Mentoring for Multipotentiality

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.

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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.

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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.
Follow the link for others’ takes on this topic.

Blog Hop - Multipotentiality

31 thoughts on “Mentoring for Multipotentiality

  1. Love your advice. I totally wish that I had someone help guide me in my younger years. I remember taking aptitude tests in high school and college only to discover I had an aptitude for the things I was trying to decide between… I already knew that so it wasn’t very helpful.

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    1. Thanks, Jen! Yeah, those tests never helped me much. No one ever has a good answer for someone who wants to create and synthesize. I guess because we have to figure it out for ourselves. And even THAT isn’t something that most young people are encouraged to do….

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  2. I wish people stopped praising perfectionism so much, especially in schools. It was not uncommon for me in my teens to hear about people with many talents and interests, but they were considered successful only if the excelled in all of those areas. It took time to figure out that excellence is not the only measure of success.
    Such mentorship would have been so needed.

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    1. Oh, yes. In my case, I did hear it said, in theory, that perfectionism was a negative thing because it caused me to suffer — but the implicit, louder message in our society is that you have to get all the right answers (rather than trying something creative and risking failure, from which we learn), and on top of that, that being stressed out all the time goes along with being successful. Both are unhealthy and unproductive.

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      1. Jessie – you say both are unhealthy and unproductive. What are the two things in your “both”? Stress and perfectionism? I also wonder if you think I’m a multipotentialite? (Or was, as I believe I’m pretty hopelessly over the hill, vocation-wise.)

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      2. Aunt Amy, thanks for commenting! Yes, I would definitely say that you are a multipotentialite (and still are, because the potential to excel in many things doesn’t go away just because one over the vocational hill). I know you have background and talent in both literature and in chemistry, for instance, just looking at your academic background, as well as artistic projects, among many other things!

        And to clarify my awkwardly written previous post — I meant that both *messages* are unhealthy and unproductive: the message that it’s GOOD to be stressed out all the time (it means you’re high status), and the message that it’s critical to get the right answers all the time. (Obviously it matters sometimes very much, but other times we actually learn more from making mistakes.)

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  3. Pretty much the only jobs acceptable to the most gifted are ‘professional revolutionary’ and ‘wandering sage’. Some want to see how quickly they can get burned at the stake and try doing both at the same time. But as you are a Menshevik counterrevolutionary traitor, you’d better get used to meditating in the rain. 😉

    With proper education gifted children can be at university level in a few subjects at a young age. They may get more from university if they wait to go until they are older but holding them back or slowing them down is known to be disasterous. More things can be taught while waiting for them to mature, a strategy of diffusion. Multiple languages, comprehensive physical education, training in several trades, combat training, have con artists and undercover police teach them advanced social skills…this would absorb a few months at least. 🙂

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    1. Hi there Darkest, and thanks for the comment! It made me laugh because, well, when I sat down and started writing about the month’s topic of multipotentiality, I churned out well over one standard length blog post, much of which was a rant that was pretty close to saying that I want to become either a professional revolutionary or a wandering sage, and talking about how I’m *this close* to doing it, though I’m a little wary of the flames. That’s how I came to think about how other guidance earlier might have been one thing that could have been useful to me, as well as advice I’d give if and when I make the professional decision to become a revolutionary-sage. But the latter seemed premature, so I decided to pare it down and save the admittedly juicier material for later, should I live up to it by having something worth saying as a mentor for aspiring idealist crazies.

      (Or for aspiring Menshevik counterrevolutionary traitors, as the case may be. I wondered there whether you were specifically referring to my democratic socialism or were speaking more generally. 😉 Well, I don’t mind playing Yuliy Martov when someone else fancies themself a Volodya Ulyanov, speaking of highly gifted professional revolutionaries.)

      As for holding people back from college, I would advocate nothing of the kind. Recall that I said this all varies based on the individual mentee’s needs. That’s precisely why I spoke first of all about the need for a mentor, rather than just putting this advice out there as though it would work for everyone. Indeed, early college is also a deviation from the traditional path, just as a gap year would be. And there are highly gifted kids whom I might well encourage to enter college as soon as possible, should I ever be in a position to be mentoring them. But if someone is interested in just about everything and doesn’t know what to focus on, that’s where delaying college might be worth contemplating. An exceptionally gifted child who has whizzed through the traditional academic material might enjoy spending some of the “extra” time her gifts have gained for her exploring how she might actually put the knowledge she’s soaking up to use outside the classroom. And that’s NOT holding them back or slowing them down — indeed, I’d have considered it to be “speeding me up” if I had done something like that, because it would have helped me understand what my interests would look like in career form. Of course, this all depends on the individual in question, but surely considering options outside the default is always a good exercise, even if it just shows that the default will work best after all.

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      1. Jessie, you have a strange knack for driving a dagger into everything I wasn’t sure if I should say or if I was explaining correctly. You are right that flexibility and individualisation are most important. I was mainly responding to the idea that giftedness is primarily about academics, which is common among the general public and even in the gifted community.

        I don’t hear much about physical education or trade training, with the noble exception of Makerspaces (though I wonder how many parents would have paroxysms of status anxiety if schools gave vocational education but slap a few Arduino chips on it and call it a robotics club and everything is fine.) 🙂 I enjoyed it myself – I was doing blacksmithing and foundrywork at seven, dismantled a Honda Cub 50 in the kitchen at nine and was practising Weaver and Cooper grips with a toy pistol at ten (I went with Cooper – I have stubby fingers). It may or may not also be part of my diabolical plan to create a master race of perfect new humans. 😉

        The idea of slowing them down without slowing them down came from a British documentary where a lad gifted in maths was considering going starting Open University maths courses. His mentor said that although he could do it he would find it harder than he expected and would just want to re-do them a few years later anyway when he would get more out of them. He suggested doing a few maths summer programs first. Admittedly he was distracting him from maths with different maths, not night manouvers with the army, but it made me think about whether fast-as-possible progress was always best.

        I’m grinning at the thought of how you could be a Menshevik counterrevolutionary traitor ‘more generally’ 🙂 I’m a Marxist on the slippery slope to anarchism so I am leery of democratic socialists as when the opportunity for the working class to take power occurs, they don’t hand the baton to revolutionaries but club them over the head with it. I read ‘Lenin and the Mensheviks’ by Vera Broido, daughter of prominent Mensheviks, which describes all the horrible things the Bolsheviks did to them but I was supprised it didn’t mention the Factory Committees. I found from another source that the Mensheviks had fully cooperated with the Bolsheviks to destroy one of the most democratic and radical sections of the revolutionary movement. Then Rosa Luxemberg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered by the German equivalent of Ramsay MacDonald. Don’t pretend that when the day comes you won’t leave me floating face down in a canal. (I wonder if there is an emoji for that?)

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      2. Thanks for these fantastic replies, and I will likely say more later; for now, I must write an article I’ve been tasked to produce for Democratic Left, but before I do that, I just want to say that the fact that someone else has brought up Lenin in what was framed as a toned-down, pragmatic post about giftedness makes me feel like I finally have made it as a blogger. 😀

        Off to write. More later!

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  4. So, time for a proper reply! Thanks again for these musings — I think they add a lot of important content. YES to trade training and physical education! (But not the lame kind of gym classes that involve embarrassing kids who can’t swing a bat. *whistles innocently* Something with more self-direction…ah, but that’s always what I’ll advocate!) Your blacksmithing, etc. reminds me of my dad’s childhood. It seems to me that this is highly representative of giftedness — obviously so, even — but somehow, if this real talent and ability doesn’t translate into (frankly relatively abstract and meaningless) success in academics, then the kid must not be gifted! Ick. This is where we get “excellent sheep” from.

    As for leftist factionalism, I didn’t know who Ramsay MacDonald was, but I don’t know that I’d align with him politically, given about a 20 second skim of his Wikipedia page. “Democratic socialism” here in the US has the delightful capacity to both convey radicalism (OMG YOU USED THE S-WORD! GASP) blended with a belief that our radical ideas are nevertheless politically feasible (hence, sticking the nice, reassuring “democratic” label to the radical base). DSA members, at least, sure would not want let any comrades be lost to the canals…. (Though there is a meme in DSA social media channels where people confess facetiously to having killed Rosa Luxemburg. I thinks some of it goes over my head because I’m not well enough read on that part of socialist history. I want to be! This year seems like a great time to be reading about that part of history.) Though at the moment, I’m tasked to put together a more forward-looking presentation on how we’re supposed to get There. No small task, right? Right.

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    1. I just found the Rosa Luxemburg memes. When I learned this stuff in the mid-nineties this was esoteric knowledge, now the whole internet knows. I’m going to have to up my game.

      Ah, leftist factionalism, it’s been so long! You can always tell which persuasion people are of when they start talking about when and how the Russian Revolution went wrong and it turns into a socialist version of Cluedo – “It was Lenin, in the Smolny, with the expulsion of the Left SRs!” In this I can offend everyone and claim that the only mistake the Bolsheviks made was believing that Taylorism and Fordism were the best organisational methods and everything that went wrong was a direct result of that. Weird bit of trivia from the Third Congress of the Communist International in 1921: Bela Kun said Clara Zetkin was senile and should commit suicide…he was an internet troll before there was an internet. Do you have your eye on which books you’re going to read yet?

      On physical education the best system I know of is that of Michael Yessis, based on skill and technique training (so no more embarrassing bat swings) and the best Soviet sports science (I swear I discovered this seperately and it had nothing to do with politics). The website Changing the Game advocates the same thing but from a more social psychology point of view.

      The way you describe your father reminds me of one of my relatives too. When he heard how the colour television had recently been developed, he built his own. The guy should have been working for the space program or something but he spent his life as a TV repairman. That’s what you get for being born working class.

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      1. Which books to read? I’m going to start with Ten Days That Shook the World, I think. I also have a very nice book on the Russian Revolution based on primary source documents and with lots of nice photos and art. (I got it in the gift shop at the Detroit Institute of Arts when the Fabergé egg exhibit came to town. I liked how the exhibit was essentially a showcase of the excesses of wealth, no hint of what is to come, and then, BAM, you walk into the gift shop and it’s all “CCCP!” with a huge red flag flying. Heh. Sometimes when I’m walking around in Georgetown (=wealthy touristy part of Washington, DC), I start looking around for a store selling Fabergé eggs…

        I do know I have to collect a few more cards before I can make a Cluedo prediction, but it’s my goal!

        I also am reading Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, which I stumbled across but which is from the wrong end of Soviet history for my centennial reading. Oh well. It’s extremely well done; I see why the author won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

        Since I also love biographies, I have one of the early years of Lenin (not the first Lenin bio I’ve read…) and one of Gorbachev’s memoirs, and I want to read them both and look at the sort of bookend leaders of the Soviet Union from a Dabrowskian perspective. Human catalysts and great social experiments!

        Stupid 40 hour a week jobs getting in the way. Phooey.

        And YES to working class gifted folks being trapped. I just finished Miraca Gross’s book Exceptionally Gifted Children, which is a longitudinal study of several of them in Australia, and it includes a lot of information on the Australian teachers’ unions opposition (in the 80s and 90s) to gifted programs. This will be featured in my planned post on the Left and giftedness. I’ve been pondering it for a while now and you’ve made me want to write it sooner rather than later!

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  5. Nothing better than a proud and oblivious ruling class. I want to take an armoured D9 bulldozer to the Hamptons and find out if the master’s tool can destroy the master’s house. Unfortunately it won’t work in Kensington and Knightsbridge because they’re all iceberg houses. The bulldozer would disappear from sight and when you looked in the hole it would be four storeys down in a swimming pool.

    I have shelves full of books on the Russian Revolution so I’ll be circumspect with recommendations. ‘The Russian Revolution, 1917’ by Rex Wade is a good introduction with unusual historiography – it divides the period up differently and emphasises different things to other authors (it’s front cover is also an amusing metaphor of what happened to the revolution). ‘Revolutionary Dreams’ by Richard Stites is a spectacular vision of what people thought they were going to get out of the revolution, including a kind of social and technological mysticism and millenarianism. Trotsky’s ‘History of the Russian Revolution’ is awesome in numerous ways but the dialectical approach it takes is almost identical to modern complexity theory, just with different words. You also have to love a book that describes the House of Lords as the ‘fatty deposits’ of British society.

    I read your post on computer games on your old TMI blog – I was an obsessive Sonic 2 player as well (although I was one of the first to figure out how to beat Robotnik and taught others at my school). Since you played it so much you’ll know exactly what I mean when I say Mystic Cave Zone – that damn bridge. One time in Blackpool there was a Sonic 2 competition on a coach full of Mega Drive consoles, 10 minutes play and the highest score won. I played exactly the way I always did, got to the Aquatic Ruin Zone and had more than double the score of the next highest player. You also played Disney games so I’ll bet…Aladdin. An incredibly laid back game with relaxing music that it got easy to complete 100% every time, so you could zone out and drift away. I’m starting to think we’re living some kind of weird mirror life.

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    1. More evidence for the mirror life theory – that photo of you in the ‘About’ section. I think somewhere there is a near-identical photo of me but instead of a katana it’s a machete and instead of a pinata it’s a giant marrow. What’s the word when ‘eccentric’ doesn’t quite cover it and ‘insane’ still seems to be selling it short?

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      1. Thank you for the book recommendations! I’ll put those on my list.

        And oh, you are the second reader of this blog to find TMI. Perhaps I should repurpose some of those posts (the Sonic/Dostoevsky post has come up both times) here at CounterNarration! I never owned the Aladdin game but I did rent it from Blockbuster Video back in the day. And did I mention in TMI that I could play the Special Stage in Sonic 2 with my eyes closed? I probably could have put that time to better use, but if it really did lead to calming of my mind, then I suppose that’s not all bad….

        This mirror life discovery seems a great reward me for putting my eccentricity/insanity/whatever out there. 🙂 But do you have a picture looking overly pensive on an amusement park ride?

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      2. I actually found you through Lucinda’s blog. When I read ‘my mouth started to bleed’ I though you were someone I should look into.

        I sometimes played Street Fighter 2 and the Road Rash games blindfolded, but that was a game of chance, not memory. The chaos emerald stages were a nightmare for me even with my eyes open. And if you did get Super Sonic it made the game much harder because it messed with your muscle memory of what Sonic could do.

        I finally came up with a theory why the establishment has it in for games, even with the vast profits involved and, as Anita Sarkeesian has shown, not particularly progressive social attitudes. No matter how good a reader you are Dostoyevsky isn’t going to end any differently, but if you are a good enough Max Payne 2 player, Mona Sax lives. The idea that with skill and knowledge you can change the outcome is a sense of agency the ruling class would rather not encourage. But I suspect the worst for them is management games. If like me you spent a large portion of your formative years playing SimCity 2000 and Transport Tycoon, you don’t fear a planned economy because you’ve already planned economies thousands of times before.

        I probably have photos of me looking pensive in many situations. But that picture of your parents where your dad has the axe (and the hastily abandoned-looking cars in the background make it so much more unsettling) – I have two photos like that. One where I’m stood over a dug up tree stump, holding a pickaxe. In the other I’m in front of a burned car holding a discharged fire extinguisher. I think we can call the creepily triumphant photo a hard diagnostic criteria for giftedness. 🙂

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  6. Oh yeah, I played SimCity and SimCity 2000 (among other Sim games), and the planning of an economy seems to have had the same effect on me. But there was an author in Jacobin a few years back who would disagree:

    https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/10/les-simerables/

    And given that diagnostic criteria, my dad definitely would have qualified as PG, given his profoundly wacky photos. The blog I posted only scratches the surface. But there are certain visual cues, aren’t there? Max says he gets a good sense from people’s eyes, which I’ve heard others says as well.

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    1. The SimCity series has become more dystopian as it has gone on. I read somewhere that the latest edition makes it impossible to get a happy ending and corruption always wins. Mike Davis should be a consultant on the next version – SimCity of Quartz.

      The Magnasanti video is a fairly accurate depiction of what goes on in a gifted mind, and why the world fears us.

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      1. Oh dear…I just found the video. Well, this gives the depiction of one-sided development. Jane Jacobs also was surely quite gifted, and she focused on making real life cities livable. But working out the tricks of a computer game and its algorithms is just a puzzle….

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      2. I didn’t mean to imply all gifted people spend their days designing covenient proletariat storage solutions (that was modernist architects, many of whom claimed to be socialists – what were they thinking?). But that ability to focus on one thing for so long, and that cascade of ideas – that’s a good illustration of what happens in my head when I’m thinking about environmental engineering schemes (though without the awesome evil genius scheming music). Thinking about more complex human problems doesn’t look anything like this, but for technical subjects like renewable energy, biorefining, unusual engine design and public transport, for me at least it looks a lot like the Magnasanti video.

        I remember Jane Jacobs and her differences with the Garden City movement from the OU course Cities and Technology. Britain also had it’s version of Robert Moses – John Poulson, a corrupt architect who went to jail but not before playing his part in wrecking a lot of towns. I wonder what the highest number of people is who have ever actually agreed on the ideal urban form?

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      3. No, no, I know you didn’t mean that. And I don’t even think the video meant that, though it was kind of taking delight in implying it. It’s all in the musical score! Maybe all the Flag Fliers need is some good PR…?

        As for agreeing on ideal urban layouts — good question! And now (through a few mental leaps) you’ve gotten me wondering about real world arcologies. There was one that was supposed to open at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, but they didn’t manage it: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/apr/23/greenwash-dongtan-ecocity I got to go to Shanghai Expo and there was nothing that impressive there….

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  7. Unless there is some compelling environmental need I don’t think full arcologies have much appeal. It’s essentially all the inconvenience of living in a spaceship without ever getting to go anywhere. I think a good visualisation of what it would be like is PlantLab’s website, but imagine the same thing for humans (although the idea of having all my needs perfectly met by computers does appeal).

    There are designs where the architect has played mental Tetris and tried to fit as many functions together as efficiently as possible that have arco features.

    There was a huge council block in Sheffield that looked like a standard sixties concrete nightmare but one man described it as a proletarian fortress with everything a working man needed. This may have had something to do with the pub only being six steps from his front door though.

    In green building circles it is known that apartments spend most energy on heating while offices spend most on cooling, so plans were developed for tower blocks (in the northern hemisphere) with apartments on the south side and offices on the north. This would minimise energy use for both and any spare heat from the offices could be transferred to the flats. The next idea was to step the flats down like a ziggurat so each would have a garden that also formed the roof of the lower flat. This leaves a lightless core in the building that can be used for parking, theatres, cinemas, indoor farming or a server farm. The ground floor is saved for high foot traffic buisnesses.

    I have designs in my head for skyscrapers containing a whole institution – an entire university including student housing or an entire government including every department in one tower. They are built over the main transport hubs of the city. To create the correct paranoid ambiance the government building has a wrap-around light board at the top showing a giant pair of eyes. They can observe the city, look at different things, show different emotions (for positive and negative reinforcement of the population’s behaviour) or occasionally just follow one person around all day and see if they notice.

    You might like the art of Nicholas Moulin and Neil Montier. They are supposed to be images of brutalist dystopias but I like to imagine there are good societies and happy people in those unlikely buildings.

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  8. Excellent articles! I have often wondered where I would be if I had mentoring at a much earlier age, because at age 59 I still have not yet figured out what I want to be when I grow up.

    Back in my day, there was no awareness of multipotentiality. People like us were considered to be confused flakes who couldn’t make up their minds. And as we got older, this was often considered to be a character defect.

    While I think mentoring multipotentialite kids is an awesome thing, I also think that this would be a valuable service for us older folks who aren’t ready to cash in our chips, and who are also up against age discrimination when it comes exploring career options.

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    1. Neringa, thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts and experiences. That’s all so true as far as I can tell, too. I’m 34 and still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up (though that may be because they ruled out “writer” as an acceptable option, but I think “writer” is also in part a cover for multipotentiality), but I’ve learned from the comments of people like you that I’ll probably never figure this out, so I’d better learn to make peace with it. And you’re right that mentoring isn’t just for children! Adults have valuable experience that can often be a huge benefit when moved to a new field. I hope you find something worthwhile that welcomes you in, whatever you decide to do next.

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