Sunday, March 1, 2020

Endless possibilities for gifted children and adults

Many of us live in boxes. We build some of these boxes on our own. Others spring from childhood labels. He's the smart one. She's bad at math. Team-building, school spirit, and loyalty to one's home town can feel great. But they create division. We are members of groups and nationalities and religions and cultures. We form identities related to our personality and preferences and temperament. We develop allegiances to political parties and sports teams and our family’s beliefs.

Boxes exclude and separate us from others. They remind us of our differences, define our priorities, and set boundaries. The us vs. them mindset treats others as flawed, and falsely stakes a claim to our superiority. Extremes of this thinking, of course, include racism, gender bias, religious prejudice, ethnocentrism, and nationalism. But less dramatic examples involve assumptions, prejudices and allegiances that define our values and identity. She's not a dog person. He's a die-hard Sixers fan. She can't relate to people from the South. Whether we speak these words aloud or not, we harbor prejudices and assumptions about ourselves and others – building walls and division that separate us.

Even though these boxes constrict, we sometimes hold on to them. They can be confining; they limit and constrain us. We know this – at least intellectually. We might even feel embarrassed about our prejudices and irrational assumptions. But boxes are familiar and comforting. They create a sense of belonging and identity and continuity. They remind us of who we are, and what our family and friends think of us and where we fit in, especially when we feel lost and alone. Social scientists point out how a "familiarity bias" influences decisions. 

When gifted people succumb to the comforting allure of boxes and labels, they are especially likely to sacrifice a sense of themselves. Complex thinkers, ever willing to scrutinize and tear apart an argument, gifted children rarely settle for an easy answer. They see the fallacy in simplistic dogma, and are wary of dichotomous viewpoints. As teens, they often question authority, family values, religion, and just about anything they deem without merit. Some become depressed as they struggle with existential angst. If they narrow their view of the world into rigid boxes and categories, they deny their innate ability to see both sides, analyze and argue different perspectives, and embrace their complex nature.

Most gifted teens and adults grapple with multipotentiality, possessing both multiple capabilities, and passion for a variety of interests. Although this has not been researched, I would contend that gifted people always possess multiple abilities - it just comes with the territory. Any attempts to box themselves in and pursue a sole career path may ring shallow. Yet, teens and young adults typically face constant pressure to find a safe box - a defined college major, a set career, a path toward graduate or professional school. Many are expected to jettison less lucrative passions, and discard interests viewed as time-consuming distractions. 

When multipotentialite teens and adults disavow their varied strengths and passions, they devalue and deny a part of themselves. Honoring and respecting that these abilities and passions form a core sense of self is critical. When this is denied, when a gifted teen or adult conforms/hides/retreats into a box, or squeezes their square peg into a round hole, they may feel empty and unfulfilled, regardless of outer trappings of success. 

How can gifted children, teens and adults embrace their endless possibilities?

1. Acknowledge all of your strengths, interests, passions, and goals, regardless of how "outside the box" they may seem. What have you kept hidden from view? What is begging to flourish and soar? What support, encouragement, structure and guidance would help you move ahead? 

2. Notice when your beliefs, loyalties and alliances are healthy, and when they constrict or set up rigid boundaries that distance you from others. Do they enhance your well-being? Do they bring you closer to connecting with and understanding others? "Openness to experience" has been categorized as one the Big Five Personality Traits researchers use to understand motivation and personality, and correlates with creativity, an adventurous spirit and curiosity. Consider holding on to those beliefs and values that enhance your life, creativity and positivity, and jettison the others, especially those that constrict or encourage negativity, self-loathing and biases toward others.

3. Draw a map connecting your strengths and how they build upon/support each other. Most strengths and interests are not isolated. For example, your passion for chess may hone your strategic marketing skills - and your multi-tasking as a parent. Your acting experience may enable exceptional presentation skills in professional meetings - and help you endure social interactions at work functions when you would rather be home reading. Combine and draw upon your multipotentiality in all aspects of your life - work, play, friendships and relationships.

4. Consider how to combine careers, or envision multiple careers that would include your many passions. When this is not possible, find outlets where you can express and enjoy your interests through clubs, classes, volunteer activities, self-study, or hobbies you engage in on your own.

However you choose to embrace your complexity, multiple abilities and passions, accept that they are a part of you. You don't deserve to abandon them, to box yourself in, to deny your sense of self. While boxes and labels can be reassuring, you don't need to accept a narrow, limiting view of the world. And by appreciating your strengths and allowing your abilities to flourish, you also model this acceptance for your children.


  1. Both my son (15) and daughter (12) have been identified as gifted. My son learns things very quickly, barely has to study for tests, waits till the last minute to do projects and still gets almost all As. My daughter has to work a little harder but she skipped 3rd grade, is in the National Junior Honor Society and is determined to get all As. My concern is that they have very few interests or passions about any subjects. My son plays basketball and video games. My daughter plays clarinet and is in the Chamber Ensemble at her school. But she rarely plays at home. She also used to play soccer and do gymnastics but lost interest in both activities. I've tried to get them interested in chess, karate, tennis and other things, but they don't want to participate. They spend a lot of time watching videos on their phones. It makes me very sad, and I don't know what to do. Just wondering if you had any advice. Thanks, Cathy

    1. Cathy, I understand your concern. It might be that they need some time to develop or find their passion. School just might be too easy for them, and they might be content enough with videos and time with friends. Your willingness to expose them to different activities may work in the long run, even if they initially resist your ideas. Good luck!