Book Review–How to be Everything

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Emilie Wapnik, author of How to be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want to be When They Grow Up, is the creative director at the internet’s “home for multipotentialites,” I heard her interviewed on a podcast and checked out the book. I did this less because I feel like I’m a multipotentialite and more because what I heard in the interview made it sound like Emilie–a millennial–was tapping into not only a certain type of worker (the person who can’t pursue just one thing, or who refuses to accept the notion that each person has “a thing”) but also into the current way of doing work.

We have all read the statistics about the future of work: average people will switch jobs multiple times during their working lives; careers are not simple trajectories, but complicated mazes; the gig economy is here to stay, which means less security and more job or gig hopping; etc. The early chapters in How to be Everything present the reader with various ways to combine interests and gigs to create a life with sufficient Money, Meaning, and Variety for a person with multiple interests and income streams to thrive. She offers four work models for multipotentialites and encourages her readers to “smush” them together or dis-aggregate them as they see fit for the particular way they tick.

As a career coach, I appreciated that many of the chapters include worksheets of sorts to guide readers through the hard work of figuring out how much money is enough money, determining the “whys” that motivate your work, and figuring out what model of multipotentialite you might be and what sort of multifaceted career approach might work best for you. My own experience tells me, however, that working through those exercises on your own might be difficult–so I suggest getting a small group together to work through the book and keep each other on task by sharing insights and progress.

I am a WEE bit hesitant to mention one of the things Wapnick picks up on in the book that directly applies to higher education and your careers, dear readers. In her chapter on “the Phoenix approach” to multipotentialite careers, she draws our attention to “The Abandoned PhD Theory” and points out

Possible socioeconomic factors aside, many Phoenixes report loving their advanced, five-year academic programs for roughly three or four of those years and then losing interest (124).

We all know people who have left PhD programs, are in the process of leaving PhD programs, or who are quietly thinking, right now, about how best to leave their PhD program (there’s a Paul Simon song about that, I think). And while digital reams of quit lit and other essays supporting the abandonment of the PhD in light of the dismal job market exist to provide ample justification for quitting, Wapnick’s theory adds some new insight. Some people–the people she calls multipotentialites–can be passionately interested in something and pursue it all out UNTIL that point where they have gotten–intellectually or emotionally or skills-wise–what they came for and then they lose interest. This might not even be conscious on the part of the learner until they have an opportunity to reflect on a pattern of intense involvement followed by abandonment; or until they read Emilie Wapnick’s book.

I know I have had jobs, including some facets of professorial work, that appealed to me strongly for a certain amount of time–usually while I was very busy learning the ropes, figuring out the systems, and determining where my best work was needed–and then ceased to thrill me at all. Wapnick asks her readers to consider this quirk a feature rather than a bug and ponder ways in which you can use and foreground your ability to learn and integrate rapidly, rather than your tendency to leave something when it no longer excites you.

How to be Everything is aimed more at millenials than at those of us mid-career or beyond, but I don’t think that it is void of meaning for those of us who have figured out (or thought we had figured out) what we wanted to be when we grew up. See if your local library has a copy or snag one here and see if you agree.

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