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

This is part II 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.

Before I continue my story where I left it in part I, I would like to say a word about the design mindset.

The design mindset is the love I didn’t know I had. I only found out that there was a process to outline my way of thinking when I had already completed my career transition and everyone had started asking me how to orchestrate their own career transformation.

Looking for a way to describe my process, I found the design methodology.

What is a designer?

Whereas most people at a crossroads would ask themselves — what am I going to build? a designer’s question is — what is possible? and goes on to expose herself to a variety of experiences to inform many prototypes. A designer prototypes, leans back, observes, gathers feedback and goes back to work until the challenge becomes an execution issue after several iterations. A designer is curious and moves across domains to connect the dots in new ways.

Here are the experiences I had been exposed to prior to my career transition:

  • Traveling
  • Global experience: studying, living and working in different countries
  • Speaking several languages
  • Remember those 36 jobs I mentioned in part I?
  • Different roles within the domain of the arts (pianist, actor, advisor, board member, lecturer..)
  • Membership in Business Networks
  • Experimentation with colleagues in the arts using acoustic instruments and algorithms
  • Experimentation with different styles within Contemporary Music. Modern music is not just one style
  • Many personal interests
  • Working with different ages
  • Working with different nationalities
  • Working in different domains before my first career had taken off (call centers, record shop, bank, government agency..)

In design terms, my life and work had been a big exercise in diverging.

How can you intentionally force diverging?

The exercises that I provide below will help you diverge and prototype your way through your career transformation.

Vitruvian Woman by Tyler Lamph with Filter

And I continued..

There is nothing wrong with you

So, let’s say you too want to do what I did.

You are not excited about your current job, perhaps you are even bored, you don’t fit the mold of recruiters, you simply have more than one interest, or you just want to try something new. That’s all ok. In spite of what you might hear around you, there is nothing wrong with you!

We have made ‘work’ an engineering problem, a one-fits-all path that is supposed to lead us from student life to professional bliss in increments along a straight line. But that is no absolute truth, it is just a construct of our time. It has its origins in Henry Ford’s Industrial Era when every worker was only allowed to know a tiny bit of the assembly line. And you know what they say, ‘how you do anything, how you do everything’. So we extrapolated the linear assembly line to the design of our organizations and departments, and to recruitment even in this day and age that the workforce consists of mainly knowledge workers, not blue-collar workers.

In the Renaissance, on the other hand, it was the most normal thing in the world to do different things at the same time or to have several careers.

My advice? Own your multipotentiality, and look for and reach out to other multipotentialites so that, systemically speaking, you can feel strong in a world that doesn’t understand you.

Stop trying to change that world and focus instead on what you can do. Doing, that’s the word.

A useful question to ask yourself is: what action can I undertake right now that will get me moving and engaged? And not: what possible new diagnosis could I stick to my forehead? Trust me when I say that there is nothing wrong with you.

If you want to work by design, and I have said it twice now, a ‘bias to action’ and joy as a compass are your best friends.

Besides, ask for help. Your life is not a piece of art, but a fantastic design. Let me explain.

Mozart wrote symphonies all by himself but a designer can not design a new product or service in isolation. A designer needs input from others in their team, and from the users. I want you to look at your life and work as a Tesla, a fantastic design, not a piece of art. A fantastic design is something that we co-create with others hailing from different domains through radical collaboration.

Why different domains? In systems theory, the Darkness Principle says that each one of us only has one mental model of the challenge at hand. Therefore, to truly solve a problem, whether that problem is a new career or a new anything, we need to invite to the table as many of those models as possible so that we can pick the bits and pieces that can best help us forward. That’s why I recommend that you go out and talk to as many people as possible. See them as your ‘team’, each one of them will provide you with a piece of valuable information.

The reason why I did so many cool experiments is that I was lucky to be working in an ecosystem of curious and interesting people. Such an ecosystem is what you need to design a new career as well. Today you don’t create a job by just thinking and by doing so in isolation. Today you create a job by taking action and talking to as many people as possible.

What else do you need?

The right attitude, a focus on the right problems, and ideation techniques if you are stuck and would like to unstuck yourself.

What follows is a set of tools to help you get unstuck. From a design perspective, you choose better if you have many possibilities to choose from. The idea, therefore, is to never just choose the first solution to any problem.

Besides, if you are bored now because your job is not challenging, I can guarantee you that by doing these exercises, you’ll be busy for quite a bit.

Come up with as many possibilities as you can. Remember the field of possibilities in part I. Said differently, think of diverging. The more options you have, the better equipped you’ll be to make good choices. Why? Because on your way up on the creation spiral the environment/the market will teach you something. You’ll learn something that’ll allow you to converge, to materialize your end product or service.

Therefore, the design mindset is perfect to loosen up if you are stuck.

Wayfinding is a designer’s attitude.

It is the art of figuring out where you are going when you don’t actually know your exact end destination.

What you need is a compass — energy, engagement, joy, and a direction, not a map. And then you pay attention to the clues in front of you. You follow the joy, what engages and excites you, what brings you alive.

That’s the spirit when it comes to your life and work.

Wayfinding is also a journaling exercise.

Log your daily activities for at least three weeks, preferably daily but in any case twice a week, and keep track of how engaged and energized you are during each one of those activities. Put your Sherlock hat on and look out for patterns, insights, surprises, and anything that is a clue about what works and doesn’t work for you.

You will gain a clear sense of what activities are worth pursuing and which ones aren’t.

Make a clear distinction between gravity problems and wicked problems, and focus on the latter, problems that are actionable.

What is a gravity problem?

In the design mindset, a gravity problem isn’t even a problem. It is a situation, a fact, a force majeure, something that you can not change.

An example? Recruiters only hiring those with x years of experience doing the same work in the same domain. That’s just the way traditional recruitment works.

The highly sensitive have a tendency to sink their teeth onto a problem until it is solved. In the end, solving problems is a sensitive person’s raison d’être. But some problems can’t be solved, they are not even a problem because they are not actionable and one can’t change the situation. Traditional recruitment is such a gravity problem, it is not actionable.

But if you must insist on going through the recruiter mill, by the way, I give you some pointers in The War Against Talent.

Another example? The Dutch performing arts. Even though I had always known that there was more than one career inside me, it was the collapse of the arts in The Netherlands about 8 years ago that worked as a catalyst for my career transition.

I learned that the best way to manage through massive upheaval and disruption is to disrupt yourself, not to change the world. I think reinvention is going to be the one skill that we’ll all have to have in our skill set in order to survive and even thrive moving forward.

And how do we recognize a wicked problem?

There is no clear problem definition, solutions are not right/wrong but better/worse, and they are multi-causal, multi-scalar and interconnected. An example? Your life, your work!

I am going to give you ideation techniques so that you can build many different prototypes for new jobs or business acts.

One such technique is mind mapping, a great way to get unstuck. It is visual and therefore bypasses your logical/verbal sensor.

You can depart from many things for a mind map, but I would like you to put your journaling to good use and reuse the content of the journaling exercise.

  1. Choose engagement, energy or joy
  2. Make the mind maps, several for each category
  3. Make secondary connections with random associations of words. Don’t think too much, just jot words down. It doesn’t have to be practical and it doesn’t have to make sense to recruiters or employers. The idea is to expand the possibilities.

5. Pick 3 and write a job description for each one of them

6. Name the roles and draw a sketch for each on a napkin or post-it

A very powerful way to (re)design your work is to design as many jobs as possible, to diverge, to broaden your perspective before you make a final choice.

Here come the Odyssey Plans:

Invent 3 possible job scenarios for the upcoming 5 years.

A. What you already do or that cool idea you have been chewing on for some time

B. What you would do if A suddenly wouldn’t be there anymore

C. What you would do if money or image were not an issue

Each one of those plans is plan A. They are all you, all equal in value, and they are all possible.

Use 3 A4 sheets or bigger, one for each scenario and make 3 one-pagers containing 3 sections each:

  1. A visual timeline. Include everything you would like to experience both professionally and personally in those 5 years. Give each scenario a 6-word title
  2. 2 or 3 questions that arise out of each version and that you are going to explore. As a designer, you test assumptions to discover new insights. In each timeline, you will learn something about yourself and the world

A dashboard to gauge resources — do you have the time, money, skill and contacts to make it happen? likability — are you excited or not? confidence — are you feeling confident that you can do this or not? and coherence — does it make sense on itself and does it fit the bigger picture of how you want to live and work?

When you are done, present your 3 one-pagers to another person. Pay attention to your energy. Remember that energy is your compass.

The best jobs are not found via recruitment. Therefore, stop using the internet to search for job vacancies. Use it to connect with people whose professional stories interest you and that you want to get to know.

A Design Interview is a prototype in the shape of a conversation, a prototype conversation.

You are going to reach out to your network and your network’s network to learn what it is like to perform a certain job or role. The purpose is to find out if you would like to do that work yourself at a later stage.

You should aim for as many of those conversations as possible because you are a designer and therefore diverging will put you in the best shape to make a choice.

During such a conversation, you are not after a job, you are searching for the story.

If you do this well, from a place of true interest in the story and the connection with the other, it is very possible by the way, that people will ask you — we are looking for someone, is this something you would like to do?


My life story is proof that life is not a work of art, something that you get right once and for the rest of your days. Work is instead, a fantastic design. And it is my hope that I have set you in motion not only by sharing my story but by also having given you practical tools to help you along.

Considering the complexity of the current market, you’d do well by embracing your multipotentiality. If there has ever been a time in which agility and reinvention are desired, that is today.

Before you go, I would like to give you one more tool.

I often get asked, how can I merge two fields?

Honestly, I did what I did because I did it. And when I realized what I had done, I was as surprised as you are. A designer stands back and observes until seeing parallels between domains, understanding. Perhaps football genius Johan Cruijff was right, ‘je gaat het pas zien als je het doorhebt’ — ’you see it when you get it’. I had merged teams and music.

And I liked it so much that I made a conscious hobby out of it.

So, here is what you can do.

(Un)likely Pairs

Make pairs of seemingly unrelated things and find out how they are similar instead of different. Once I made it a hobby, I wrote bizarre blog posts in that way. For instance about leadership and cats, to give you an example. Because.. music and teams, what the heck do those two have to do with each other? A lot, it turned out.

To finish, keep these two thoughts in mind wherever you go.

1. Focus on real problems instead of holding on to things which are not an actionable problem. You don’t have to change the whole world, don’t allow your sense of justice to mess you up. The world is the way it is, and when it comes to working, the only thing that you have to do is take your next step, your next action.

2. Go out and connect with people, and keep the Darkness Principle in mind. Work is not something that you solve by thinking and doing so in isolation, it is something that you solve in interaction with your environment, the market of life.

And now, go go go, do!

* * * *

Sonsoles Alonso

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