The Return of the Renaissance (Wo)man — Part I

This article is part I of the talk on multipotentiality and the transfer of skills that I gave a few months ago during Stichting Hoogbegaafd!’s (The Gifted! Foundation) Symposium in the Netherlands. I originally gave the talk in Dutch.

Artwork Tyler Lamph

And I began..

My presentation will be about three things:

1. The ‘business of you’ and the importance of a vision in order to support your different pivots or business acts

2. The design mindset as a methodology to embrace multipotentiality and make it bloom

3. The transfer of skills and how you too can achieve it as well

I chose the title ‘Met vleugels kun je vliegen’ — ’With wings you can fly’ because I thought it to be a cool wordplay. I was born on Tenerife. And growing up, I had absolutely no clue what my work was going to be in the future. As in, no clue whatsoever. But training as a performing pianist from an early age — grand piano, ‘vleugel’ in Dutch, translates as ‘wing’ in English, gave me literally wings. I would be sent abroad to study with great teachers. And that, discovering the world, was definitely something I wanted to do.

That, and making my own money, I was a feminist.

See, even though I had no idea what my future work was going to be, I could definitely take my next step, traveling.

Traveling gave me energy and joy. And energy and joy are the compass of a designer when you don’t know your exact destination but yet you want to follow a direction.

That’s also the reason for the subtitle ‘building your way forward’, and not ‘solving your way forward’, because work is for us, and for more and more people in these complex times, not an ‘engineering problem’ that you solve once and forever, but a ‘wicked problem’. A problem for which you don’t know the exact outcome beforehand and one that continuously challenges you to take the next step. Careers are not ladders anymore, but jungles. Besides, no one knows today what the jobs of the future are going to be, anyway.

And there you have it. I just introduced you to two elements of the design mindset: energy and joy as a compass, and a bias to action, to taking the next step.

By the way, this presentation has two parts. Part I is about my journey from pianist to team development consultant. Part II contains concrete steps you yourself can take to give shape to new and joyful business acts or jobs.

Let me tell you about my acts!

Career Act 1: Sonsoles the Pianist.

Before becoming a team development consultant, I was a well-known pianist of contemporary music in The Netherlands. Composers wrote pieces for me, and my fellow artists and I used algorithms to both enhance the sound possibilities of our acoustic instruments and trigger visuals.

After having followed a solid academic path along Madrid, Freiburg and New York, this odd bird landed in Amsterdam to pursue the experiment: How can music be notated differently and what would that do to the collaboration with other musicians? How do I create a market for multidisciplinary contemporary productions? What happens when plugging a piano into a power socket? That explains the picture with the cables around my neck.

At the same time, I had 36 other ‘jobs’, like creating a market for those productions for which there was no clear demand and supply, being my own agent, and developing strategies to perform abroad, just to name a few of them.

Career Act 2: Sonsoles the Team Development Consultant.

I pivoted.

In the picture, I am in Berlin mentoring for the Founder Institute, where I told founders the same thing that I am telling you today, the importance of having a vision for your business for the long term.

Right here and now, I would like to make an analogy between a ‘business’ and the ‘business of you’. Today I want you to look at yourself as a business.

What you see in the picture is the vision of three well-known businesses.

And here’s the thing, Google’s doesn’t say anything about searches, Amazon’s doesn’t say anything about books, and Twitter’s doesn’t say anything about tweets.

This is long term thinking. Because you can’t let your business depend on technologies, trends, or other businesses. Why? Because those come and go, and you want to stay relevant independently from what happens around you.

Instagram started as a local social network competing with Foursquare, Flickr started as an online game, Twitter as a podcast. Thanks to their long term vision, today they are still in business. How? By pivoting to something else.

The same hard truth that applies to Instagram and the likes applies also to you as a business. You will encounter many challenges. The art is to see them as a chance to pivot instead of as an insurmountable brick wall.

Your vision is, therefore, your protection. It gives you air cover for the long term, making you flexible and nimble.

I too have a vision — to make sense out of things, especially if complex or complicated, by thinking differently and challenging the status quo.

On the left, I am playing contemporary music, also known as complex music. I also initiated and produced complex projects using algorithms to trigger visuals and soundscapes with our acoustic instruments, as I mentioned before. To add to the complexity, I had to hire personnel too, from musicians to developers to transport guys and everything in between.

On the right, you see me with a client working on a complex business and organizational problem.

If you look at the pictures, both settings look kind of similar. On the one hand, the pianist and initiator working with an ensemble; on the other, the facilitator and entrepreneur working with a team. In both cases, people everywhere who need to organize around the achievement of a goal: a performance on the stage or a performance off the stage respectively, but nevertheless a performance. An ensemble and a team are the same thing.

Having a vision is what helped me change course, be able to explain my seemingly bizarre career transition to my clients, as well as make clear to them why I could help them. The conversation was not one about pianos or teams, but about making sense out of complexity. That’s what I was selling.

This is the perfect moment to talk about multipotentiality. In a nutshell, a multipotentialite is someone with several career or business acts.

The pyramid on the left represents a business, and for today’s purpose, the ‘business of you’. The drawing on the right represents the model of the 3 levels of reality used in systems theory.

The lowest bit is the essence level, the field of possibilities. This level is multipotentiality, here everything is possible!

And that matches awesomely with the vision bit in the pyramid, which we just spoke about a few slides ago. I make sense of complex things. Here I don’t say anything about ‘pianist’ or ‘team development consultant’. That would be what I materialized when completing a successful trip to the top of the pyramid. The pyramid, just like the 3 levels of reality, is a spiral of creation.

Why do I say ‘a successful trip’? Because every time that you pass along the dreaming/strategy level (depending on which model you are looking at) you are passing the level of interaction with your environment, with the market. And at that level, you will learn something, and you will have to go down to the essence level several times to fine-tune your offering until it becomes a reality at the consensus/product level (once more, depending on what model you are looking at). Not everything that you think of at the essence level will become a product. And that’s ok, not everything HAS to become a product or a career.

Today I want you to look at yourself as an artist who goes back and forth, up and down this spiral several times to give shape to your different acts or jobs.

So, multipotentiality is in any case about a diversity of acts. What else?

Look at this beautiful drawing by Tanmay Vora based on Emilie Wapnick’s TEDTalk on multipotentiality.

Looking at myself, and starting from the bottom up, I can say that I am adaptable.


When I saw that the Arts were going to come crashing down in the Netherlands, I realized that I was dealing with a ‘gravity problem’, a fact, a situation that I could not change. So I decided to focus on what I could do. To keep it musical, I could orchestrate a transition to a different domain. I was pragmatic and agile, just like Instagram, Twitter, and Flickr. Because besides wanting to travel, there was something else I knew when growing up in Tenerife, remember? I was a feminist and wanted to make my own money, good money.

And now I would like to tell you about the other two bullet points on Tanmay Vora’s drawing: combining two or more fields and creating something new at the intersection, and the transfer of skills across domains.

How did I combine two fields to create something new?

The hexagon you see at the bottom of the slide is a graphic score. A graphic score is a serious game for modern collaboration, a one-pager resembling a business canvas used to notate music visually.

What you see on the right is me using a systemic tool with a team. I ‘drew’ a canvas using floor markers to help the team organize around the achievement of their business goal, $3 million in revenue in Q3.

So, look at this!

I effectively translated the concept of the graphic scores to systemic tools for teams. Or to quote Jeff Bezos, I used my ‘lemonade stand’ skills to open a ‘hamburger and hot dog stand’.

An ensemble and a team are the same, and so are a graphic score for ensembles and a systemic tool for teams, it’s just a different setting!

And my vision/essence? It remains the same — to make sense out of complexity.

Let me tell you how such a serious game works using this animation of Kandinsky’s Composition 8 as an example:

1. The light yellow background is the workshop space in the workplace

2. The light blue area in the middle stands for “how do we reach “$3 million in revenue in Q3”

3. The circles and triangles stand for female and male team members respectively

4. The squares stand for events that are having an impact on the team (e.g. a new competitor in the same market, import/export restrictions…)

5. The straight lines and curves tell whether there is a relationship between team members, and team members and events, and how strong the relationship is depending on the shape of the lines

In the animation all these elements stand in a certain formation, landing at the end in a different one.

With my help as a team development consultant, the relationships within a team change or become stronger to achieve that desired goal of ‘$3 million in revenue in Q3’.

I gained this experience by performing graphic scores (visually notated ensemble music) for 17 years in Amsterdam. Such a score is an iterative serious game that allows modern musicians to develop new skills in real-time while moving in space on the stage. The result after each iteration is improved collaboration skills among musician performers.

Today I use floor markers to jumpstart similar processes with my clients’ teams.

To paraphrase Paul Klee — who said: “a line is a dot that went for a walk” — a line is a sound that went for a walk. In other words, my work as a team development consultant is to get people (sounds) in motion so they strategically grow towards each other to achieve the desired business goal.

This journey from A to B is a re-alignment of existing relationships within a team in service of a goal, in the same way as with the graphic scores.

See me HERE working with a team in real-time.

Let’s say that you too want to transfer your skills.

Everything starts with awareness. Your first step is becoming conscious of your current skill set in your current domain.

I said earlier that I had 36 jobs as a ‘pianist’. A pianist is the ultimate systems thinker: knows their part, knows other ensemble players’ parts, initiates projects, networks, manages overlapping projects, etc, etc, etc.

Do you know what your current skill set is?

Only once you do, can you ask yourself — how can I transfer them?

And then you take the second step, which is communication. You need to translate your skills to the new domain using a language that makes sense to your new type of client or employer.

Let me give you a heads-up by telling you about the skills I transferred:

  1. Managing emotions and stage fright became Executive Presence
  2. Performing when the curtain goes up became Hitting Deadlines 100% of The Time
  3. Staying calm when ensemble players create drama and leading them back to the work became Facilitative Leadership
  4. The pianist knows everyone’s part and has an overview of the whole became Systems Thinker
  5. Delivering high quality in spite of constantly shrinking budgets became Lean Consultant
  6. Good at working with different cultures in an ensemble became Cross-Cultural Competency
  7. Good at working with different generations in an ensemble became Multi-Generational Teams
  8. Producing multimedia projects became Project Manager
  9. Producing several overlapping multimedia projects became Program Manager
  10. Connecting and creating win-wins became Entrepreneur

Then I also discovered that some skills remained the same:

  1. Adviser
  2. Reading the Emotional Field
  3. Networker
  4. Reading Financial Reports

Stay tuned for part II where I will dive deeper into the Design Mindset while giving you concrete steps you can take towards designing new business or career acts.

* * * *

Sonsoles Alonso

Misfit helping CxOs and Founders Build Highly Efficient Happy Teams in 6 Months or Less with the Right Hires. Also virtually.