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?
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:
References and Resources