Dr. Devon MacEachron\'s Blog

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The nature/nurture debate has been going on for centuries. Is it our genes (nature) that predict success? Or is it the environment (nurture)? In the past 20 years this topic has evolved into the innate ability/natural talent vs. practice/effort debate. One side argues that success is all about innate ability and natural talent, while the other argues that it’s all about how hard one is willing to work. In the early and mid-1900’s as researchers studied intelligence and developed tests to measure it, it was generally believed that one’s “natural endowments” predicted success. In the 1950’s and ’60’s the cold war space race was a boon for gifted education, as national polices were implemented in an effort to identify and educate the “best and the brightest.”

The pendulum swung hard from ability toward practice and effort in the 1980’s and 90’s. In a politically correct world, the practice/effort argument was appealing because it posits that anyone can achieve success if they are willing to work hard (and the right environmental factors are supplied). In 1993 Dr. Anders Ericsson published a paper arguing that training and deliberate practice could explain performance differences that had been previously ascribed to innate talent. Studying expert performance in sports, music, mathematics, and other areas he found that so-called innate ability was unnecessary to predict who would become most successful. The single greatest predictor of success was hours devoted to the activity. The more someone practiced, the better they were. It’s a provocative argument, and one that Ericsson still espouses over two decades later. If it’s true, anyone with any ability profile can follow their dreams and, with enough effort, reach them. Ericson did add one caveat: when it comes to athletics, height and body size do make a difference. Along the same line, in the book Talent is Overrated (2008), George Colvin argued that investing the right type of practice on a focused pursuit is far more important than natural ability in predicting performance. In 2011 Malcolm Gladwell popularized the “10,000 hour rule” in Outliers, attributing the success of the Beatles and Bill Gates almost entirely to intensive practice. 10,000 hours of practice was identified as the threshold level required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert in anything.

If this is true – that success is all about practice and effort, and that anyone can achieve anything they set their heart to – does giftedness as a construct even matter?

Recently, the pendulum has swung the other way – toward innate ability. In a 2014 meta-analysis, a study analyzing the results of 90 other studies carried out across disciplines ranging from sports to the arts to academia, authors Hambrick, et. al. reported: “More than 20 years ago, researchers proposed that individual differences in performance in such domains as music, sports, and games largely reflect individual differences in amount of deliberate practice, defined as engagement in structured activities created specifically to improve performance in a domain. This view is a frequent topic of popular-science writing—but is it supported by empirical evidence? To answer this question, we conducted a meta-analysis covering all major domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated. We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued.” In  2017 authors Wai & Rindermann studied what factors contributed to high educational and occupational achievement by examining a sample of 11,745 high achievers across disciplines. They found that about 50% of these super successful individuals were in the top 1% in terms intellectual ability (in other words, they were gifted).

I agree that innate ability is important, and I don’t think all the practice in the world can take someone who has poor native ability to a level of super high achievement in most areas. But I also feel that innate ability alone is rarely enough.

What does it take to turn giftedness into success – for gifted children to become high achievers?  Giftedness is a raw ability. In his “Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent” Robert M. Gagné made an important distinction between natural abilities or giftedness and talents. He defined giftedness as: “the possession and use of untrained and spontaneously expressed natural abilities in at least one ability domain, to a degree placing that student in the top 10% of age peers.” Talent, on the other hand, implies “the superior mastery of systematically developed abilities (or expert skills) and knowledge in at least one field of human activity to a degree that places a student in the top 10% of peers in that field.” This is an important distinction because the terms “gifted” and “talented” are often used synonymously. Gagné differentiates between giftedness as raw capacity and talent as a developed ability. Talents progressively emerge from the transformation of high aptitudes into the well-trained and systematically developed skills characteristic of a particular field of human activity or performance.

Thus, a young child might be described as gifted to highlight that they have exceptional abilities and, when they have favorably developed these abilities may be described as gifted and talented. While such a child will always (barring exceptional mishap) remain gifted, only when a high level of performance has been attained can they also be described as talented. This alludes to the common phenomenon of gifted underachievement, and points us in the direction of beginning to understand and therefore remedy this.

Gagné’s model  illustrates the process and factors influencing whether a child’s giftedness will develop into a talent. Chance is a significant factor, but so are the environment and intrapersonal catalysts. Environmental influences include culture and family, teachers, peers, and the provision of programs and services. Intrapersonal catalysts include health, motivation, concentration, and temperament. Efforts can be made to facilitate the development of gifts into talents through a developmental process encompassing informal and formal learning and practice, enriched curriculum and training, a goal of challenging excellence, systemic and regular practice, regular and objective assessment of progress, and personalized accelerated pacing. Sounds like a great gifted education program to me!

So, to answer the question posed at the beginning of this blog: giftedness does matter. I feel that in many domains, it’s a necessary but not sufficient condition to predict high achievement. The development of gifts into talents is a process impacted by environmental, intrapersonal, and chance factors.

Let me add a caveat of my own that the discussion above focuses solely on the outcomes of “success,” “high achievement” and  “talent.” I believe it is quite possible for a gifted person to eschew such outward measures of achievement, and perhaps not contribute their talents to society at large in any measurable way, but to still be a happy and fulfilled person in part because of their giftedness. Giftedness can provide the individual with a rich inner life entirely separate from societal measures of success.

Plato employed the maxim “know thyself” (“gnôthi sauton,“ translated as “come to know thyself” or “learn to know thyself”) in his dialogues at The Academy. He taught that knowing one’s self is a necessary first step in the pursuit of happiness. He believed that only when we truly know who and what we are can we pursue our true nature to happiness and fulfillment.

I’ve coined the term “Plato Parenting” based on this maxim. The idea is that parents can help their children discover, explore, and develop their true interests and nature to discover who they are.

But would this be helicopter parenting? Parents considering an active role in helping their children develop their interests may wonder whether this would constitute “pushing” (like a tiger mother) or “hovering” (like a helicopter parent). They may not know where they should fall on the spectrum from being more involved in the management of their children’s lives to less involved. It’s clear from an examination of the research literature that the most effective parents are those who are involved and responsive to their child and are authoritative and have high expectations. Parents who are disengaged and uninvolved are less effective. Parents who have low expectations and are permissive and indulgent are less effective. We’ve all seen this in action at the grocery store when a toddler throws a tantrum over candy, and a parent immediately gives in. And having low expectations tends to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. The most effective parents, when the goal is producing a happy, productive adult, are nurturing and responsive, yet they are also authoritative and have high expectations.

What do I mean by “authoritative” and “high expectations?” Some people confuse the terms authoritative and authoritarian. Authoritarian parents demand a sort of blind obedience from their children. That’s not good. Authoritative parents take a more moderate approach that emphasizes setting high standards and expectations, being nurturing and responsive, and showing respect for their children as independent, rational beings. High standards and expectations include instilling a strong work ethic, encouraging the productive use of time, and encouraging dedication to doing one’s best. Not all children are born with strong motivation, work ethic, and the knowledge of how to use their time productively to accomplish goals. Many if not most need to be taught these habits. Not only are children who are taught these skills more likely to be successful, but they’re also happier. Children, like adults, are happiest when they’re engaged in something they find interesting that provides opportunities for growth. In other words, when they’re pursuing their interests. They’re not happiest when they’re “hanging out” or wiling away the hours playing a video game because they can’t think of anything better to do. A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that pursuing one’s genuine interests toward a goal is highly correlated with happiness, as well as other positive traits such as increased concentration, self-esteem, and performance.

Don’t push your own interests on your child. When embarking on a program of helping your child identify and pursue his or her true interests, be careful not to fall into a trap of trying to influence your child to pursue what you are interested in. Carl Jung said: “Nothing has a stronger influence … on their children than the unlived life of the parent.” Often, when parents try to “craft” the perfect life for their child it bears an uncanny resemblance to the one they wish they’d had. We need to accept our child for who he or she is. If we don’t, and instead try to mold them into what we think they should be, one of two things will happen. Either they will accept our dreams and fail to develop their own, or they will rebel. Neither allows them to develop into their own true self, since one path involves blind acceptance and the other a rejection of the parent’s point of view. A psychiatrist I know in Palo Alto has a practice dominated by high-achieving Stanford grads who did everything they thought their parents wanted them to, realizing their parent’s dreams. But now – in their late 20’s and 30’s –  they’re unhappy and confused about what they want out of life.

So, how do you go about helping your child pursue his or her genuine interests? First, you need to identify them. Some children are “born” with strong interests, while others don’t seem to have any especially strong ones. I advise parents of young children to expose them to a wide variety of things – art, music, sports, theater, games, and academic disciplines. This should be done deliberately and methodically. Rather than taking your child on the same kinds of outings over and over, plan “field trips” to varied destinations. These can include museums, concerts, farms, zoos, animal rescue centers, hikes, bike rides, birding, the beach, Chinatown, Little Italy, historical sites, factory tours, a stock exchange, art galleries, a courtroom, science fairs, a geography bee, and fruit-picking. Read  books about a variety of topics. Talk about current events. Travel. Watch documentaries. Expand their horizons.

Observe your child’s reactions and reflect on them. Make note when your child seems intrigued by something. Think about why they are drawn to it, and consider what that might mean. If your child loves Legos, perhaps architecture or engineering would interest them. If your child loves playing outdoors, consider environmental studies. Try to keep an open mind and not be judgmental. Even activities that may seem unproductive can provide clues to worthwhile passions and future careers. The child who seems bossy and unyielding when playing with friends may crave leadership opportunities. The child who is on the phone chatting with friends about their problems all day may be drawn to psychology or counseling. When my daughter was young she loved to tell stories. As a teen she loved social media. Of course that worried me a bit. But now she’s an online news journalist. After exposing your child to a wide variety of things, as they near middle and high school, try to guide them toward selecting 2-4 interests to pursue more intensively to avoid the “jack of all trades, master of none” phenomenon.

Get involved and be proactive. Once you’ve identified your child’s interests the next step is to facilitate their pursuit. This is where being an involved parent comes into play. And having high expectations. Dedicate yourself to taking your child’s goals seriously and facilitating his or her achievements by bringing their goals within reach. Don’t just buy your child a trumpet. Find the best music instructors you can afford, structure time in the day for practice, sit with your child when they practice, and take them to concerts. It’s ok to actively help your child find opportunities. I know a parent who helped her marine biology obsessed child find a volunteer research internship at age 12 which led to her being co-author on a scientific paper at age 16.

What if my child doesn’t find a career out of this? It doesn’t matter. The young marine biologist who published at 16 went into an entirely different field. But she learned some very important things along the way. She learned how fulfilling it is to delve deeply into an interest, that one needs to work hard to accomplish something significant, that she could do practically anything she put her mind to, and that she didn’t actually want to be a research scientist!

By adopting “Plato Parenting” as a philosophy you can help your children develop into the happy, productive young adults they are meant to be. What better gift can you give your child than that?

Intelligence is multifaceted. When people tell me they want to know their IQ, I feel like asking: “In what area?” There are many different cognitive abilities and they have different impacts on what one is trying to accomplish. That’s why I approach the assessment of a person’s abilities from the perspective of the Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) model which is, in effect, an inventory of “the intelligences.” It’s the most comprehensive and empirically supported theory of the structure of cognitive abilities to date, reflecting 70 years of research. About 80 different abilities are defined, with 20-25 of these playing important roles in school learning.

What I’d like to talk about today is the future and the role fluid intelligence might have in it. In the CHC model there are basically two main groupings of abilities that represent higher-order reasoning: crystallized intelligence and fluid intelligence. They can be traced to two separate brain systems. Crystallized intelligence is a function of brain regions that involve the storage and usage of long-term memories, such as the hippocampus. Fluid intelligence involves the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, and other systems related to attention and short-term memory.

Crystallized Intelligence is the ability to use learned knowledge and experience. It’s not the same thing as memory, but it does rely on accessing information from long-term memory (learning that has become “crystallized”). Crystallized intelligence encompasses vocabulary, depth and breadth of general knowledge, the ability to listen to and understand oral communications, knowledge of grammar, and the like. It is the product of educational and cultural experience. When you meet someone who has a large vocabulary, knows a lot of facts, is a Crossword puzzle or Scrabble master, and is a voracious reader, you can be pretty sure they have strong crystallized intelligence. People who have strong crystallized intelligence tend to sound really smart and they tend to do well in school.

In contrast, Fluid Intelligence is the capacity to reason and solve novel problems, independent of any knowledge from the past. It involves drawing inferences, concept formation, classification, generating and testing hypothesis, identifying relations, comprehending implications, problem solving, extrapolating, and transforming information. Fluid reasoning encompasses inductive reasoning, deductive reasoning, and quantitative reasoning. Sherlock-Holmes kind of thinking. When you meet someone who has strong fluid reasoning you may not have any idea how smart they are until you throw a problem at them that needs solving. People who have strong fluid intelligence don’t necessarily excel in school, especially in the lower grade levels. If they make it to the PhD-level they may have trouble memorizing all the information they need to pass their oral exams. But boy can they defend their dissertation!

Some of the children I work with are strong in both areas. Others are strong in one or the other, but not both. The ones with strong crystallized intelligence tend to do well in school, as so much of school (the way it is structured today) is about learning facts and procedures. The ones with strong fluid intelligence may be so busy questioning the assumptions that they don’t learn the rules and procedures their classmates do. They may resist authority and question the value of what’s taught in school.

The Future: Our world is changing very rapidly. I know people have often said that about the times they live in, but it’s more true now than ever before. The pace of innovation and disruption is accelerating. As a society we are facing all kinds of novel problems to which we have no learned solutions, from political changes to global warming to the potential dangers of artificial intelligence. By 2020, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will have brought us advanced robotics and autonomous transport, artificial intelligence and machine learning, advanced materials, biotechnology and genomics. I wonder: What kind of brains will our children need to work in that kind of environment?

Now I’m going to enter into an area of conjecture and hypothesis, as I can find very little research literature on the topic. I guess I’m tapping into my own fluid intelligence.

I think the minds that will be best-suited to solving the world’s problems in the future are those with strengths in fluid intelligence. I believe that individuals who rely on crystallized intelligence may look to the past and rely too much on book learning and facts and procedures. In contrast, individuals who rely on fluid intelligence will be able to think on their feet around something totally unfamiliar, and be comfortable with the kind of complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity we’re facing. They will be flexible and fluid thinkers who like challenging the assumptions and thinking outside the box. Because many aspects of crystallized intelligence (e.g. stores of knowledge) can be easily accessed with a quick swipe on our phone, they may not be hampered by having weaker crystallized intelligence.

I feel a shift in the kind of intelligence we need for the future necessitates changes in the way we teach children. We’re teaching 19th century skills in our 21st century schools. To teach 21st and 22nd century skills will require a move away from the teaching of standard procedures and rote memorization toward creative problem-solving and how to tap into inductive and deductive reasoning processes. Intelligence is not fixed – it’s malleable. That’s what having a “growth mentality” is all about. So I’d like to see schools, parents, employers, and others focus more on the benefits of enhancing human fluid intelligence. After all, machines can probably do crystallized intelligence a lot better than we can anyway.

Here’s the “prescription” I give the families I work with for the perfect summer: “Take two genuine interests, explore them thoroughly, and call me in September.”

When parents actively help their child explore their interests and delve deeply into their passions, everyone in the family ends up having a rewarding summer. Whether the passion is marine biology or engineering, art or writing, programs can be found or designed to address every child’s interests. For the parent whose child happens to be interested in something offered at a nearby summer camp, this can be easy to arrange. For the parent who lives far from such resources or for whom high program fees are prohibitive, or whose child has unusual interests, planning a summer of enrichment can be a bit more challenging. It is my view, though, that parents can give no greater gift than helping their child design and implement a summer of exploring their genuine interests, utilizing talents, accomplishing something of value, and building self-esteem.

Benefits of Engagement

The benefits for children of a summer engaged in enrichment in their interests are manifold: intellectual stimulation, increased motivation to achieve, enhanced marketability to colleges, the chance of finding passions or a future career, validation of self, increased self-esteem, increased happiness, and social connectedness.

Intellectually, students who work on something they are interested in at their pace of learning are stimulated at a level rarely possible during the school year. The opportunity to study something of intrinsic interest and challenge is the most thrilling intellectual experience possible. Kindling an intrinsic motivation can even lead to a transfer of motivation and stronger desire to achieve throughout the school year. Students can build a résumé showing the pursuit of interests and achievement, positioning the student well for college applications. Selective colleges are far more interested in applicants who have pursued their genuine interests over the years than in those who engage only in what is required and valued at school. Children may find their true calling in life by exploring their interests.

But perhaps the greatest benefit of an enrichment-focused summer is in the emotional area. By valuing our child’s interests, we show that we truly care about them for who they are, not who we think they should be. By taking their interests seriously, we validate their unique sense of self. Knowing that they have their parents’ support can give students a sense of security and help them become the person they really want to be. Furthermore, children who spend their summers pursuing personally meaningful goals are happier than children who just “hang out.” Children who pursue their interests during the summer often come into frequent contact with peers or mentors in their interest area. Relationships with others who share their interests can be deeply fulfilling in a way that interactions with school-year classmates and video-game buddies are not.

Tips for Parents

Summer is upon us. How can parents design an enrichment-focused summer for their child?

Begin with an assessment of your child’s genuine interests. In a non-judgmental way, directly ask what they want to learn more about, from anthropology to zoology, archery to yoga, animation to  film making. Making a broad list of different kinds of hobbies and fields of interest and discussing them with your child can be helpful. Reflect on how your child chooses to spend his or her free time, the books that absorb their interest, the kinds of exhibits that engage them in museums, and any other clues to what intrigues them. Even interests that on the surface don’t appear to lend themselves to productive enrichment can be turned in interesting directions. For example, if your daughter spends most of her free time on the phone with friends in conversations about their social relationships, recognize that this could be a clue that she may be good at and interested in helping people solve problems. Consider exposing her to psychology.

Once parents have a better understanding of their child’s interests, what next?

Embrace them. Don’t try to influence your child into pursuing something you consider to be more impressive, or something that you wish you could have done, but didn’t. Remember, it’s your child’s life, not yours.

Search for opportunities for your child to delve deeply into exploring their interests. Discourage your child from following friends to a camp that may interest the friends, but might not be a good fit for your child.

Don’t limit yourself to organized programs (although there are many terrific ones). Sometimes the best opportunities are the ones that the two of you initiate together.

Don’t be shy about asking experts for their advice. Most experts who have a consuming interest in something are flattered when they’re approached by a parent with a child who’s intrigued by it. I know of children who interned with a scientist and co-published articles in journals by the time they were out of middle school. Professional musicians can often recommend teachers, competitions, and music schools. Doctors, lawyers, and other professionals might allow your child to “job shadow” for a day.

Plan family vacations and day outings around your child’s interests. Paleontology fits with a trip to the Southwest to volunteer on a dinosaur dig. Engineering fits with outings to science museums and factory tours. Law fits with visits to courtrooms or state or federal legislatures.

Find books and do internet searches to learn more about your child’s interests. Discover topic-specific magazines, websites, podcasts, and YouTubes. Find out about lectures, conferences, webinars, and other special events.

Learn about local special interest clubs and organizations. Most communities have star watching groups, book groups, birding clubs, speech-making clubs, and other groups that offer events and information.

Be involved. Don’t just sign your child up. Accompany him or her to events. Help him practice his musical instrument. Read the books he or she is reading and discuss them over dinner. Studies repeatedly show that parental involvement is essential if children are to fully develop their potential.

If you follow this “prescription” for the perfect summer, your child will begin the school year with renewed energy, enthusiasm for learning, and one step closer to achieving the joy of true fulfillment. And you’ll have quite an interesting ride along the way!

Note: This article is an update of one I published in 2012 on the SENG  (Social and Emotional Needs of the Gifted) website: www.seng.org.

Does your dyslexic child love to build or draw things? Is he or she fascinated by how things work? Does your child surprise you with his ability to “see” things in his mind’s eye? This may be evidence of a budding talent that can lead to a successful career in a field that relies on visual-spatial thinking.

Visual-spatial thinking is the process of reasoning (thinking) with visual images or pictures – with mental images. It involves non-verbal thought processes that are not based on words and language. People who have strong visual-spatial thinking ability can manipulate visual images in their mind, examining things from all angles, and can “see” a sort of slide-show or film of a process or event in their “mind’s eye.” Temple Grandin (who is autistic, not dyslexic) described visual-spatial thinking when she wrote: “My visual thinking gives me the ability to do a ‘test run’ in my head on a piece of equipment I’ve designed just like a virtual reality computer system. Mistakes can be found prior to construction when I do this.” Albert Einstein wrote: “the entities which seem to serve as elements in my thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be voluntarily reproduced and combined…this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought. The above-mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage.”

For years people have wondered if individuals with dyslexia, who have weaknesses in left-brain-based language processes, might have higher than average right-brain visual-spatial abilities because of the different way their brains are wired. It seems logical that “that the same brain organization that leads to language disabilities for dyslexics might also lead to certain high level abilities.” (Norman Geschwind).

The scientific evidence has built to suggest that many dyslexics do, in fact, have stronger visual-spatial abilities than their non-dyslexic peers. Dyslexics evidence an enhanced ability to process visual-spatial information globally (holistically) rather than locally (part by part). This may be why individuals with dyslexia are over represented in fields such as architecture, art, engineering, and the sciences. In discussions with successful dyslexics in these fields the capacity to “see” things differently comes up with remarkable frequency.

My dyslexic son displayed a talent in visual-spatial thinking at a young age. Because so much of his school day was spent feeling less capable than his peers, we decided to focus on enrichment in this interest/talent area so could feel good at something. We bought books about how things work, helped him enter a Lego building competition, enrolled him for the Johns Hopkins Talent Search Spatial Test Battery, let him take apart and build mechanical objects around the house, enrolled him in summer engineering programs, helped him find an internship at an engineering firm, and did everything we could think of to help him develop his strength. Being good at something helped him get through the elementary and middle school years with his self-esteem intact – and ultimately helped him get into a good college because he had achievements in an area of passion. He majored in physics and is now a rocket engineer. He feels that his ability to picture things in his mind has enabled him to design original parts and envision how the engineering development process will flow better than many of his non-dyslexic peers.

When I work with dyslexic children who display an exceptional strength in an area like visual-spatial ability I often describe it to them as a “super power.” Something that makes them special and unique.

Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide, who founded  Dyslexic Advantage, have developed questionnaires to help identify the strengths associated with dyslexia. I’ve adapted some of their work to use in my assessment practice.

If you answer “strongly agree” or “agree” to a majority of the questions below, your dyslexic child may have a gift at visual-spatial thinking – a “super power” that could lead to a career in a visual-spatial area and/or an enjoyable life-long hobby.

If you would like to learn more about how to identify and develop your child’s strengths, I am happy to talk and can be reached at: devon@drdevon.com.

(Note: the pronouns “he” and “his” refer to children of any gender in this questionnaire)

  1. My child is good at forming 3D pictures in his head, and I believe he can manipulate them and move through them in his mind when he wants to.
  2. When my child draws, he likes to use 3D techniques like perspective or cutaways.
  3. My child likes it when teachers use pictures and diagrams to explain things rather than just words.
  4. My child is good at building things (e.g. Legos, K’NEX, marble runs, arts and crafts projects).
  5. When he plays a video game, it’s easy for my child to learn his way around the virtual environment.
  6. When my child puts together a kit (e.g., Legos, toys or models), he usually doesn’t have to read the written instructions. He can just tell how things must go together by looking at the pictures.
  7. After going someplace once, my child usually doesn’t need directions, a GPS, or a map to find it again.
  8.  My child would rather learn new information using pictures, diagrams, graphs, videos, or maps, instead of just reading or listening to words.
  9. When my child thinks through a problem, his thinking is often more non-verbal (visual images) than verbal (words).
  10. Before he can describe what he thinks about something, my child often has to translate his thoughts into words (up to that point, his reasoning process hasn’t used primarily words).
  11. My child likes learning about engineering, architecture, design, and physics.
  12. My child enjoys activities that involve moving through space in complex ways (e.g. sailing, flying, skiing, snowboarding, surfing, dance).
  13. My child is good at recalling 3D details about things or places he’s been, like how big things were or where they were in relation to each other.
  14. My child likes looking at 3D structures and figuring out how they work (e.g. engines, clocks, household appliances).

Multi-potentiality is the state of having many exceptionally strong abilities or talents. The child who has the Midas touch and is good at everything he does from math to science to English to music to sports to art to leadership has multi-potentiality. It sounds wonderful doesn’t it? But for many children and young adults it can becomes a burden.

Why?

External Reasons: If you’re good at something, people tend to encourage you to pursue it. The child who is good at a lot of things may be pulled in many different directions by well-meaning teachers, coaches, and parents. Who should the child listen to? Their violin teacher who’s urging them to apply to Juilliard, their math teacher who wants to enter them into prestigious math competitions, or their tennis coach who’s encouraging them to become a nationally ranked player? There simply isn’t enough time in the day to pursue all of these talents. Disappointed adults can make the child feel he is “wasting his potential” if he doesn’t follow their advice and encouragement. This is particularly difficult when a parent has a dream for their child that fits with one of their child’s strengths. How can they let their parent down by not pursuing it? It’s a lot of pressure for a child to feel they need to live up to another’s expectations and dreams.

Internal reasons: We often decide what we’re interested in and want to pursue based on our abilities. The multi-talented high school student may try to do everything they’re good at and become so over-scheduled and exhausted that they have little time for reflection (or sleep). Adolescents and young adults approaching critical decision points like what major to declare in college and what career to pursue afterward may experience debilitating anxiety and stress over the decision. The student who excels at math and science but just gets by in English may decide to lead with his strengths and major in a STEM field in college. But the student who is good at everything may feel overwhelmed by the multitude of choices before him. I had a gifted friend in college who was brilliant at everything. She still hadn’t decided what to do in our senior year so she sat for the LSAT, GRE, and GMAT, thinking she’d choose between law, business, and graduate school based on her test scores. Her scores came in at the 99th percentile on all three exams, leaving her no further ahead in her decision-making.

What can we do to help students suffering from the downsides of multi-potentiality?

First, it’s important to encourage the child to try to not be influenced by external influences. They shouldn’t feel pressured by others to use their gifts. Parent alert: just because you wanted to be a concert pianist and your child appears to have the talent to do so doesn’t mean you should live your live through theirs.

Second, it’s important to inculcate the importance of genuine interests as a driver from a young age. Abilities are one thing – they are what the student is naturally good at. Interests are another thing altogether. Interests are what the child is drawn to. A child can be good at something they aren’t that interested in and interested in something they aren’t that good at. A way of helping the multi-talented child narrow his or her list of possibilities is to focus attention on what genuinely “lights their fire.” Interests can be formally assessed, but there are also ways parents can flush them out. Ask yourself: What makes my child smile and laugh? What gets and keeps my child’s attention? What gets my child excited? What are my child’s favorite things to do? What is my child willing to work hardest at doing? What “brings out the best” in my child? And what does my child choose to do most often in his or her free time (assuming they have any)? For most children, identifying these genuine interests significantly narrows the list of possibilities. A “sweet spot” can often be found where abilities and interests intersect, but I feel interests should win any contest between the two. The gifted child with multiple abilities is likely to be able to develop stronger abilities with effort in an area of strong interest.

Of course there are some children with multi-potentiality who are interested in everything too. For these children I recommend the Chinese menu approach. Take one interest from column A (academic subject), one from column B (arts activity), and one from column C (physical activity). Explore these for some time. Then try other items. This can be an iterative process until about high school when I feel it is best to narrow one’s commitments to at most 3-4 major areas.

Adding values to the mix can further narrow the list. Values are intrinsic core “wants” – the deep inner reasons or desires that motivate us like money, status, autonomy, fame, helping others, variety, power, security, risk-taking, and changing the world. The multi-ability, multi-interest child may be able to focus their efforts further if they consider what they truly value. This requires honest reflection.

It’s also important to let children know that the average person changes careers 3 to 7 times in their lifetime. They may be able to be a scientist and a doctor and a musician and an artist and an environmental activist in succession. Or they may successfully combine several disciplines into one career. While it’s harder today to be a polymath like Leonardo da Vinci, examples can be found of people who successfully combine fields. Noam Chomsky combines cognitive science, philosophy, psychology, and linguistics. Stephen Wolfram is a computer scientist, mathematician, physicist and cosmologist. Viggo Mortensen (perhaps best-known as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings) is a professional singer, composer, photographer, painter, founded a publishing house, and publishes poetry he’s written in three languages.

Another idea is to let children know that they can pursue their extra interests outside of their careers as hobbies. They can sing in the local choral group, coach baseball, and even build a lab in their garage to tinker with tech start-up ideas. All while having a full-time job doing something else.

No child is really “too gifted.” They just need to figure out which gifts among an abundance of many to open and play with first. If you would like to learn more about how to help your gifted child, contact Devon MacEachron, PhD. 

This blog article is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Blog Hop on “Multipotentiality.” I thank my friends at Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page and elsewhere for their inspiration, support, and suggestions.