Multipotentiality: It’s a Thing

Originally published elsewhere, but since nobody paid me for it, and I didn’t transfer copyright, I disavow the very possibility of being able to plagiarize my own work. Especially since I use Creative Commons licensing. So there.

Even though it’s a fairly new word in my world, multipotentiality surrounds me. And although I’ve seen some people come to terms with a career/hobby/spare time approach to the problem, I’ve also seen many people struggle with the issue of finding time to do all the things that they want to without feeling like they’ve lost something significant in the process.

For those of us with many unrelated interests and talents, the challenge of figuring out what we are going to love enough to keep doing day after day doesn’t end when we finish school. Career counselling conversations seem to imagine a track: “high school, university, professional school, career, advancement”. The goal is to get people (kids, really) onto the “right” track so that they will be productive, successful, and hopefully relatively satisfied.

Yet the world is full of people who are fully grown, living what look like productive lives, but feeling like they’re dying on the vine. I described it (when this was me) as being like trying to fit an octopus into a box… I always either had arms left outside, or felt I was crushed into a space too small.

So imagine my dismay when the very first academic paper I came across in my ramblings literature review said, “Multipotentiality doesn’t exist.

What they point out is that people who are very good at a wide range of things are not equally good at all the things they are good at. As “multipotentiality” is described as having what is called a “high-flat” profile on aptitude tests, their claim is not that the high part is invalid, but that the flatness is an artefact of testing with imprecise instruments. In effect, you can eliminate the flatness by asking harder questions.

Yet it is a jump from the position that multipotential people still have variations in their capabilities to “multipotentiality never existed”. And I would suggest that is an unhelpful position for people trying to make choices about their lives who don’t see a lot of limits due to their capacities. Yes, you might be better at some things than some others… and (gasp) there may be things for which you have no aptitude at all! But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a problem with the number of choices in front of you.

So, here’s why it’s not true. Or at least not true in the way that they are suggesting.

The first thing is, they’ve drawn conclusions about longitudinal impacts from a cross-sectional study. That is to say, they have identified a problem in an adult population (highly intelligent people are frequently troubled with career indecision and distress) and inferred an intervention at a younger level (don’t assume that the problem is a “high-flat” profile when providing career guidance to graduating students) by changing their assessment tools at an even younger level (administering the SAT to grade 7 students to determine that they do, in fact, have individual variations). This is always a risky manoeuvre, and here, I would argue, it simply doesn’t apply. They are hypothesizing that the eventual dissastisfaction in adults can be forestalled by appropriate interventions at a younger age (which is an interesting idea), but they have neither solved the problem with the adults in question, nor done the longitudinal study necessary to validate the intervention.

In fact, to claim that the problem doesn’t exist does worse than nothing for the adult who is struggling with their position in life. It places the blame back upon them, or perhaps upon their guidance counsellor from years gone by, without providing them with guidance about what to do with it. It pathologizes the need for growth and intellectual stimulation and recasts it as vanity.

Yes, if you test people who are at the tail in a number of different categories, they turn out to have variations in how far out the tail they are. They may score at the 98th percentile in spatial relations, 99th in language, and 99.9th in something… These profiles vary from one person to the next. And when you’re dealing with extreme outliers, they might look something like 99.9th, 99.7th, 99.98th percentiles. The strategy they suggested in that paper was to use challenging enough test instruments to get them out into those extremes and then use that data for guidance purposes. I imagine the conversation going, “Well, you’re only extremely good at all these things, but you’re absurdly good at that one, so we think that you should choose that.”

How is this supposed to help? You’re still talking to somebody who is going to be better at most things than almost all their “peers”, and (this is more to the point), would have been better than almost all their peers at any number of other things they chose. The goal in this finer sorting seems to be to find the thing that they are so much better at that they don’t feel dissatisfied with losing the other things they’ve left behind, rather than structuring their lives so that they don’t have to leave anything out.

Better questions than “Where do your talents lie?”

What do you want to do? What lights you up? What, if you are not doing it, feels like a piece of you is missing?

Then, how do you arrange your life so that those pieces are not missing or relegated to a tiny corner of leftover time? It is time for those of us who are living this to engage with this question, instead of trying to make ourselves fit into lives that are three sizes too small. It’s time for a new conversation about what we do when we grow up.

Among those of us who find ourselves already there.

2 responses to “Multipotentiality: It’s a Thing”

  1. And it doesn’t stop when you get out of school and into the working world… “For those of us with many unrelated interests and talents, the challenge of figuring out what we are going to love enough to keep doing day after day doesn’t end when we finish school”… ALSO applies to those of us who have gone through our lives working and are finally on the next chapter of our lives… retirement! When we finally have all the time we want and suddenly find ourselves wondering how to manage all those various interests and have time to do all those things we put off until… later… Later is here now! Great pos,t thanks!

  2. Thanks for the reminder! One of the things that drives me is making sure that (by the time it’s an issue) there’s something really interesting to do with my post-children life.