Is Being an Academic Your “true calling”?

According to Emilie Wapnick’s TED Talk (“Why some of us don’t have one true calling”), the world is divided between “specialists” and a subset of people with various interests and creative pursuits whom she calls “multipotentialites.” In other words, two kinds of people inhabit this earth: people who know exactly what they want to do, and others who don’t.

Ms. Wapnick herself self-describes as a multipotentialite: she is a writer, an artist, a motivational speaker, a blogger, and a lawyer. According to her TED Talk, as well as her book How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up, there is absolutely nothing wrong with her; on the contrary, she claims that it is absolutely unnecessary to have a “true calling” in life. While she acknowledges that the inability to commit to one single career might create difficulties and could generate anxiety, she claims that the concept of destiny and vocation have been tremendously “romanticized” by our culture. In fact, she demonstrates through a variety of examples that this sort of lack of focus can be an advantage for many people, as it forces them to combine interests and passions that often generate new ideas.

There is no doubt in Ms. Wapnick’s mind which part of the population has the upper hand in this world in terms of innovation. Multipotentialites sit at the top of this hierarchy. Specialists’ only claim to redemption is that they share their too narrowly focused minds with this new breed of multitaskers, which include not only multipotentialites, but polymaths (people with an encyclopedic mind), puttylikes (polymorphous beings who refuse a fixed identity), and scanners (people with unquenchable curiosity who acquire knowledge of numerous unrelated subjects).

Is it possible to build a life after academia?

While her TED Talk is certainly commendable for embracing difference and diversity, it nevertheless raises important questions, as it establishes two world orders around the notion of skills. While any academic would agree that for many the profession is a vocation, as it requires focus and commitment and often provides very little reward in return, Ms. Wapnick’s claim that the divide is a consequence of “inner wiring”—specialists and multipotentialites have just been “born this way”—condemns academics to embrace the idea of being one-trick ponies while others thrive by developing new skills throughout their careers. What happened to the old saying “Jack of all trades, master of none”?

Most importantly, what should happen when one’s true calling simply doesn’t pan out? What about life after academia? Should academics who have never had any doubts about their passion, and who certainly don’t lack focus and commitment, be condemned to spend the rest of their lives living in difficult conditions due only to not having been given by nature the variety of skills that their counterparts possess? Could this notion of a vocation that Ms. Wapnick simultaneously denies and reinforces be the one that holds academics back from transitioning out of academia and explains why so many accept the dreadful working conditions of being an adjunct? Is academia a true calling? In other words, is being an academic nature or nurture?

What do you think?



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