Emilie Wapnick’s How To Be Everything

Have you ever wondered if it’s possible to live a life centred on more than one interest? Or fretted about the idea that you’re supposed to have a thing, a passion, a calling; one thing for which you’re known? Does the question “what do you want to be when you grow up” make you feel anxious? Do you want to get by simply by doing the things you like?

In How to be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up, Puttylike founder Emilie Wapnick argues that it’s possible to build a sustainable life and career that brings all of your different passions together. It’s possible to have more than one calling or no calling at all, to do what you love for a living or on the side, to switch careers like underwear, and to fulfil your widely varied interests.

As someone who strongly identifies with Wapnick’s multipotentialite philosophy (and yet is riddled with anxiety that I’m supposed to “pick a thing and stick with it” and that maybe folks think I’m flaky because I get bored easily), I devoured her hard-won advice. She’s a powerful advocate for not compromising yourself or squashing yourself into boxes, and How to Be Everything is a source of warm encouragement and sound advice.

Though it focuses on how multiple passions play out in your work life and there’s plenty here about smart career moves and starting/running small business/es, How to Be Everything isn’t a career book per se. It’s a “lifestyle design” book. Eye-rolling term aside, there’s plenty to be gained from knowing yourself, knowing what makes you tick, and making conscious decisions and tweaks that will make your lifestyle more sustainable and more enjoyable — something that is particularly important for multipotentialites. Wapnick’s definition of lifestyle design runs along the lines of “know what makes you happy, then intentionally build a life that celebrates all of it”:

“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, put your brilliance out into the world, and make it a better place.”

Sounds perfect, right? But where to begin? First, Wapnick breaks down the notion of having “one true calling,” arguing that it’s a construct imposed by a society that likes things in neat and tidy boxes. Speaking from her experience, she talks about the anxiety that the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” and the insistence on early self-definition create. She writes, “It’s subtle, but we can translate ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ to, ‘You are allowed one identity in this life, so which is it?’ How terrifying is that? When phrased that way, it’s no wonder the question stresses us out.”

As a solopreneur who wonders about walking away from my business and trying something completely different (maybe!), it’s helpful to hear that I don’t have to limit myself to a niche or field, but instead can build a sustainable and meaningful life around many and changing passions. I can do something now, and I can do something else later. Right now, I’m a tarot reader who also runs an online shop. I teach tarot, too. Plus, I’m a writer. Oh, and I do a little ad-hoc web design on the side. And while I’m really happy with the variety of roles that make up my working week now, it’s more than likely that I’ll want to switch direction later. Maybe I’ll bring my interest in botany to the forefront of my work, or perhaps my enjoyment of textile crafts will turn into a new career, who knows? The thing is, I’m already stressed out by the thought of what friends and family will say to me. “But I thought tarot was your thing!” or the humiliating “maybe that tarot business just didn’t work out.” Wapnick consistently emphasises that multipotentiality is a superpower, not a failing, and that mutipotentialites are adaptable and great problem-solvers, innovators and learners. Meanwhile, reading about famous career-hoppers including Maya Angelou, Steve Jobs, Patti Smith and Beatrix Potter is very validating. The world needs folks with broad-ranging skills and interests just as much as it needs focused specialists.

In terms of practical lifestyle design, How to Be Everything focuses on three pursuits: money, meaning and variety. All are essential components of a successful life, though we each need these in different quantities. Though I feel like I get the variety and meaning parts of this equation, I especially appreciated the frank discussion around money. To a greater or lesser extent, money is a cornerstone in most of our lives; it’s not much fun pursuing your hobbies if you can’t afford a home or decent food. Seeing income on the table here alongside the less tangible (loftier, yet equal) pursuits of meaning and variety feels really grounding. It makes the passion part feel more real, and more possible.

Emilie Wapnick outside her home on Salt Spring Island, BC.

How to Be Everything presents four different approaches to following your passion/s. A “slash careerist” presents many different work identities at once (like a web designer slash mountain guide slash artist slash blogger). A “group hug” combines all passions into one project. A “phoenix” pours all of energy into one single business or project for years, then quits and starts afresh on something new. An “Einstein” has a day job that provides financial stability, and then pursues multiple passions on the side. (Einstein developed his theory of relativity while working a full-time day job as a civil servant. There’s hope for everyone.)

You can build a life however you please. You can do everything. You don’t have to be an expert, you don’t have to choose, you don’t have to have a calling. You do you. As Wapnick writes:

“The truth is that you aren’t lacking a destiny or purpose. There is a very good reason for your insatiable curiosity: you’re someone who’s going to shake things up, create something novel, solve complex, multidimensional problems, make people’s lives better in your own unique way. Whatever your destinies are, you can’t step into them while stifling your multipotentiality. You must embrace it and use it.”

In terms of practical guidance, there’s plenty here. Wapnick counsels each of the above types, providing models for total reinvention, exploring on the side, discovering different common threads that could lead to a career or business that combines the lot (“to smoosh or not to smoosh, that is the question”), and loads more. Via Puttylike, she has established a large and enthusiastic community of folks who feel the same, and she’s bringing years of observations and experience into this book. It’s filled with inspiring examples of regular people who’ve built careers and lifestyles by combining their passions in different ways. There’s advice for introverts, for folks who need a safety net, for avoiding overwhelm and burnout, for dealing with people who just don’t get it. There’s also a whole big chapter on productivity, focus, time management, and y’know, getting out of your own way. Personally, I’m obsessed with finding out how other people structure their days/weeks, and I loved the varied approaches, tactics, challenges and solutions presented here.

The book also addresses the touchy subject of knowing when to quit — a decision multipotentialites are likely to face regularly. As Wapnick explains, “to most people, finishing means hitting an external end point. Multipotentialites, on the other hand, are finished once we get what we came for.” It’s refreshing to hear that getting bored of or done with something and deciding to quit isn’t something to be ashamed of, it’s simply freeing space for a new interest to develop and that’s just fine.

I finished How to Be Everything feeling heard and understood, excited about my current projects (and finally ready to ditch one or two without shame), fired up about my life, and excited to use a load of new life-planning tools to get my chaotic work/life situation in order. If you’re pulled in many directions, uncertain how to answer “so what do you do?,” or living a multi-passionate life but could use a few tools to help create structure and sustainability, How to Be Everything is an inspiring and validating read. You’re awesome just as you are, so crack on with doing all the things in your own way.

How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up came out May 2. You can also read a great interview with Emilie in Autostraddle’s Follow Your Arrow series, and catch her brilliant Ted Talk, “Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling.”


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Beth Maiden is a tarot reader and writer based in Machynlleth, mid-Wales. She has two cats, a hot builder girlfriend, far too many tarot decks and not enough coffee cups. She's really into bread, the colour red, camping and brand new notebooks. She'd love to cut your hair, read your cards or hang out with you on her blog, Little Red Tarot!

Beth has written 111 articles for us.

15 Comments

  1. Omg this sounds like the exact book I need right now. I quit my steady job at a good company a few months ago because I was so bored and couldn’t face the idea of being there any longer, and so many people just seem confused by that. Now I’m temping and trying to work out what on earth I’m going to do and how I can build a career that I won’t get bored of in a couple of years… could definitely use some validation/inspiration!

    • Hey Firefly27,

      Congrats on being brave and doing what’s right for you! People often don’t get it when we make choices like quitting our well-paying jobs. It’s like everyone assumes that being kinda bored and kinda miserable at work is just how things are supposed to be and if you challenge that notion, that makes them feel defensive about their own choices.

      Anyway, enjoy your next adventure(s) and I hope you find How to Be Everything really helpful!

  2. I recently learned an expanded version of “jack of all trades, master of none” which is actually “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one”, which I love and feels relevant.
    This book sounds like just what I need right now, and I must get myself a copy immediately.

  3. so i’m intrigued by this, as someone who definitely fits the “multi-potentiality” description (pastor, activist, herbalist, organizer, writer, fangirl, goat farmer, teacher, probably something i’m missing) and also someone who teaches about vocation and am so down for conversations about understanding vocation not as figuring out which “box” the capitalist heteropatriarchy wants to fit us into but about following the sound of the genuine in oneself (Howard Thurman).

    That said – I wonder how this book addresses power. As in, racism, and misogyny, and queerphobia,etc. and how that means many of us are doing multiple income-producing things because institutions have abandoned us (me, and many others I know, especially women/queers of color). Which doesn’t even address the whole question of having to hold down multiple jobs that *aren’t* “vocational” because we have to eat, have shelter, clothe our kids, tend to our bodies.

    because I don’t think it’s true, actually, that “You can build a life however you please. You can do everything.” I mean, I wish it were true that this is how society is structured, but it’s not. That’s the message white supremacist heteropatriarchy wants us to believe but it isn’t true. Systemic oppression makes sure it’s not true. It’s a myth the dominant culture tries to sell us to keep us shamed for not living up to it (as if it is our fault)and feeling disempowered to do anything about it. So it’s a myth that holds up white supremacist heteropatriarchy.

    The challenges folks face who are trying to make it, who are trying to be faithful to the sound of the genuine in us regardless of what the system tells us – those challenges are real, and have everything to do with power, systemic oppressive power.

    I think it’s a great thing that people are figuring out that capitalism is fucking us over as humanity. So let’s be clear about that and fight it collectively (not individualistically – I’ve figured out my life, you figure out yours), and so I’m left wondering how this book addresses this, if it does at all.

    • I agree, and I didn’t find that this book addresses class or race privilege or systems of oppression that mean some folks have to work multiple jobs (as opposed to the ‘lifestyle-design’ shared here) or can’t simply ‘build a life however they please’.

      The book is focused entirely on answering that frustrating social norm that demands we have ‘a thing’, demonstrating that you needn’t conform to the culture of ‘specialisation’, and offering tools and suggestions to enable (some) people to follow multiple passions. It’s a really important and exciting conversation to be having and I loved the book for this, but it does fall short in terms of the accessibility of those tools, and of the conversation itself.

  4. “A ‘slash careerist’ presents many different work identities at once (like a web designer slash mountain guide slash artist slash blogger).”

    …Wow, as a quality control specialist/copy editor/ghostwriter/reporter with five paying jobs and two unpaid jobs, just @ me next time.

  5. Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention. I literally never once considered that I could pursue multiple passions… I’ve never been interested in just one thing in my life. And I’ve been stalling on everything because I can’t decide what to settle on and what to give up. I have to get this book!!!

  6. Gosh, this sounds so cool and interesting and Relevant! Also, I, also, uh, just realized that I know Emilie’s wife, and mayyyyybe wrote 40,000+ words ten years ago about how in love with her I was for nanowrimo. #smallworld

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