When I Grow Up: Multipotentiality and Gifted Youth

March 4, 2015

By Zadra Rose Ibanez

“When I grow up, I want to be an astronaut, a doctor, a movie star, a teacher, a fireman and president!”

Many gifted students are faced with a dilemma – “I love everything, so which do I choose?” In the 1920’s, Lewis Terman first postulated that many gifted students have difficulty choosing from their many interests and narrowing their focus to a few activities. (6)

What is multipotentiality?

Multipotentiality affects many highly able individuals:

Gifted learners are frequently offered the advice ‘You can be anything you want.’ This may seem desirable for the learner, but for many, this plethora of opportunities amounts to a major crisis. Berger (1989) raises this issue, coining the term multi-potentiality, where the highly capable student participates in many different activities to satisfy their interest. (1, 9)

In their paper “Multipotential Abilities and Vocational Interests in Gifted Adolescents: Fact or Fiction?,” Milgram and Hong conclude that identifying young people with multipotentiality – those who are “interested in many different vocational areas and having the requisite high abilities to succeed in many of them” – may be difficult and that, perhaps, gifted youngsters have “simply reached the ceiling, the highest level measured, in all their subjects” (7). They recommend observing how each individual is spending his or her time during “freely chosen leisure activities.” Milgram and Hong regard the term “multi-potential” as the inability to choose and/or the equal desire and ability to participate in many subjects or areas of interest. Therefore, if an individual indicates a clear preference, or “differentiated interests,” he or she is not demonstrating multipotentiality. If a preference is apparent, the issue of multipotentiality is no longer relevant, according to Milgram and Hong, though not all agree with this point.

What does MP look like?

In A Handbook for Counseling the Gifted and Talented, Barbara Kerr lists characteristics of multipotential individuals. Here are a few (1999, p. 87):

  • Difficulty with decision-making
  • Difficulty with follow-through
  • Excellent performance in multiple subjects or academic areas
  • Multiple hobbies and activities
  • Schedules packed with a wide variety of social, recreational, and academic activities as determined by the student (not mandated by the school or encouraged by the parents)
  • Little free time
  • Chosen for leadership roles in a variety of groups and organizations
  • “Occasional signs of stress and exhaustion: absences, frequent or chronic illnesses, periods of depression and anxiety, particularly during busiest times”
  • “Delay or vacillation about college planning and decision making” in high school

Why does it matter?

MP students often feel confused, lost, and uncertain about direction:

A multipotential student may take a vocational test only to learn that he or she is ‘similar’ in interests and abilities to biologists, librarians, musicians, reporters, English teachers, and ministers. Attaining straight A’s and uniformly high achievement test scores means that the student cannot make decisions based on what he or she ‘does best.’ After graduation from high school, the multipotential student may vacillate between career choices, delaying career decisions until financial need and the end of a nonfocused education drive the student to take a job by default… Parents, teachers, and counselors continue to insist, ‘But you could be anything you want to be!’ not understanding that this is precisely the problem. (1)

Gifted education specialist Tamara Fisher quotes a graduating senior: “‘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.’” (3)

Pursuing a life of meaning is important to the gifted mind, and selecting a career that provides meaning is difficult for the person whose interests and gifts are extensive and varied. Author Emilie Wapnick notes,

My resume reads like it belongs to ten different people. Music, film, web design, law, business, personal development, writing, dance, sexuality, education– all of these are or have been interests of mine. They come and go (and sometimes come again). Would I have to settle on a ‘practical job’ and pursue my various passions on the side or choose among my interests and just commit to one thing? Both options made my heart ache… I knew I could be doing more – that I had more to offer the world. (4)

How can I help my child master MP?

In “Counseling Gifted and Talented Students,” Nicholas Colangelo suggested that we help individuals in four ways (2):

  1. Remind students that they do not have to limit themselves to one career.
  2. Use leisure activities as a way to continually develop areas of abilities and interest, apart from one’s career.
  3. Use career counseling as a value-based activity, exploring broad categories of life satisfaction.
  4. Emphasize peer discussions and group work with other multipotential youth so that one can see that he/she is not alone with concerns.

Because gifted individuals often have the ability to excel in many different areas, focusing on values and then discovering activities and career paths that support those values can often provide a more fulfilling and clearer path towards happiness.

In an interview with Charlie Rose in November 2013, James Franco discussed his choice to create art / work that allowed him to combine several of his interests into one project. He stated that he wasn’t trying to do everything; he just wanted to be able to utilize each of the areas he enjoyed at one time.

There is a current trend in hiring towards individuals with multi-faceted abilities. In his book, To Sell Is Human, Daniel Pink says:

Large operations discovered that segmenting job functions didn’t work very well during volatile business conditions—and because of that, they began demanding elastic skills that stretched across boundaries.…When organizations were highly segmented, skills tended to be fixed. If you were an accountant, you did accounting. The same was true when business conditions were stable and predictable. However, in the last decade, the circumstances that gave rise to fixed skills have disappeared. (10)

This is great news for the multipotential individual because it means that various interests can have value in career and artistic endeavors and may be better appreciated than they had previously been.

Do you feel you or your child exhibits multipotentiality? What challenges or opportunities have you experienced because of this? We’d love to hear your story!

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Related post: Career Exploration for Gifted Students


1. Berger, S.L. (1989) College Planning for Gifted Students. [Online.] Council for Exceptional Children.

2. Colangelo, Nicholas. “Counseling Gifted and Talented Students.” The University of Iowa, Fall 2002 Newsletter.

3. Fisher, Tamara. “Multipotentiality.” Unwrapping the Gifted. Online.

4. “Interested In So Many Things: Creative and Multitalented.” Developing Multiple Talents. 7 May 2012. Online. < http://developingmultipletalents.com>

5. Kerr, Barbara. A Handbook for Counseling the Gifted and Talented. 1999.

6. McKay, Robyn. “Career Counseling.” Encyclopedia of Giftedness, Creativity, and Talent. Edited by Barbara Kerr.

7. Milgram, Roberta M. & Hong, Eunsook. “Multipotential Abilities and Vocational Interests in Gifted Adolescents: Fact or Fiction?” International Journal of Psychology 34.2 (1999): 81-93.

8. “Multipotentiality: multiple talents, multiple challenges.Talent Development Resources. 7 May 2012. Online. <http://talentdevelop.com>

9. Page, Jeremy S. “Challenges Faced by ‘Gifted Learners’ in School and Beyond.” Student Pulse 2.11 (2010): 1/1.

10. Pink, Daniel. To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. 2012.

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