Competence: The importance of multipotentialities


I  n a recent TED talk, author, entrepreneur and artist Emilie Wapnick shares her insights on what she refers to as “multipotentialites” by addressing the question: Why Some of us Don’t Have One True Calling?



Multipotentialites are, according to Wapnick, people with more than one calling. An artist gone engineer. A psychologist who seconds as violin maker. In brief, a multi-talented and multi-driven person.
Through exploring their callings Wapnick points to three superpowers that Multipotentialites develop:

  1. Idea synthesis
  2. Rapid learning
  3. Adaptability

While all these qualities seem more than suitable in todays organisations, multipotentialites are still a segregated breed. A segregation which starts already at a young age when we first face the question: what do you want to be when you grow up?
A question that haunts many of us through a large part of our lives given that the answer is expected to be one (specialised) profession or an inclination to find one’s one true calling.

It is, to say the least, intriguing that multipotentialites are still perceived an odd breed. Particularly in an era when creativity and innovation is on the agenda of most organisations. We may find it cool to refer to an engineer who studied psychology,
a financial analyst who is also an artist. But do we use their superpowers?

For more than a decade it has been well known and debated that one of the important ingredients for enabling creativity and ultimately innovation in an organisation is smart teams. Teams have become the norm, and truly interdisciplinary teams at that. Truly interdisciplinary teams are more than just multidisciplinary. They require people who are what may be referred to as multipotentialites or T-shaped people. A term said to have been coined at McKinsey & Company in a discussion on what competence they needed: people who can apply extended thinking, link perspectives “T”, as opposed to narrow, deep and tight thinking of specialist or “I” people.

The complexity and interdependency of problems today – and the speed by which new solutions are to be found and implemented – require more than capable, single and specialised players. That is not to say that T-people or multipotentialites serve as the alternative solution.The trick is to combine the two, while being aware of the value and potential lack of multipotentialites: individuals who can cross borders, who feel at home anywhere, learn rapidly (they are used to new environments) and are able to create synthesis of ideas from seemingly opposing fields. So the question is how do or can multipotentialites contribute in – or to – your organisation?

October 2015

If you want to see the TED talk by Emilie Wapnick you can find it here: