The Real Problem with Multipotentiality

I was having a conversation with my brother the other day.  We were talking about the 5-6 different jobs/projects each of us has going and I said to him, “Sometimes I just wish I lived back in the 50’s when I wouldn’t have to choose between all these good things.  I would have been told my role and that was it.”

He gave me a look, laughed gregariously, and said, “Quit kidding yourself!”

Of course, he’s right.  I would go nuts if I had only one focus and there’s no way my husband would ever get away with telling me what to do.  The problem is, I’m too interested in too many things, and while there are lots of things I will never be good at, there are also lots of things I am quite skilled at.  And these skills and interests don’t always line up.  Math and writing, for example.  Or chemistry and music.  Or room design and therapy.  It’s hard to make a choice.  But, why should it be?

Honestly, having lots of interests and lots of options should be fantastically simple.  Why not just follow whatever you’re interested in, whenever you’re interested in it?  Develop the skills as you feel like it.  Stop developing the skills when you’re done and move on to the next thing.

And then it dawned on me.  The real problem with multipotentiality isn’t the “multi-“ part, it’s the “potentiality” part.

I looked up the definition of potential and here’s what I found:

                Possible as opposed to actual

                Capable of being or becoming

                A latent excellence or ability that may or may not be developed

And my personal favorite:

                Someone or something that is considered a worthwhile possibility

Yuck.  I don’t like potential.  “Someone . . . that is considered a worthwhile possibility”?!?!  As if there are people who aren’t?!

Here’s the problem with potential:  it is all future oriented, it diminishes the value of the present, and it is entirely focused on achievement and doing, as though worth is determined by our actions rather than the simple fact that we are worthwhile because we were born.

“Oh, he’s got real potential” somehow implies that he’s lacking or less than in the present moment.  It implies that projects or behaviors or pursuits are only valid if they achieve excellence.  Watching my 11-year-old act in a play is valuable and worthwhile simply because it is, as it is, not because his acting might possibly become something actual and excellent one day.

And, here’s the real kicker, the word potential is filled with pressure and external expectations.  Not only does it imply that what you’re doing right now isn’t quite enough, but since you show a possibility of becoming worthwhile, you should really follow this and develop it.  And when you’re talking about multiple potentials, well then there’s pressure all over the place to choose and develop so that you might one day actually be worthwhile.

I started college as a pre-med chemistry major.  I was good at chemistry.  I was a finalist for a major chemistry scholarship, even.  And after two-thirds of a semester, I began plotting out the rest of my 4 years of college.  Yes, I like to plan and organize (yet another potential, I suppose, that has been sorely “undeveloped” when looking at my home).  I looked ahead at all the courses I’d be taking and my chest and gut felt heavy.  It did not look in the least bit interesting.  I flipped the book to Social Work and Theology classes and my eyes sparkled with excitement.  In my head, I switched my major right then and there.

But, in actuality, I had to get my advisor to sign off on my major change sheet.  He shamed me.  “Why are you switching?  You could just volunteer for a social services agency or a church and pursue the sciences.  You’re wasting your talent.”  That last one stung.  Pressure.  Actual pressure, no potential about it.

The thing with multipotentiality (I cringe even as I write the “p” word), is that no matter what an individual chooses, they’ll be “wasting a talent”, if all we judge life and success by is accomplishments.  Had I stuck with Chemistry, I would have been “wasting” my counseling talents, my music talents, my philosophy talents, etc.  Maybe we aren’t obligated to pursue an interest or talent simply because we have it.

To all you multipotentialites out there – choose whatever the hell you want to do.  Follow your interests.  Change your career or hobbies every 5 years.  You’ll find your way.  You are worthwhile and valuable whether you achieve excellence or not.  You can pursue 5 projects all at the same time if you want to.  After all, it isn’t the 1950’s anymore.

This post is part of Hoagies' Gifted Education April bloghop:  Multipotentiality.  Be sure to check out the other great posts!