Living Life As A Entrepreneurial Multipotentialite

Do people get confused when they read your CV? If people ask what you do, do you look around for some paper and a few different coloured highlighters? If you’re thinking ‘Yes!’ then you should read on....

I definitely am and for me it was a bit of a watershed moment — you know that time when you feel you’ve found your tribe and a way to articulate why your diverse background is an asset rather than a sign of flakiness. I’ve had many jobs in the last 20 years across 6 completely different industries (sometimes at the same time) and that’s not even touching on volunteer work. Let’s just say some responses to my CV verged on comical and don’t get me started on creating a LinkedIn profile…

There are a few other names that may be more familiar to you — polymath, renaissance man/woman or generalist expert. All are really variations on a similar theme — people who have wide ranging knowledge and interests and the ability to leverage these different elements to succeed in their current area of focus (which often changes dramatically over time).

Now I have been doing rigorous scientific research within the community and I’ve come to the conclusion that the majority of entrepreneurs are also multipotentialites and this is a key factor to our success. Let me explain…

You regularly hear stories about entrepreneurs who were able to achieve something everyone in the industry thought wasn’t possible — partly because they are looking at the problem through a different lens and partly because they didn’t realize it was considered impossible.

According to Emilie Wapnick, multipotentialities have three superpowers: idea synthesis, rapid learning and adaptability. These are all skills that in my experience entrepreneurs, particularly those ‘accidental entrepreneurs’, have in abundance. Our ability to look at a problem through a different lens is what leads to disruption and innovation.

I’m sure a neuroscientist can explain it better than me but basically the brain is designed to take shortcuts in order to operate efficiently so you tend to see what you expect to see (perception is reality). If you’ve been told something isn’t possible your brain often doesn’t waste energy disagreeing with that. Because we are often solving problems in a field we are experiencing as a consumer (rather than an industry expert), entrepreneurs aren’t anchored by the industry norms or understanding of what is possible.

Let’s look at these 3 superpowers and how they apply to entrepreneurs in more detail.

Idea synthesis

….taking the knowledge from different fields of study. Think sushi + baggage carousel = sushi train!

The chances of a restauranteur and a baggage handler having a deep discussion about restaurant design is unlikely but if a person is curious about things outside their current world, say a restaurant designer waiting for their bags after a trip away, then magic can happen. As Emilie says,

‘innovation happens at the intersections’.

HBR have even done a study on ways to do this purposefully when your normal solution design process isn’t working. They found a direct correlation between the novelty of solutions and distance from the context of the target problem. To force this type of innovation you can bring in people from different industries who look at things through a new lens.

Steve Jobs also believed in the power of idea synthesis to change the world. In a Wired article way back in 1996 he said:

‘Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.’

The full article is also worth a read for his many predictions during the birth of the Web (with a capital W!)

Rapid learning

…..the second superpower. It’s not necessarily that as multipotentialites we are smarter or quicker learners, more that when we are in, we are all in. If we see something and wonder ‘why’ then we’ll go away and read three books about it or head to a meetup to meet people who know more (and then relentlessly ask them questions until we get it!). And it doesn’t usually matter if this particular topic is relevant to our current line of work or an upcoming project.

This behavioral trait gives an insight into why multipotentialites learn fast. You see we don’t start from scratch when learning about a new topic — we use the framework of everything we already know and consider the delta or difference to figure out where it fits in with everything else we know.

Consider when you first started shopping online. Without relying on any assumed knowledge it would take you forever trawling through help guides or YouTube videos to figure out how to buy that mug with the funny cat meme on it. However by referencing things you already know, you can guess that clicking on the +1 icon, the button that says ‘Buy’ and then the shopping cart icon, you can start on your journey to a more chuckle-inducing morning cuppa.

Most people do this to a certain degree — as I mentioned earlier the brain likes to create shortcuts wherever possible to save energy. However, logic says that the more diverse areas you know, the smaller the delta will be from something you are familiar with which means the advantage for multipotentialites is exponential... every time we learn something new, the time taken to absorb it is increasingly smaller. For entrepreneurs who are often doing a wide range of roles in the early startup stage this rapid learning can mean the difference between a great idea and a successful business.


…. the final superpower and something entrepreneurs have in spades. Think agile manifesto, lean startup and the endless pivots most startups go through over time. Our largest unicorns are where they are because of their ability to adapt.

You’ve probably never heard of Odeo but if this podcasting network hadn’t been freaked by iTunes moving into their niche then we would never have had the joy of Twitter (or Twitter trolls but I never said adaptability was always for good!)

Twitter is no different from the majority of successful startups and scaleups in that at Twitter, they are always looking at how they can adapt to better solve the problems their customers face. Mostly they do this through incremental changes but sometimes through more radical shifts which may or may not work out (iSnack 2.0 anyone?)

Hang on, that’s me!

If, after reading this, you are thinking to yourself ‘that sounds like me! I’ve found my tribe’ then the good news is you have an excellent pedigree to create your own startup. However, you are equally valuable in larger organizations, particularly when partnered with deep specialist experts and in cross-functional teams. Think of yourself as the chocolate in the rocky road that brings all of those delicious marshmallows, biscuits and nuts (the specialist experts) together. You make the whole so much greater than the sum of all those parts.

I’ll leave my parting advice to the sagacious words of Emilie Wapnick:

‘to you I say:
Embrace your many passions, follow your curiosity down those rabbit holes, explore your intersections. Embracing our inner wiring leads to a happier, more authentic life, and perhaps more importantly — multipotentialites, the world needs us!'

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