Let’s not sugarcoat it: it’s tough to live with multipotentiality in a society built around specialization. At age 34, I’ve not yet found a single, specialized job that will bring me the fulfillment I had hoped to find through a “calling,” and I doubt I ever will, at least as long as I’m looking at externally-directed, narrowly-prescribed professional paths. (For the time being, I’m putting aside “writing” as a calling, both because it’s not a career for which you simply get a degree and get hired, and because writing itself is a tool for me to process my many interests.)
Happily, some multipotentialites do manage to swim against the current, living at least some of their (many!) dreams while jumping through a sufficient number of specialization hoops to keep everyone else happy. But it’s not easy! Rather than reinventing the wheel each time, it seems to me that young people who have this blessing/curse (take your pick, it’s both) could really benefit from specialized guidance from those who get what they’re going through and understand what they’ll face next.
In other words, they need a mentor with multipotentiality. This mentor could provide the guidance that others will never offer, because they recognize that the paths that work for most people may come at too high a cost for a young aspiring polymath. The mentor can help the young person figure out which of those costs are worth paying and when they absolutely are not.
All of this will vary based on the mentee’s specific interests and dreams, which is why my first suggestion is a mentor who can talk to them and understand their needs. But what would that hypothetical mentor discuss? If I could go back and talk to Younger Me (or any other young person struggling to choose between too many interests) what would I tell her?
First, I’d talk to her about the potential joys and challenges of multipotentiality early. We ask kids what they want to be when they grow up before they’re out of elementary school. When my mentee writes her “When I Grow Up” essay and describes a life juggling three separate and unrelated career paths, I’d talk to her frankly about how it’s easier if you pick one thing, but that some particularly tough people actually do manage to do more than one.
By high school, I’d be playing up the value of interdisciplinary connections in producing creative insight. Albert Einstein may not be the first person to come to mind when we talk about multipotentiality, given that he clearly had one interest that rose above all others on which he built a specialized career. But even people who have one dominant interest may still have meaningful multipotentiality—and, indeed, this can be key to their success! In the years leading up to Einstein’s “Annus Mirabilis,” during which he produced the four papers that revolutionized our understanding of space, time, mass, and energy, he and some friends met regularly to discuss not only science, but also philosophy and even literature, demonstrating the broad intellectual curiosity that Einstein himself said helped him to develop his groundbreaking scientific insights. In the same way, whether a young polymath has one interest that rises to the top or many that she’s still juggling, I’d try to help her become an effective advocate for and defender of interdisciplinarity.
That’s all easy to do in the early years of one’s life, of course. Once she’s in college, though, she’ll face the adult world of specialization, which can feel quite foreign to people who had previously been praised for their multipotentiality! Now she’ll need more hands-on and direct guidance.
So, first, I’d talk to her about the choice between double majoring and choosing a single major and lots of electives. These have different costs and benefits. The latter is great if she still doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up, because there’s always grad school—but on that note, I’d strongly caution her about taking on debt to finance a master’s degree or PhD. After all, if she’s not certain she wants to do it yet, she doesn’t want to make herself into an indentured servant to pay back training in an interest from which she’ll move on before she pays it back. Eventually, debt may be worth it, but in my experience, multipotentialites need more time to explore before making this decision.
Indeed, it’s not even necessary to rush into undergraduate education: I might well encourage her to take a gap year before going to college to explore how her many interests fit in the professional world. Excelling in school is quite different from excelling in the adult world, and seeing the real-life professional application of a subject that looks interesting on paper is extremely useful. Of course, there’s always internships, which are a great idea, too.
I’d remind her that the route to achieving her goals is not likely to follow anyone else’s path. That brings us back to the reason that I framed this piece around mentoring rather than listing what has worked for me and what hasn’t. What I think ultimately will help most is the individual discussion. Everything I recommended here might be the wrong path for that individual; the point is to raise the questions and consider paths other than the ones traditionally on offer. That’s why, above all, I’d try to keep her company and provide a sounding board as she forges her own path.
Finally, I’d note that some people believe that you stop growing when you’re an adult. I’d make sure she knows that’s not true.
If you’re a grown-up living with multipotentiality, do you have stories of struggles and successes that you wish you could have heard as a young person? If you’re still in school, how do you feel about charting your path forward? I invite you to share in the comments below!
This post is a part of Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop.
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