Creatives With Multiple Talents

Comedian Patton Oswalt is skilled. Through years of effort he has risen to the heights of his profession, playing roles in numerous films, having his own TV specials, selling out theaters. But his childhood dream was not comedy — he wanted to be a novelist, and even attempted to write two post-apocalyptic novels as a teenager.

He started doing stand-up as a young man in D.C. as a way to flex his writing muscles. But that eventually changed, he writes in his new book Zombie Spaceship Wasteland:

Once I started doing stand-up comedy, I couldn’t get enough. The idea of writing a book, becoming a journalist and then, hopefully, a novelist, couldn’t withstand my sudden ambition to craft a perfect dick joke. Five thousand words a day seemed silly when I could bring a room full of drunks together with fifteen perfectly chosen words.

Of course, as I’m reading this book I’m thinking to myself, “Ah, but you are a writer, Patton. I’m reading a book by you right now, and it’s brilliant.” And it is. Taking the growing genre of memoir in new directions, this book of essays has standard reflections on childhood (mostly high school), but also includes a short graphic novel-style piece about two vampires, a sampling of disturbing greeting cards, and an epic poem to an orc warrior. It also contains a moving recollection from his childhood, where his good friend is suffering because the friend’s father is having an affair with a neighbor, but the narrator (the young Patton) is unaware.

It doesn’t seem fair, we often say, when we discover that someone so talented in one area is also a master of another. For me, it’s bad enough that George Clooney is so gorgeous he’d probably be able to persuade me to switch teams if he wanted (my wife knows of my man-crush, no worries), but it turns out he’s also a skilled actor, director, screenwriter and producer. Creativity expert Douglas Eby wrote about this phenomenon recently, and linked to an article he wrote about another multi-talented Hollywood star, Amber Benson of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fame.

Your blog writer’s high school in Glendale, Arizona, where in contemplating his future his dilemma was less “multipotentiality” and more “multiconfusion”

Eby notes K-12 educations specialist Tamara Fisher calls this phenomenon “multipotentiality.” It’s an issue for educators, particularly guidance counselors, as the multi-talented student wonders what to pursue professionally. I love and excel at calculus, Greek philosophy and English literature, Ms. Fisher. What now?

Creatives and those who frequent creative communities will not find multipotentiality unusual. In fact, it might seem so common they’ll wonder why there’s a word for it.

Recently I met two students in a low-residency MFA in Writing program who are about to graduate. They told me about a talent show their class held at their last on-campus residency. One of them said he had performed on the violin. The other told me he has acting experience but didn’t want to do a one-man show, so he performed magic tricks. I said it was interesting that all of these writing students had another talent they could perform. The violin player looked at me as if I had just expressed bafflement that an orange was the color orange. “All creative people have multiple talents, don’t they?”

They do, scientists tell us, even if they don’t realize it. After all, if you’ve never picked up a musical instrument, you may not realize you have a predisposition to excel at it. But the creative brain knows how to both master a skill and think in ways others would find counter-intuitive to breathe new life into that skill.

This is useful to society far beyond the arts. One obsession of mine is the so-called “Theory of Everything,” in which scientists hope to find answers to the mysteries of the universe and thus improve society in unimaginable ways. I devour books written by scientists about the cross-disciplinary work of researchers looking for commonalities in the universe, such as the fact that the way birds form flight patterns echoes the way neutrinos travel and the way a jaguar’s muscles flex in full pursuit of prey. I usually have to start skimming at some point because my scientific education is lacking and they lose me in jargon, but just as I can find delight in reading a comedian write beautiful prose, I can enjoy reading a physicist exploring anatomy.

Guidance counselors are expected to find a student’s “path” and set him or her down that path. But as Oswalt’s book shows, one should never mentally close off other paths.

Do you have a personal experience with the “dilemma” of multipotentiality? Have you observed it in your family, in your social circle, in yourself? I’d love to hear from you.

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About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

41 Responses to “Creatives With Multiple Talents”

  1. this post was featured on the fox’s cafe Antresol Cafe http://www.facebook.com/AntresolCafe

  2. Why yes, yes I have.🙂

    I am one with a propensity to excel in multiple areas. I played piano for less than one year when I was 10 years old. When it was time for the recital, my instructor bumped me up and had me perform with the students who had been playing twice as long as I had (I played a full length piece, which was unheard of).

    Fast forward to fifth grade, when I picked up the flute. I was first chair flautist in Junior High, and again by sophmore year in High School at a large school (competing against 12 other flautists). I won Best Soloist at a regional competition. I also picked up/played piccolo and moved from playing bells to xylophone soloist in 6 months.

    In the meantime I also excelled in art. My work was selected for the citywide “Children of the Sun” high school juried exhibition both sophomore and junior year. I won 3rd place in the city wide Mother’s Against Drunk Drivers billboard contest my sophmore year too.

    In the meantime, I was in advanced classes in history and English as well. Plus, when I tried out for the school musical (“You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown”) senior year, thinking I would get in the chorus if I was lucky, got the part of Lucy. With zero prior drama training. When I was rehearsing for that the choir teacher heard me sing, asked me to try out for the Jazz Choir (elite group) and told me if I signed up for choir next semester, I would get a solo on the album they were recording.

    So yes, I have experienced that. The challenge is that I would love to keep up with all those things, but it isn’t at all practical at this time. Darn practicality is also a strong suit for me, which can be a conflict!

    One other talent I am finally embracing is writing. I don’t put myself on par with those who have training and experience and … people comment that I am a good writer. For someone with little training, I think I’m o.k. at it, too. (Not comments like this … but well thought out/edited pieces.) And I do enjoy it. 🙂

    How about you Patrick? Any other hidden talents? 🙂

    • Amy, thanks for sharing, that’s quite a list!🙂

      I’m not really looking to write much about my own creative pursuits beyond writing. I did post once about my background in music – http://bit.ly/dG8m6C – and about my limited visual arts talent — http://bit.ly/f42RhT . Where I really see it is in my daughter, who has many visual arts talents and a knack for storytelling and character development. I could see her writing graphic novels someday.

  3. I started thinking of a couple of multipotentiality people as soon as I saw your post title. They sometimes express the dilemma of not knowing what to work on first, or next (or sometimes, at all – evidently it can lead to paralysis from having too many choices).

    All of them are writers as well as artists. And not just artists in one direction; they all excel at various arts and crafts.

    Me, I’m just a writer with some coaching skills. I’m sure you’re probably right – that creatives are all multi-talented – but I’ll try not to race out and uncover my other talents too soon.🙂 It took me long enough to figure out what I want to specialize in as a creative writer (screenwriting) and even that has to compete with all the other writing stuff I do.

    But when I see what my friend, sister and mother-in-law can do, I do feel a little envious.🙂

    • Hi MIlli! The paralysis issue is a real one, and it does seem at times you have to decide what your core is. But you can be a “musician” who focuses on keyboards but also enjoys the guitar, and you are a creative writer who has multiple creative writing talents and has chosen to focus on screenwriting, so don’t sell yourself short!

  4. Thanks for the links to my articles. Another one on the topic: Underutilized talents, too many aptitudes
    http://talentdevelop.com/732/

    • Thanks for the link, Douglas. Readers, you really need to read his work, it will be worth your time. (Or visit my Creativity Tweets of the Week on Fridays, I often link to his work.)

  5. Patrick, This is me! I have so many ideas and so many ways to accomplish them I usually accomplish none!

    I started my career as a museum educator because I loved to teach, then I decided to create my own art, then I turned to writing. It is hard for me to focus on just one of my talents and let it thrive before I jump to the next one🙂

    • Hi Melanie! Well, I had already gathered you were multi-talented based on your blog and tweets. That’s an interesting career path you’ve taken; I suspect the good news is that you’ve learned skills and lessons in each that apply to the next. You can bring it full circle by becoming a writing teacher!🙂

  6. I’ve always admired (and at times envied) people who could go deep in one thing and master it. I’ve always needed to spread myself around to several passions–writing, art, even my day job has become a passion of mine. The best is when I can focus on one thing and really get something done on it, like finish a short story AND send it out for publication. Or spend an entire weekend making jewelry. The worst is when I am so overwhelmed by what to spend precious time on that I fritter it away on the computer. I’m getting better about letting go of some of the things that I sign up to do, much as I love them.

    • Hi Roma! Oh, I know what you mean about having so many choices you fall into something not on the list. We all need discipline, and if you’re multi-potentialed, I guess you need to be multi-disciplined!🙂

  7. Delish. Absolutely delish. (thank you) 🙂

  8. So glad I saw this RT on twitter. Great article. I’m a creativity coach and having so many ideas and not knowing where to begin is a frequent reason my clients initially call on me. I can help them from experience because I have struggled with the same “embarrassment of riches” when it comes to creative loves and pursuits. Music, writing, acting, coaching…but there is great freedom in realizing that saying yes to one of these passions at any given time in life, doesn’t have to mean saying no forever to the rest.

    Working with my own creativity coach taught me that years ago and I now have a solo CD, a thriving coaching practicing and a book in the works.

    I look forward to your Friday creativity tweets! Thanks!

    • Jill, I’m so glad Twitter led you here! That’s a great story you tell there, I’m happy you’ve found your way and are helping others.

      Feel free to RT this post yourself!🙂

  9. Patrick: A superb article. I’ve thought about this phenomenon often but never in the terms you articulate so clearly here. Some thoughts:
    1. I prefer the term “multi-potentialed” versus “multi-talented.” “Multi-potentialed” implies that within a person there resides many powerful contributions that can emerge and be cultivated. Thanks for referencing that term.
    2. This conversation helps those of us who do not feel we have a single/one-and-only life calling but many that unfold over decades. Thanks.
    3. What I hear from many people brewing in fertile confusion is that they have so many options but are unsure how to choose. (And trying to keep too many doors open has been shown to be disadvantageous in the long run.) They often are, I now understand, multi-potentialed. Options: 1: Focus on one at a time, and give each one all you have for several years. Then transition and transform to the next one. (I’ve done this with about 3-4 transitions.) 2: Find ways to bring out those many potentials simultaneously.
    4. Steve Martin comes to mind: Potential 1: Comedian – brilliant. Did that. 2: Actor – brilliant. Did that. 3: Screenwriter and Director: clever, sentimental. Did that. 4. Playwright, memoirist, essayist, novelist – quite good. Still doing that. 5: Banjo player: charming. Still doing that.
    5. David Lynch is now recording pop music songs.
    So much is possible. It really is.

    Jeffrey

    • Jeffrey,

      So great to hear from you. These are really good points. In particular, I like the substitution for “potentialed” vs. “talented,” a more useful term.

      Readers, Jeffrey has good insights on what he describes above, “fertile confusion.” You can learn more at his Tracking Wonder site, http://trackingwonder.com/ .

  10. Interesting topic, and a real headbuster for me.

    I’ve studied arts and culture, have my masters degree here. I’m 23 and work as a curator of collections of contemporary arts.

    BUT

    I’m also a painter/visual artist. I play guitar, bass and piano/organ in diverse bands and have had credit/high profile gigs with all of them. I write about art and philosophy, generally anjoy doing all kind of creative things but fear to be put into one ‘pigeon hole’.

    The problem is: what to do with all these skills? And how not to neglect one whilst improving the other(s)?

  11. Hi folks — I co-author a blog dedicated to exactly this topic and us “multi-potentialed” people called The Davinci Dilemma(TM) ! We offer tips, strategies, and inspirational profiles and stories of those who are using multiple talents in productive and fun ways. We’ll have a book coming out later this year too. Please come and take a look!

    http://davincidilemma.com
    Or join us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/davincidilemma

    Thanks for a WONDERFUL article, Patrick!!

  12. Funny…I went to HS there in Glendale, AZ but mostly hung out under a palm tree across the street getting high back in the day with friends. when did you graduate? I happen to love taking photos and painting🙂.

  13. The dilemma of my life! I’m a musician, singer, songwriter, published author, photographer, and even an artisan, but choosing one of those talents alone is my downfall.. I have yet to discover a word to label it with.. like “Jack of all trades”.. Can we not be all of it at the same time?.. That would truly be a dream come true for me🙂

    • You’ll find like-minded people and tips to help with your specific issues at the blog I co-author, The DaVinci Dilemma! http”//www.davincidilemma.com

      • Great tip! I’ve been rummaging through the posts, and your fun little “playbook” for a bit now.. and I know the things I would like to accomplish over time, but the trick I’m struggling with is connecting with the people who can help me make it happen without ending up in a huge student loan debt. So far networking has seemed to wedge the door open, but stepping through and becoming a “social butterfly” is where I get stuck😛

  14. “Do you have a personal experience with the “dilemma” of multipotentiality? Have you observed it in your family, in your social circle, in yourself?”

    Ha, what social circle? Sadly my multipotentiality and my geographic location in a boring midwest suburban town is a factor in why I can’t seem to find a social circle where I fit in. Right now, my social circle is largely virtual friendships scattered across the globe (England, Canada, Australia, New England, Tennessee).

    I’ve tried to find writer’s groups and artist groups, but they are very far away from me.

    I have my B.S. in biotechnology. I spent 12 years in the biotech field – microbiology, forensics and medical genetics. After trying to combine work and motherhood for 2.5 years, I came home to raise my daughters where I live, just far enough away from the Windy City to make it impossible to join any interesting groups on a regular basis.

    To combat some intense feelings of loneliness and vent my fears and concerns about having a selectively mute daughter, I started writing about my experiences both with this childhood anxiety disorder and how I helped my daughter overcome this condition and I provide information and emotional support to other parents through my blog, and I write about giftedness.

    Douglas Eby actually linked to one of my blog posts, in this post of his:

    http://talentdevelop.com/2475/what-do-you-do-with-your-intensity/.

    He linked to my post about Overexcitabilities and The Gifted: Living with Intensity.

    http://raisingsmartgirls.wordpress.com/2009/05/09/overexcitabilities-and-the-gifted-living-with-intensity/

    I was delighted.

    I was also extremely thrilled when the Brazilian author Paulo Coelho tweeted a post of mine on my writing, photography and art journaling blog after I had some really dark days.

    http://thesprightlywriter.wordpress.com/2012/03/23/paulo-i-forgot-the-lessons/

    I think I ended up with 8,000 hits that night. It was amazing.

    Now that I substitute teach, I don’t get quite as much time to devote to my passions, but I do carve out time. If only I could find the same kind of passion in housekeeping.
    😉

    There’s so much more I want to do creatively. I don’t get paid for creative work, but it makes me happy.

    ***

    I’m just having trouble finding where to go next that I could turn my passions into decently paid work.

    Thanks for the post, I’ve added you to my blogroll!

    Best wishes on living an art-committed life.

    Casey

  15. Oh what a relief it’s been to read this article – thank you so much! Having grown up in an environment where being of a creative bent equated with being a Loser, it was comforting to see that having more than one creative talent does NOT automatically upgrade you to ‘Super-Loser.’

    When I was growing up, the general consensus seemed to be that people who wanted to do creative jobs when they left school were the lazy so-and-so’s who didn’t actually want to do anything that seemed like ‘proper’ work. I can clearly remember my interview with my careers officer at fifteen, where I told her that my favourite subjects were English, Art and Drama, and so I wanted a career as either a writer, an artist or an actress. She looked at me without even blinking and replied

    “Have you thought about a nursing career?”

    …And handed me a pile of leaflets about different nursing jobs. She flat-out refused to discuss the options I mentioned, talking over me each time I tried to bring them up again. I knew darn well I wasn’t in the least bit cut out for nursing (I’d get far too emotionally involved, for starters) so I ended up believing the jobs I’d always dreamed of doing were to be nothing more than hobbies, fitted in whenever I could in between doing ‘proper jobs.’ I’ve still managed to whack the occasional sweet shot – I’ve written the lyrics to two musicals that were actually performed, and had a couple of short stories published too – but I’ve mainly wasted years of my life in dull clerical and kitchen jobs that I hated but did because they were ones that would ‘bring the money in.’

    It’s only now I’m a mum and housewife – and having a job is not financially viable for us anymore – that I’ve decided to kickstart my creative ambitions again. An acting career is not really possible for me, but a writing one is, so I’m now working on a novel. Which I AM going to finish. And then I’ll write another one – whether this one gets published or not. And then another one – and so on…

    So, thank you for saying, in clear, plain English, that having more than one creative talent is not something to be ashamed of.

    • Hi Wendy,

      Welcome to The Artist’s Road. Your story is an inspiring one–at least how it is ending up–and also one all too familiar to me. I’ve befriended a lot of creatives who managed to find their way to the path of an art-committed life despite dreamkillers in their way. I’m one of those, actually. I’m glad you’re embracing one of your creative talents/ambitions by writing (and kudos on the musical success!).

      As to employment, I have interviewed some creatives who intentionally take mind-numbing jobs to earn money to pay the bills while not sapping their creativity on the job. They actually work through creative knots while doing their repetitive work. Albert Einstein is a good example; he developed the theory of relativity while working as a file clerk at a patent office.

      Good luck!

      Patrick

    • Hi Wendy,
      If you have not read them already, you will love the books of Barbara Sher (Wishcraft, I Could Do Anything If Only I Knew What It Was, Refuse To Choose) which would be right up your alley. You might also enjoy our blog The DaVinci Dilemma, that celebrates multi-talented people and offers tips for managing multiple talents for a fulfilling and successful life. http://www.davincidilemma.com. As we like to say, you’re special, but you are not alone!

  16. I have been pursuing multiple creative fields from my childhood…I have finished five grades in piano,done theatre since the age of 5, been part of piano concerts, done fine arts, singing, am multi-lingual, you name it I have done it. The problem is that whatever I put my hand into, I excel at that immediately, and that makes it immensely difficult for me to choose a single career path. In India, its so important to choose one field and stick to it, but I feel I will waste my talents by pursuing just one field of interest. I feel like I am an alien or something sometimes. Help please!

    • I don’t know what help I can offer, other than to say that you probably know the difference between talent and skill, yes? Talent is why you are excelling right away at different pursuits. Skill can only be learned over time. If you pursue multiple paths with the same vigor you will never reach the skill level of a specialist in one. But if other forms inspire you, you can still pursue one out of your own passion while focusing on a separate one as your “primary” pursuit.

  17. Ugh.. I play piano, flute, guitar, ukulele, was in a nationals-winning steelband, orchestra and chamber choir, love baking, making costumes, working wot problem animals, particularly dogs ans horses, writing, making costumes, jewelry-making, drawing and painting, do some pole dance/ballet/gymnastics, film/edit/write treatments for music videos and more, but it sucks i never have enough time to pursue all these things whilst stuck at uni. I always eonder if I’m good enough at each thing and feel like an imposter in any one ‘camp’ because I do so many other things. I wonder about how much time i devote to each thing. I’m obsessed with video games so I want to write feature articles on them with particular emphasis on the music and concept art to combine some of my hobbies. I feel a bit lost with the other stuff though. I like working at stables but its long hours. Would anyone like to but a small sculpture made out of the fur of their longhaired cat? I can make felt with it…

    • Well, that’s an awful lot going on there! If you’re focused on being the best you can be at one of those things, you probably have to narrow your focus in terms of the amount of time you spend on one thing vs. another. But you shouldn’t worry about choosing the right one. I spent ten years focused on music and now I focus on writing, but I don’t view those music years as wasted in any way.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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