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Multipotentiality: When High Ability Leads to Too Many Options

The stress and indecision of being well-rounded

Too many choices
Jason, a college junior, is trying to decide what to do after graduation. He is leaning strongly toward graduate school but is unsure of whether he wants to stay in the United States or study abroad. An honors student at a liberal arts university, he has taken a wide variety of courses--from chemistry and calculus to philosophy and political science--and he has gotten As in all of them. While he knows he is fortunate to have so many options available, he also sometimes panics that he will make the wrong choice and end up in a job he doesn't like. If he gets a Ph.D. in political science, will he be tracked into being a college professor? If he pursues a master's program in economics, will he regret not continuing with political science? And what about all of those classical languages he has studied? Were they just a waste of time?

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Multipotentiality: "A Blessing and a Curse"

Students like Jason have what is called multipotentiality, which Tamara Fisher describes in Education Week as "the state of having many exceptional talents, any one or more of which could make for a great career for that person." Fisher explains that, for students with multipotentiality, having an abundance of choices is "both a blessing and a curse":

"On the bright side, they have many realistic options for future careers. But on the downside, some of them will struggle mightily trying to decide which choice to make. Particularly in the last couple years of high school and the first couple years of college, this monumentous decision with so many great possible outcomes can be a source of debilitating stress. The choice is 'exhausting and stressful,' as one of my students said this year."

This frustration can continue past adolescence as adults with multipotentiality may find themselves drifting from job to job, unable to settle in any spot long enough to know if it would satisfy over the long term, feeling that their lives and careers are a hodge-podge of failed attempts. Paula Prober urges counselors to "show understanding of the weight of this decision-making process" with clients who have multipotentiality and to allow them to "grieve over career choices they did not make."

Multipotentiality? Or Inadequate Challenge?

Adults who mourn the loss of roads not taken may have never had the chance to reach the true ceiling of their abilities. According to a study published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, the "illusion" that many high-ability teens are "equally competent at everything" comes from their ability to do well in a variety of classroom subjects and their involvement in a variety of in-school and after-school activities. However, such measures create an artificial ceiling that doesn't allow us to see a student's relative strengths, just as a very bright six year old may never know what she is truly capable of if she is never allowed to do work beyond a first-grade level.

Consider Jason. Rather than indicating that he is equally good at everything, his college career thus far might instead be an indication that he is not being challenged at a level to show relative passions and aptitudes. Perhaps he would continue to thrive and be engaged in graduate-level math but find post-college classical languages more frustrating and less interesting. Alternatively, he might excel in a job that allows him to use his knowledge of Latin and Greek and Sanskrit but find that his interest in political science wanes once it becomes more specialized or practical. In addition, his temperament may determine whether the pursuit of research, teaching, or field work is the most comfortable fit.

The authors of the Journal of Counseling Psychology article describe this good fit as "optimal adjustment"--a match between personal abilities, personal preferences, and requirements and rewards from the workplace environment.

Smoothing the Path to Optimal Adjustment

Parents and other adults can keep these guidelines in mind when helping children with multipotentiality:

  • Urge young people to think about their college and career choices in terms of how rewarding they would find the environment of long-term study or work in those areas. Karen Arnold, in Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians, writes that for young people who are first-generation college students, learning the skills and attitudes necessary to bridge the gap between school achievement and a successful career is especially important, since the experience is a new one for families who don't have personal college experience to draw upon. Without guidance as to what careers are within reach and how to get there from here, first-generation college students often unnecessarily narrow their choices to jobs that are upwardly mobile rather than careers that have the potential to be "deeply, intrinsically meaningful."
  • Encourage students to investigate and be exposed to real-world work in areas that they are interested in through either formal or informal mentorships. Some high schools offer mentorship or intern programs with local professionals and businesses, but parents will often have to be creative in finding opportunities that match their child's interests. The parents of one young woman I know who was interested in animal science found for their daughter a local dog breeder who was willing to be a mentor for a few hours a week.
  • Allow for exploration of a wide variety of subject areas and activities at an early age, without the pressure to specialize too early. Leave the choice of how involved to be up to the child, but make available many options, both in areas of strength and in areas previously unexplored. Remind young people that they have a lifetime to explore their many skills, interests, and passions.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that in the 30 years after high school, adults hold an average of 10 different jobs. Given the fast pace of changing technology, the careers our children eventually enter might not even be invented yet, much less have majors to lead them there
  • Remind children that they can continue to pursue passions and strengths as hobbies, regardless of whether they lead to careers, and keep in mind that an area of passion might not necessarily be in one's greatest area of natural ability. Your child might whip off an expertly written essay without much effort but not be the least bit interested in a writing career, instead wanting to be a computer programmer, even though this field requires more conscious study and effort on her part because it doesn't come as naturally. This point is particularly important to remember when a child shows an early and unusual ability in an area that requires intensive training, such as music or math.
  • Finally, we can share with our children examples from our own lives of how we continue to discover new passions or even new careers, how we return to old interests once abandoned, and  how we, too, have had to let go of some options (for which we have grieved) to make room for others that brought great fulfillment. Finding an optimal adjustment (or serial optimal adjustments) is a personal journey, one that has no perfect answer and few irremediable choices.

References and Resources

  • Achter, J. A., Lubinski, D., & Benbow, C. P. (1996). Multipotentiality Among Intellectually Gifted: It Was Never There and Already It's Vanishing. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 43, 65-76.
  • Arnold, K. D. (1995). Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Fisher, T. (2010). Multipotentiality. Unwrapping the Gifted. Retrieved July 24, 2011, from http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/unwrapping_the_gifted/2010/08/mu...
  • Prober, P. (2008). Counseling Gifted Adults: A Case Study. Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association, 11(1), 10-15
  • U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2008, June). Number of jobs held, labor market activity, and earnings growth among the youngest baby boomers: Results from a longitudinal survey. www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/nlsoy.pdf
  • Parts of this article were adapted from Rivero, L. (2010). A Parent's Guide to Gifted Teens: Living with Intense and Creative Adolescents. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
Lisa Rivero is the author of The Smart Teens' Guide to Living with Intensity and other education and parenting books. more...

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