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Multipotentiality

"I find it difficult to choose between careers because I fear how large the choice is. Having many options available is pleasant, but to determine what I will do for many years to come is scary." (Bryant, graduating senior who lists his possible future careers as "applied psychologist, scientific psychologist, college teacher, philosophy, mathematics, architect, engineer") [As always, all names in today's post are student-selected pseudonyms.]

Multipotentiality is the state of having many exceptional talents, any one or more of which could make for a great career for that person. Gifted children often (though of course not always) have multipotentiality. Their advanced intellectual abilities and their intense curiosity make them prime candidates for excelling in multiple areas. This can be 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.

I surveyed some of my students this past year about their (possible) multipotentiality and what they want to be when they grow up. This was all triggered by little Sampson, a 1st grader, who out of the blue one day told me that he was having a really hard time trying to decide what he wanted to be when he grew up: a scientist, a mountain climber, a video game tester, or a chocolate tester. (Mmm... I could go for that...!) I suggested he give it some time, as well as that he take advantage of opportunities in the next 11 years to explore his options.

A handful of the kids returned their cards to me with just one future career listed, along with a note saying that this decision is not a struggle for them. For this handful of kids, I was not surprised. Miguel (7th grade) has wanted to a lawyer ever since I've known him (which was Kindergarten). Maureen (5th grade) has wanted to be an obstetrician since she was about 3 years old (and since she's growing up on a ranch, she actually has opportunities to semi-explore this career at a young age). Kisi (8th grade) is shy and quiet, yet get the girl on stage and a myriad of characters' personalities come to life from deep within her. (She also writes plays, including one performed by members of her church as a Relay for Life fundraiser. The unexpected yet remarkably brilliant ending had the whole audience in tears...!)

But most of the kids gave me endless lists of their dream careers...

Marie, 7th grade: teacher, doctor, CPA, artist, banker. "It's hard for me to decide what I want to be because there are so many choices and I believe that I have potential at many things."

Allie, 7th grade: lawyer, actress, spy, plumber, writer, musician, teacher, nurse, professional dancer, construction worker. "It's hard to decide who you want to be when you grow up because all your different ideas collide or don't work together (like construction worker and actress)."

Michelle, 7th grade: writer, optometrist, orthodontist, radiologist specializing in nuclear medicine, pharmacist, scientist who researches cancer. "It's so hard to choose because I want to dedicate my life to doing something life-changing. I just don't know yet what."

Georgie, 6th grade: famous football player, NBA player, wildlife biologist, white water rafting guide, teacher, doctor, pilot, construction worker. "I think it's hard to decide a job because we're too young to decide and we haven't found our true talents yet."

Stewie, 11th grade: web-page designer, programmer, networking specialist, IT guy. "It was easy for me to pick a computer-related field because that's what I love to do. It is not easy for me to pick a specific area that I want to study because I love them all."

May, 5th grade: architect "1st mostest," lawyer "2nd mediumest," veterinarian "3rd leastest." "It's hard to decide what I want to be because I'm good at math and art and arguing for a point, plus I also like animals."

Black Spider, 6th grade: missionary, teacher, professional trumpet player, non-profit worker, animal shelter volunteer, panda population researcher (to help the panda population), crocheter for charity, professional cartoonist. "It is hard to decide what I want to be because they all look so fun!!!"

Jane, graduating senior: aerospace engineer, lawyer, ice cream taster, talk show host, college professor. "Throughout my life I have wanted to go into a variety of careers. As I am approaching that time in my life where I am forced to pick, or at least lean towards, "one," I am realizing just how many interests I really have. It seems almost impossible to pick just "one" and as a result I am looking into possibly getting multiple degrees so that if I get bored with one career I can move on to another."

Her strategy is a good one. Encourage these kids to keep some of their doors open. Studies show that most people change careers 3 or 4 times in their lifetime. While that happens out of necessity to some degree for many people, just knowing that can give these kids hope that they will be able to pursue at least a few of their interests as careers.

Another good suggestion for kids in this boat is to consider holding on to a couple talents as hobbies, rather than pursuing them as careers. Maybe play in the local symphony orchestra or paint pictures for your friends as gifts, maybe write songs to sing with your children or create a science laboratory in your basement for those times when you get a hankering to run an experiment. By maintaining some of their interests as hobbies, multipotentialed individuals allow themselves the opportunity to still explore and develop those talents while making money with their other talents.

Combining talents to create a career is also an option. I had a friend in the University Honors Program when I was an undergrad who loved and excelled at both technology and art. Today he runs his own planetarium (somewhere in Utah, I think...) and designs not only the technology behind the scenes but the art that makes the shows as well.

I have a former student who employed a unique strategy when she went to college. With deep interests in science (specifically, research), Latin, art, teaching, anatomy, law, politics, and other areas, she crafted a come-what-may philosophy that has proven to be helpful (and not very stress-inducing) for her. She decided that her first two years of college, she would just take the classes that sounded interesting to her and that after a couple years she would probably have enough classes in one or two areas to point her in the direction of a major that she could declare at that time. (I hear parents of 18-year-olds across the country gasping in fear!) But really, this strategy has worked for her. Now entering her senior year at an Ivy league school, one of the above areas has become her declared major. She says, "In my experience, the best career exploration that I had was to create new options rather than 'keep my options open.' It's a good thing to love lots of things. It means you have great choices and can create new opportunities."

For those who've enjoyed what my students had to say above, here are three more that really blew me away. In particular, note the VARIETY...

Maggie, 6th grade: famous singer, veterinarian, marine biologist, material scientist, archeologist, doctor, nurse, dancer, artist, Navy Seal, charity founder, fashion designer, spy, professional horse rider, dog agility trainer and competitor, firefighter, EMT, animal shelter owner, magician, professional photographer, TV star, cop, INVENTOR, professional instrumental musician, weather woman, chemist, engineer, physical therapist, game designer. "All of my possible future careers are all about being able to color outside of the lines with a different color! It is hard to decide because there are so many choices and so many cool things, but then you remember you are mortal. You can't do everything. So you must choose a few and hope for the best."

Jay, 6th grade: astronomy, astrophysics, physiology, paleontology, geology, archeology, ornithology, marine biology, botany, physics, anatomy, mythology, legends, animals and their homes, rocket science, meteorology, electricity (energy, light), volcanolgy, insects, reptiles, mineralogy, machines, engineering, architecture, diseases and medicine, chemistry, the future, President, teacher, history, explorer, transportation, any branch of the military, police officer, mathematics, measurement, geometry, currency, computers, construction, numbers, time, "and literally about 100 more main jobs. I love each job so much and there are so many possibilities!"

Aqua, 6th grade: language teacher, spiritual instructor, doctor/comforter of dying people, marine biologist, missionary, writer, spy (founder of a spy organization), dancer, singer, Olympic sprinter, heart transplant doctor, SWAT team leader, weapons development scientist, artist (specifically cartoons), Army or Marines, politician/President, stay-at-home mom, orphanage founder, teacher (Kindergarten and/or college) philosopher, fashion designer, bookstore owner, ballerina, designer of a virtual world website for churches, counselor of the gifted, thrift shop owner, dollhouse maker, glass blower, poet, lawyer, actor, pianist, comedienne, non-evolution scientist, historian, astronomer, potter, magazine publisher, journal and notebook maker, scrapbooker, seamstress, novella writer, radio show host, newspaper publisher, video game designer, batik designer, college for 9th grade girls founder, jeweler/gem cutter, swimmer, inventor, geologist, weather scientist, gardener, ... "They think that we have it easy. They think that we are smart-alecs. They think we are happy being lazy. But you know what? 'They' and 'we' are two very different words. The truth is, being academically gifted is much harder than being otherwise. When you are academically gifted, you expect of yourself that you will always exceed the milestones expected of others, and you love to be challenged so much that you challenge yourself to do what truly seems impossible."

What did you want to be when you grew up, and what did you choose? Do the (gifted) youth in your life struggle with this big decision?

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