven into the plot without becoming perfunctory. Some parts of the book felt a bit rambling or under-developed, but overall I found the writing to be really compelling and the book as a whole a moving and rewarding read.

Disrupted: My Misadventures in the Startup Bubble by Dan Lyons

I have to pace myself when it comes to reading "insider looks at life in Silicon Valley" books. Partly because I spend my professional life working in tech and I don't always want to read about the tech industry for fun, and partly because it seems like too many of those books are thrown together to create a quick payday and/or ego boost for the author, without a lot of substance to make them worthwhile.

When I saw Dan Lyons` book I thought the concept sounded interesting and fun: "old media" journalist tries to join in the "new media" tech world, hilarity ensues. I also thought it would be interesting to learn more about HubSpot; I've been hearing about the company years now but I could never quite understand why what they did was of any value. So I dived in.

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Books: Seveneves, What If?, Steve Jobs

Notes on three books I've had a chance to read recently:

Sevenevesby Neal Stephenson

I've noted here before how much I enjoy Neal Stephenson's writing and storytelling, and Seveneves did not depart from that trend. It mixes together a few of my favorite things: science fiction with attention to realism, thought-provoking end-of-the-world scenarios, and a witty narrative that makes the reader work a bit to put all the pieces together. And while mostly plot-driven, Seveneves manages to do quite a bit of philosophizing about the nature of humanity and what we hold dear, not to mention the lengths we'll go to to preserve that. I will say that I enjoyed reading the first part of the book more than the second, but several days after finishing when the whole story had had a chance to marinate a bit, I was grateful for the completeness of two together, different as they were. Seveneves imagines a universe worth spending some time in. Continue reading "Books: Seveneves, What If?, Steve Jobs"

The End of College?

I found this interview with author Kevin Carey about "The End of College" to be very much worthwhile. He talks about shifting understandings of the value of higher education, the ways in which college replicates privilege, why college is so expensive, and what college might look like in a few decades.

Carey's main prediction is that a handful of very expensive and elite schools will survive in the traditional model while the rest of higher education shifts to online tools and offline experiences that aren't concentrated in a specific location.

Some sort of major shift seems inevitable. As I watch my own alma mater Earlham College wrestle with increasing costs against the backdrop of a highly competitive admissions landscape, I have to wonder if I would spend the money to send my own children to a place like it.

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Zero to One

I thoroughly enjoyed Peter Thiel's Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future.

It's one of the few "business books" I've read recently that incorporates anything resembling a coherent global ethic into thinking about what it means to create and grow a business. Beyond that, he gets into some great reflections on human creativity, optimism and pessimism about the future, and investing.

I didn't always agree with Thiel's views or counsel, but I found his thinking to be clear and his insights helpful, especially on what it takes to build something that makes a substantial and/or lasting difference in the world. Read through the lens of my past experience creating a startup tech business and my current thinking about what I can do for the world in the future, there were some lovely and/or cringe-worthy "ah-ha" moments.

I highlighted many passages as I read, here are a few that stand out:

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The Martian by Andy Weir

I recently finished reading The Martian by Andy Weir. It was one of the most enjoyable works of fiction I've read recently, and so I can't help but recommend it here.

The story is a kind of Robinson Crusoe/Cast Away extreme survival adventure that happens in space, and will especially appeal to fans of MacGyver-style resourcefulness with some realistic science and geeky tech explanations thrown in. It's also pretty funny at times, and strangely moving at others. Check it out.

Always and never: America's nuclear weapons

There are lots of things to be worried about. War, climate change, plaque buildup, unsanitized user inputs. But somewhere near the top of your list should probably be the thousands of nuclear weapons around the world that are one miscommunication or faulty electronics part away from unexpectedly killing many, many people.

I don't usually go looking for such perturbations, I promise, but when I happened upon this recent NPR interview with Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, I was captivated:

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Influx by Daniel Suarez

I recently finished reading the novel Influx by one of my favorite "tech thriller" writers, Daniel Suarez - here's a quick review.

The basic premise of Influx is that humanity's scientific and tech geniuses have created many more technological break-throughs than most of the world knows about, and that a secret department of the U.S. government has taken extreme steps to hide those break-throughs in the name of protecting everyday people from their practical implications. The plot thickens when there's resistance to that department's methods, and I won't say much more about it to avoid spoiling what unfolds, but you can imagine the story-telling fun that can be had when futuristic-and-very-advanced human tech and mindsets meets present day human tech and mindsets.  And most of it is pretty dark stuff - no kibbitzing with humpback whale scenes here.

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Y Combinator wisdom on helping startups succeed

LaunchPad_300I just finished reading Randall Stross's The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator, a great accounting of the origins, growth and successes of the seed accelerator company that helps "budding digital engineers."  This blog post is a little bit book review, but mostly highlighting the wisdom that Y Combinator seems to capture and employ in its work helping startups succeed.

I could not help but take in that wisdom and Stross's stories through the lens of my own experiences creating a tech company, and while I felt affirmed in having learned a lot of the things that Y Combinator tries to teach its program participants, I also had plenty of forehead slapping moments about things I wish I'd understood better.  I think some of those tidbits are very relevant to what I'll do next, and present day efforts to invigorate the local tech economy here in Richmond, so I'm including some comments on them here too.

If you don't already know about Y Combinator, I encourage you to check out their website, or watch this very recent interview with Paul Graham, who has headed the company's efforts most of this time.  The bottom line is that they host a three-month program in Silicon Valley to help startup companies with the money, advice and industry connections they need to go from concept to initial implementation, ready for investors to take them to the next step.  As Stross describes, they focus on admitting young groups of founders who are going to bring the hard work and innovation needed for success, even if their initial idea for a startup isn't sound. If you use Dropbox, you're benefitting from a startup incubated at Y Combinator.

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