Jill of Some Trades, Master of Several -- But Trust Me, They're All Awesome (I Think)

Last year, I dialed back a bit on my consulting projects and committed to a full-time college teaching load.

My husband was relieved. Not because I'd be making more money (I'd be making less), but because finally, he said, "I'll be able to explain to people what you do for a living."

I had to admit that I felt the same relief. For several years, I'd been working on my own pretty successfully, but the least successful thing I'd managed was explaining to folks what I was doing all day that resulted in an actual deposits to my checking account.

"I'm a consultant," I'd say, "and I teach." This explanation invariably lent itself to clarifying questions that swept the conversation quickly down the rabbit hole: "Well, I work with under-represented communities to support them in building power for making their own decisions on issues like infrastructure and community investment. I also build and facilitate online and face-to-face communities of practice and professional learning communities. Oh, and I plan and facilitate this leadership institute for local boards and commissions and then support organizations around California who want to do the same. I also do program evaluations."

If my listener was still awake, she might blink a few times and try, "Uh, okay … Well, what do you teach?" – a question that led to its own muddy answer, that I teach courses on the history of social movements, economic inequality, educational equity, and also sometimes train new teachers.

Eventually, my conversational partner would try to narrow me down: "So you're in the history department? Poly sci?"

"Health Education," I'd say, already thinking of how to change the subject as I launched into an explanation of the social determinants of health.

I guess I'm complicated. It's not just work either. I can't commit to reading one book at a time, doing one craft at a time, listening to one kind of music, or even (until I met my very rooted husband, who has had both our apartment and his same job for almost thirty years) stay in one city for more than a couple of years at a time. And though I've always come back to college teaching over the last thirty years, I've changed fields several times and pretty much always alternated teaching years with public sector work.

In the past, I mapped my ever-changing interests to just being a flake, or non-committal, but recently I stumbled across a 2015 TED talk by Emilie Wapnick: "Why Some of Us Don't Have One True Calling." Wapnick has a new book coming out on the subject of multipotentiality – How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don't Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up, and thanks to her website (and an impending project deadline), I was motivated to take the multipotentiality quiz. According to my results, I'm a "simultaneous multipotentialite," which explains why you can't find a place to set your glass down in my house without moving a stack of history books, a half-completed knitted sock, a pile of magazines ranging from Texas Monthly to Foreign Affairs, an embroidery hoop, six different kinds of flour for making bread, or a bead loom.

My house is a mess. But am I? As I was looking through Wapnick's site, I realized that the work I do is not just a product of my own multipoteniatedness (which is not even a word), but that it is designed for other multipotentialites, with the idea that because multipotentialites thrive on exploring and mastering new skills, gobbling up information from different content areas, and weaving disparate ideas together in creative ways, our seemingly flakey status makes us not just generalists, but really the kind of innovators whose energy and creativity might just be able to bring enough complexity to the table to change the course of our world's profoundly embedded systems of oppression and inequality (not to aim too high or anything). Or, as Wapnick herself says, "A multipotentialite who embraces and uses their multipotentiality can inspire widespread movements and make significant social contributions."

(Of course, my own orientation to multipotentiality can also contribute to overwhelm and anxiety in my students, trainees, and clients who aren't multipotentialites. And that is a constant struggle, but one to discuss another time.)

With this new frame, I'm looking through everything I do in my teaching and consulting life and wondering how we can best leverage multipotentiality for innovation in addressing root causes, as well the problems closer to home, that impact low-income communities and communities of color.

For instance, given our shorter-term bursts of energy, multipotentialites are natural fits for one-term stints on local commissions. Since many public commissions seats have two-year terms with a two-term limit, I've often leaned toward a strategy of encouraging appointees to be lower-key in their first term to secure reappointment, saving the "big moves" (such as shepherding enduring policy for equitable outcomes) to the second term. In what ways might we rethink that strategy by leveraging multipotentialite's skill sets for immediate action and assuming a shelf life of one-term appointments?

I'm looking forward to digging deeper into this topic and others in this blog. Of course – there's the caveat: My own multipotentiality also makes it hard to maintain a coherent set of topics, so your patience is requested. Who even knows what I'll be writing about here as my passions change?

One thing is for certain – you'll always be able to trace my ramblings back to my commitment to breaking down the systems of structural inequity and oppression through my work in education and the public sector. There may also be baking break-throughs, crafting updates, and book reviews. Whatever happens, I look forward to our exploration together!


Laurie Jones Neighbors is an independent consultant and educator who specializes in developing, implementing, and assessing programs and educational experiences in support of equitable political representation and local, regional, and national decision making by low-income communities and communities of color.