The Road Less Travelled: Navigating a Squiggly Career

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

This all-too-familiar phrase is often followed by anxious feelings as we think of the appropriate answers to fill the cringe-worthy silence; a reflex I’m sure most young people develop over the years answering this question.  

It all starts when you’re five years old: you don’t put much thought into your answers and people find them sweet and adorable. As you grow older however, this question starts carrying more weight and people expect your response to be a serious, well thought-out roadmap leading in a single direction. 

For those who have more than one career interest, it can be a little hard to justify your desire to explore those options and to find the right words with which to describe why you don’t see your future as a straight line from point A to point B. All you hear, when that question is asked, is that you’re going to have to make a choice soon and possibly abandon all other passions and interests. Generally to detour from that chosen course isn’t an option because, if you’re financially stable and secure in the job that this path has led you to, you ought to be fulfilled, right?

Often our personal happiness is tied to how well we think our careers are going, so choosing a path is vital because it plays such a big role in our overall perception of happiness. This can lead to us internalising this pressure to choose the ‘right’ path that will secure us ‘the perfect job’. Society romanticizes this idea of having one career path, often associating it with fate and an undeniable calling.

Emilie Wapnick refers to this in her TedTalk called “Why some of us don’t have one true calling”. She calls those who are lucky enough to have found fulfilment in one career path as ‘Specialists’, and the rest she calls Multipotentialites. This endearing concept describes one who has many interests and pursuits. Being one herself, she understands the anxiety, isolation and idle feelings when you don’t fit the ‘single career pathway’-box. Society tends to celebrate ‘specialists’ and in turn put pressure on the multipotentialites into narrowing their career focus. However, Emilie encourages the idea of seeing it as a superpower instead of an obstacle to overcome. 

One of the advantages of being interested in multiple things, is the ability to synthesise ideas to create something new. Rapidly learning transferable skills allows for resourcefulness that makes adapting in this ever-changing world easier. These crucial skills are what multipotentialites could lose if forced into a one-way path not meant for them. 

Another common question young people often face is: Where do you see yourself in five years? This question becomes especially prominent in job interviews resulting in perfectly rehearsed answers. Through their TedTalk, Sarah Ellis & Helen Tupper introduce the concept of career paths not being so much a straight line as it is a ‘squiggle’. This is exactly what multipotentialites seek in terms of career fulfilment.

Ellis and Tupper describe climbing the career ladder as a learning limitation. Most people stay in one job for most of their lives and society tends to look down on people who don’t stick to one given path, but find new challenges by changing their careers. These linear paths should be considered a remnant of past thinking as they are not suited for everyone, and the world of work has evolved. Viewing the career path more as a ‘squiggle’ is an unconventional concept that consists of both uncertainty and possibilities. Whichever way you look at it, it gives you the opportunity to explore your interests and past passions to pursue the next stop in your career path. The squiggly career creates a space for your experiences, expertise and interests to flourish. 

The duo suggest that people ought to reflect and create definitions for success and learning for themselves. This is the opportunity for individuals to take ownership of their learning and not leave it up to their job title to limit what they know. 

We don’t often hear of many success stories of people who are thriving in multiple career paths, but if we knew that it’s realistically possible, we would likely be more open to aligning our passions and interests in our everyday lives. We’d also be more likely to invest in our independent learning outside of the workplace whether we’re a specialist or a multipotentialite in the pursuit of living our best, authentic, and fulfilled lives.