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The Perils of Multipotentiality

Multipotentiality refers to the situation of “being good at” several or perhaps many, non-related activities. This ability to excel in diverse areas can be problematic for children and young adults, and sometimes even mature adults as well. A gifted child who is equally competent in math, science, and language arts may appear to have it all, yet be stymied by the lack of a clear path for academic and career focus. As she grows older, the child is often forced to choose between swim team and math team, to take an additional science class or foreign language class, etc. She may have to decide whether to attend a prestigious summer writing workshop, or an equally prestigious summer program for mathematics. Generally, the choices become more complex as the students matures, and more time is expected to be dedicated to various interests. For a person who is extremely gifted, it can be quite frustrating to not have the time available to do all the things that they might like.

Multipotentiality may appear to outsiders as a ridiculous thing to complain about, yet it can be extremely difficult for a child who is still trying to form his identity. How does he define himself, if not by what he does? All young people go through a period of questioning who they are and how they fit into the world. When our gifted children are told, “You are good at everything”, they may hear instead, “You need to continue to do everything, and do it well.” Parents and guidance counselors can help a child to define their goals and overcome the negatives of multipotentiality. They can assist the child in reflecting on what sort of ambitions he has for family, home, and workplace. What really matters to him? Where does he imagine himself in five year, or in ten? If he can rank his competing interests or abilities in order of how much personal satisfaction they bring, he might see a better way to organize his academic and extracurricular life.

Parents are often accused of pushing or hothousing gifted children, forcing them to advance through material as quickly as possible and master work far beyond what is typical for their age. My experience with the families of hundreds of gifted children does not agree with this model. I find that in the vast majority of cases, it is the kids leading the way, with their parents and other involved adults running to keep up! Sometimes, however, unintentionally, parents do send the message that their love and respect hinge on the child's achievement. Make sure that your child knows that you love and value her for who she is, and not just her grades, standardized test scores, or the number of leadership positions she holds in assorted clubs. Allow her to drop those activities that do not hold a lot of meaning for her, and encourage her to spend some free time each day just reading for pleasure, daydreaming, or “hanging out”. People do not tend to make their best decisions under pressure.

There are other ways that caring adults can help kids in this multipotentiality dilemma. For young children, dress up and role playing help kids to “try on” different careers. Talk to them about what excites them or what they'd like to know more about. As kids get older, exposure to different professions, preferably including time with adults who are happy to talk about their jobs, can be very informative. Ask your child to try to answer several questions, such as, “What do you like best about this job? What do you like least? How much preparation does it take to get into this position?” If a child makes a connection with a particular adult, consider asking if that person is willing to become a mentor. Mentors are unpaid volunteers who act as guides in a particular field.

Volunteering or working at an entry level position is another wonderful way for kids to get a taste of different careers. Sometimes this can save a considerable amount of time and money spent on the “wrong” career path. My husband loved animals, was very good at science, and thought he wanted to be a veterinarian, right up until he spent a year working for a vet when he was a teen. It didn't take him long to realize that the majority of the work was not saving the lives of animals, but performing repetitive surgeries and administering medications. So he scratched vet off his list of aspirations. He went on from high school to attend a service academy, but ultimately decided that military life wasn't right for him. One more wrong turn led him into computer science and management, and that's where he's still happy and fulfilled.



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