Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Multipotentiality

I hope I haven't yet reached the limit of how many times I can link to Tamara Fisher's Unwrapping the Gifted blog over at EdWeek, but I really enjoyed her recent post on Multipotentiality.

Blogger's software doesn't recognize that as a real word, but it's a real phenomenon. Just try asking many gifted kids what they want to be when they grow up and you'll get an earful. As Fisher quotes a list from Maggie, a 6th grader: "famous singer, veterinarian, marine biologist, material scientist, archeologist, doctor, nurse, dancer, artist, Navy Seal, charity founder, fashion designer, spy, professional horse rider, dog agility trainer and competitor, firefighter, EMT, animal shelter owner, magician, professional photographer, TV star, cop, INVENTOR, professional instrumental musician, weather woman, chemist, engineer, physical therapist, game designer."

Phew!

Of course, the problem is that while some of these could certainly happen together in a lifetime (plenty of fashion designers found charities, and some these days moonlight as TV stars as well), being a doctor and an archeologist both require many years of specific training. Since gifted children have a tendency to think about the future, this can introduce plenty of stress, particularly as they hit college and need to start actually specializing. Fisher quotes Jane, a young woman, as saying "It seems almost impossible to pick just "one" [subject] and as a result I am looking into possibly getting multiple degrees so that if I get bored with one career I can move on to another." This is an option, though my husband (who works at a consulting company) can tell plenty of tales of people who've gotten PhDs and medical degrees and MBAs, and finally wind up working with him, which they could have done with any one of those degrees. About a decade earlier. As a net result, they're a decade behind the hierarchy of people who made up their minds. That state of affairs also doesn't sit well with many gifted folks.

There is no good solution to this, though I can tell you mine. One big reason I chose writing as a career is that I get to study many subjects briefly. I have stubbornly resisted specializing (this month I wrote about the anti-lawn movement, people who create jobs, the Ramona books, and a forthcoming piece on Korean green grocers, among other topics). 168 Hours profiles everyone from scientists to novelists, with a mix of economics and sociology thrown in. As a result, I rarely get bored.

But part of growing up is realizing that not all doors will be permanently open. Eventually, you'll need to pick a career (even if you won't stay in it forever). Perhaps one of the best ways we can help gifted children is help them sample different careers that sound appealing, figure out ways that certain careers can combine other interests, and help them figure out ways to have other loves become hobbies. I'm curious what other parents have done or observed with their children.

7 comments:

kcab said...

This seems to be a topic on many minds right now. Have you seen this post at Aimee Yermish's new blog yet?

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

@kcab, bloggers routinely read other blogs, so when someone brings up an interesting topic, lots of people post on it. I'm not sure, but I think that Tamara's post started this particular round.

My son, just starting high school is interested in finding a college which has good science and engineering programs, and good acting opportunities. He's not as narrowly focused as I was at his age (I decided at age 11 to be a mathematician, and didn't change fields until a couple years into grad school).

I've found it works well to pick a wide field to start with (mathematics and computer science, in my case) and change application fields every 5-15 years (computer music, VLSI design, CAD for VLSI, protein structure prediction, ...).

Anonymous said...

My son attended Indiana Academy and took a ton of math and physics. He had planned to study engineering but got tired of math during his junior year and discovered physics. He decided he loved it and applied to colleges for physics. By the time he graduated, he was burned out on physics, and decided he wanted to go into management. (I suggested perhaps law, which would feed into both his business interests and his debating interests). His college advisor wisely put him into industrial management which requires an industrial engineering minor which fits well with his math & science abilities.

In other words... he loves an area until he masters it, and then he is bored with it and wants to move on. How have I handled it? Mostly by pulling my hair out and hoping he figures out something that will pay for his college loans!

Aimee Yermish said...

(FWIW, no, I posted my post about a week before I became aware of Tamara's. But it could easily have been convergent evolution.)

I agree with gassstationwithoutpumps about the idea of getting trained in a broad field and then being willing to move around within that field over time. Some fields are more or less amenable to that, but my main thing is that I don't think it's a good idea to overspecialize too early into a direction that restricts your future choices too severely.

atxteacher said...

The biggest piece in this for me is the danger of pushing “what do you want to be when you grow up”. Without lots of exploration, kids can’t find their passions. So you have to start with that. Maybe it’s a variety of hobby courses through a community center or community college, maybe it’s a series of internships in different professions, maybe it’s a variety of summer jobs. Kids used to be able to do some exploring in middle and high school, but with all the requirements and competition to be at the top, it doesn’t happen as I believe it should. (Sir Ken Robinson has a great TEDtalk about how educational systems should help kids find their passions, “Bring on the Learning Revolution”.)

I love gestationwithoutpump’s suggestion to pick a wide field. I started on the track to be a pediatrician. Two extremely miserable years in med school convinced me that was not my calling. In reviewing my varied hobbies, volunteer positions, and summer jobs, I realized I enjoyed teaching. Education is one of those fields that is wide. Lots of opportunity to grow and change when you master one piece of it.

Anonymous said...

Your Ramona piece was fantastic. Really enjoyed it.

Ms.Levin said...

I guess this explains why I spent nine years in undergraduate school? (I couldn't decide. Still paying off that debt.) I became a teacher to share my knowledge and teach to my passions: art, science, math, reading, writing, research, crafts, etc. Many benefits including inspiring gifted kids!