Multipotentiality: It’s a Thing

Originally published elsewhere, but since nobody paid me for it, and I didn’t transfer copyright, I disavow the very possibility of being able to plagiarize my own work. Especially since I use Creative Commons licensing. So there.

Even though it’s a fairly new word in my world, multipotentiality surrounds me. And although I’ve seen some people come to terms with a career/hobby/spare time approach to the problem, I’ve also seen many people struggle with the issue of finding time to do all the things that they want to without feeling like they’ve lost something significant in the process.

For those of us with many unrelated interests and talents, the challenge of figuring out what we are going to love enough to keep doing day after day doesn’t end when we finish school. Career counselling conversations seem to imagine a track: “high school, university, professional school, career, advancement”. The goal is to get people (kids, really) onto the “right” track so that they will be productive, successful, and hopefully relatively satisfied.

Yet the world is full of people who are fully grown, living what look like productive lives, but feeling like they’re dying on the vine. I described it (when this was me) as being like trying to fit an octopus into a box… I always either had arms left outside, or felt I was crushed into a space too small.

So imagine my dismay when the very first academic paper I came across in my ramblings literature review said, “Multipotentiality doesn’t exist.

What they point out is that people who are very good at a wide range of things are not equally good at all the things they are good at. As “multipotentiality” is described as having what is called a “high-flat” profile on aptitude tests, their claim is not that the high part is invalid, but that the flatness is an artefact of testing with imprecise instruments. In effect, you can eliminate the flatness by asking harder questions.

Yet it is a jump from the position that multipotential people still have variations in their capabilities to “multipotentiality never existed”. And I would suggest that is an unhelpful position for people trying to make choices about their lives who don’t see a lot of limits due to their capacities. Yes, you might be better at some things than some others… and (gasp) there may be things for which you have no aptitude at all! But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a problem with the number of choices in front of you.

So, here’s why it’s not true. Or at least not true in the way that they are suggesting.

The first thing is, they’ve drawn conclusions about longitudinal impacts from a cross-sectional study. That is to say, they have identified a problem in an adult population (highly intelligent people are frequently troubled with career indecision and distress) and inferred an intervention at a younger level (don’t assume that the problem is a “high-flat” profile when providing career guidance to graduating students) by changing their assessment tools at an even younger level (administering the SAT to grade 7 students to determine that they do, in fact, have individual variations). This is always a risky manoeuvre, and here, I would argue, it simply doesn’t apply. They are hypothesizing that the eventual dissastisfaction in adults can be forestalled by appropriate interventions at a younger age (which is an interesting idea), but they have neither solved the problem with the adults in question, nor done the longitudinal study necessary to validate the intervention.

In fact, to claim that the problem doesn’t exist does worse than nothing for the adult who is struggling with their position in life. It places the blame back upon them, or perhaps upon their guidance counsellor from years gone by, without providing them with guidance about what to do with it. It pathologizes the need for growth and intellectual stimulation and recasts it as vanity.

Yes, if you test people who are at the tail in a number of different categories, they turn out to have variations in how far out the tail they are. They may score at the 98th percentile in spatial relations, 99th in language, and 99.9th in something… These profiles vary from one person to the next. And when you’re dealing with extreme outliers, they might look something like 99.9th, 99.7th, 99.98th percentiles. The strategy they suggested in that paper was to use challenging enough test instruments to get them out into those extremes and then use that data for guidance purposes. I imagine the conversation going, “Well, you’re only extremely good at all these things, but you’re absurdly good at that one, so we think that you should choose that.”

How is this supposed to help? You’re still talking to somebody who is going to be better at most things than almost all their “peers”, and (this is more to the point), would have been better than almost all their peers at any number of other things they chose. The goal in this finer sorting seems to be to find the thing that they are so much better at that they don’t feel dissatisfied with losing the other things they’ve left behind, rather than structuring their lives so that they don’t have to leave anything out.

Better questions than “Where do your talents lie?”

What do you want to do? What lights you up? What, if you are not doing it, feels like a piece of you is missing?

Then, how do you arrange your life so that those pieces are not missing or relegated to a tiny corner of leftover time? It is time for those of us who are living this to engage with this question, instead of trying to make ourselves fit into lives that are three sizes too small. It’s time for a new conversation about what we do when we grow up.

Among those of us who find ourselves already there.


I can tell that the post I am working on is important by all the displacement activities I have been undertaking while avoiding it. I have been (in no particular order):

  • making my bed on a regular basis
  • doing my daily meditation
  • sorting through my old things
  • finishing off my projects that have been lying around
  • working with dedication on the complexity course I’ve been taking
  • learning a new programming language and
  • (this is the real sign of pathology) Reorganizing my bathroom cabinet.

I’ll admit that the list looks good. And the cabinet looks great.

It seriously needed it.


cabinet - before


cabinet - after

But then one of my friends (and former roommates, so somewhat better acquainted with my housekeeping habits than the random member of the internet) asked me what I was up to, and whether I had been spending too much time on UFYH (look it up, but not if you don’t like websites with rude names) and I said, “No. I’ve just… Um. I’m not entirely sure *what’s* going on, actually. It’s probably masterful procrastination, now that I think of it.”

So I did spend the day working on that post. And took this bit out of it.



Thrummed Mittens – Now with 18 % more fuzz

I went to a workshop last December to learn how to knit these fabulous mittens that have a fuzzy lining.

Mitten1Someday I’ll even put the thumbs on them.

It was fun, and the mittens are pretty, and if you live near me and like knitting, I highly recommend going to The Bobbin Tree the next time that they hold a workshop. Also, they have some lovely yarns.


All the thrummed mitten patterns I can find use a reducing process at the fingertips that leaves the end un-fuzzy. Since it is always my fingers that are cold, I wanted to figure out how to carry the pattern all the way to the end. Wait! Let me show you what I’m talking about.


Yay! :)

Not fuzzy:Mitten2

Less yay. :(

So I decided that on my next pair, I would reduce in the round instead of with that squared off tip and Kitchener Stitch (I’m sure there’s a technical term for those two approaches. )

I will assume that you have a thrummed mitten pattern already, so this is only after the mitten has been knit to the appropriate length (just past the pinkie finger, they seem to suggest). I also assume that you already know how to knit, since this is more of a proof-in-principle than an actual pattern. Really, I just want to be able to make the other mitten match, and I had to write it down anyway, so I thought it might put it somewhere that it could help somebody else, too.

Back to the needles!

On the next thrumming row (mine was a thrum-k3 all around 44 stitches) reduce one on alternating thrums.

Row 1: Something like, ssk-thrum-k3 all around. This made for an odd number of reductions, but that’s OK. We’re going to fix that before the next thrumming round.
Row 2: Knit (including whatever you’ve been doing with the thrums all along. My instructor told us to knit into the back of them to hold them in more securely.)
Row 3: Reduce on all of the alternations that you didn’t do the first time. That is, k5, k2tog, k4, k2tog (or however it works so that you wind up with a repeat for the next thrum that will go t-k2 all the way around. I seem to have a k3 in there somewhere.)
Row 4: Knit
Row 5: thrum-k2 all around.
Row 6: Repeat Row 2
Row 7: Reduce ~1/4 of your remaining stitches evenly.
In my case, I took out 8 of 33. I found a great calculator to figure out how to distribute your evenly spaced reduction here:
Row 8: Knit
Row 9: Evenly reduce the same number as row 7 +/- 1 (if you need to come back to an even number of stitches. I reduced 9 on this row to leave me with 16 because I’m fond of the grafted closing instead of the drawstring through the remaining live stitches.)

And thus:


Two extra rows of fuzzy goodness! You’re welcome. (You know who you are.)

The Cuteness of Cuttlefish

I know, it’s been a million years. Life, you know?

Anyway. My kids are going along, doing cute kid stuff. My car died, and I got a new one, and the roof is leaking and we’re going to have to renegotiate the mortgage, and I still haven’t managed to place any paid writing, or even unpaid for that matter, and my blog is sorely neglected, but the greenhouse had some nice surprises including cantaloupe, ginger, and an avocado tree, and something will happen. Etc.

This is about the cuttlefish. Sort of.

We were watching a Nova program called “Origins”, and the episode was titled, “Where are the aliens?” They wanted us to realize that we would have a challenge recognizing intelligent life if we encountered it, and also considering the question of how frequently technology arises in intelligent life forms. (Because of the Drake equation, used to estimate, or at least get at the likelihood of there being other technological civilizations out there for us to encounter.)

So, the scientist being interviewed studies the amount of “computation power” necessary for cephalopods to display their amazing feats of camouflage. (He wanted to point out that there are many ways of being “intelligent”, and only some of them would create technological traces.) He put his hand into the tank, and the cuttlefish came along and grasped his hand, and my lovely son (the small one) said, “Oh! *That’s* why they’re called cuddle fish!”

Cue his father and I not-laughing, and also not-correcting, because the world needs more cuddle fish.

Voila! Instant Art!

I’m taking a Coursera course about art concepts, and this week the assignment was to create an environmental installation piece. Since I had it up, photographed, and down within 10 minutes, I felt that I should share it more broadly… give it a chance to breathe, as it were. So, without further ado, Garden Party! Complete with “Artist’s Statement” as required for the course.



That fabulous mug came from Elizabeth Burtt Pottery, by the way:


Sixty Seconds after installation. Please note the part of the garden that I haven’t gotten to this spring, and the chicken coop in the background. This photo isn’t included in the course submission, so it isn’t mentioned in the artist’s statement.



Ninety Seconds after installation

This installation is titled, “Garden Party.” It is an assemblage of constructed objects, most clearly in the lineage of Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades. (Edit: I’m not sure about that, but it’s the best place to put it in the limited categories I’ve encountered in this course. Which I am taking because I didn’t know anything about art. So, there you go.)

It is situated in the vegetable garden in my own yard, which I have been developing with my partner for the last 7 years. The land on which it is installed has been the source for many meals, and has hosted many parties, but this installation is designed to contrast the reality of the land with that potrayed in modern magazines and “lifestyle” gardening books. The white table cloth and place settings contrast vividly with the green and brown of the surrounding garden. The blue of the arbour (an already-existing “permanent” fixture in the landscape) is paralleled by the blue in the table cloth, and it is intended to create a feeling of invitation. Like so many of these images, the semi-formal, constructed place setting is a stage onto which we are expected to project ourselves… can you not imagine sitting at this table?

When you look more closely, though, you will see that there are no chairs. There is no food. There is no place for people in this constructed space… it exists purely for its own sake, and to show that it can be built. The set pieces also fall away (literally) after the description in Camus’ work, “The Myth of Sisyphus”. The third photo is titled, “ninety seconds” because that is how long it took after setting the table before the wind disrupted the place settings so much that the table cloth was flipped over them. I had to replace the original vase with the utensil holder from my kitchen, as the wind blew over the first attempt. Also, I want you to observe the way that the flowers bend in the same direction as the garlic plants in the foreground. This is, in fact, why the photos are not “better”, not at all by the way: the table was set up, photographed and disassembled in a 10-minute gap between the rain storms we’ve been experiencing for the entire week, and which we expect for three more days before it will be possible to work in the garden once more.

This installation is about the contrast between the messiness of the “real world” from which our food is obtained, and the ways in which it is potrayed in our culture: sanitized, clean, controlled. There is no space for dirt, or bugs, or weeds (even though that is what I used to compose the bouquet)… in fact, the more closely you look, the less the illusion works… the settings are *nearly* matched, but I couldn’t resist putting in my favourite mug, a one-of-a-kind piece of artwork created by a friend who once lived on this land with us. The desire to create this structure in the midst of the messiness of the garden is at once revealed as absurd, but human. (Also consider the fact that, immediately behind the table, you can see the same sort of futile attempt to control nature in the raised beds which I have to reconstruct every year.)

Come to think of it, it repeats a theme from a poem I wrote just over a year ago, called, “Sometimes, The Wind”

Sometimes, The Wind

Sometimes when I leave my home
With six things perfectly balanced,
The door is torn from my hand
And I rail.

The wind, the wind!

It is a character in our little dramas,
Played out at the hardware store,
Fingers tracing the lines
Of coveted outdoor objects.
But. The Wind. (he reminds me)
And dreams are left unpurchased,
Unbuilt, unfulfilled,
The trappings of another life.
One unconstrained by. All. This. Wind.

Resentment builds.

Later that day,
Gazing out upon the whitecaps at play
Upon the river,
Wondering in silence how long it will be before
we lose so many pieces of the roof that we can’t ignore it
any longer,
I ask,
“Is it the Mistral that is said to drive people
I know the answer.
It is not a new conversation.

“Yes,” he says,
And puts his arms around me from behind,
Gazing out upon
The whitecaps at play.

Parenting Towards Enlightenment

We, a class of aspiring yoga teachers, are sitting on the floor of the meditation hall at the ashram in India when the conversation turns to the conflict between practice and parenting. “But how,” asks one of the men, “do you work with being here when your children are somewhere else? You have to worry about them, think about them… otherwise…” His hands go up in a gesture of helplessness. I (chagrined) admit a moment of surprise, because this is usually a conversation had amongst mothers, and to hear a man in a traditionally patriarchal society express the same concerns brings me back to reality. Parenting is this agreement we all make, described by Elizabeth Stone as letting your heart walk around outside of yourself.

I try to take it up, this question. How do you be here when they are elsewhere? How did I justify leaving my three children for an entire month to go to the other side of the planet where (it turns out) I will be unsuccessful even at finding the post office to send home the promised letters, let alone making a weekly phone call? And how is this search for myself related to my search for their mother, hidden somewhere inside me?

The teacher offers mother-love, the mythic, all-giving, all-merging force. The Mother, she says, sacrifices of herself for the sake of her children. The boundaries blur, her self is merged with that of her children, the Love is complete.

“No, no!” my inward protest screams. “That’s a recipe for disaster! Don’t you understand? Mothering must include the art of letting go, of moving from a place of merging, where even yourbodies are shared, to letting thinner and thinner tendrils connect you… it is a process by which you remain and become separate people.”

What I actually say, stumbling, is something like, “I need to have faith that I am not the only one. My children are surrounded by a web of other adults who support their growth. And worrying about them isn’t really about them. It is a superstitious belief that I can somehow influence their environment, keep them safe simply by fearing that they might not be. That just keeping them in the background of my awareness is somehow necessary to maintain the relationship to them. It is, in fact, taking care of the fear that if I stop that worrying, even for a moment, it is a sign that I don’t care.”

Despite years of education and training, daily exposure to cynicism and a tendency to a too-scientific view of the world, my superstitions run deep.
When my children were infants, I was afraid to sleep, believing somehow that their continued existence in the world relied on my sheer force of will. I’d like to say that this improved by number three, but it didn’t really. Some nights, even now, I peek into the children’s rooms on the way down the hall, just to make sure that I haven’t imagined the whole thing, and that no thief has come in the night, stealing these parts of my heart. There they all lie, even the 13 year old whose feet are now larger than mine, breathing quietly all these years later, with no effort on my part. I name this fear, that if I glance away, even for a moment, if I fail to show my appreciation, maybe they will be taken from me. Better not to chance it.


When my mother came to meet my first son, mere hours old, I held him up and said, “Hey, Mom! Look what I made!” She grinned. I grinned. We were as proud as when we shared my macaroni-and-handprint crafts in kindergarten. Yet even in that placental space, it’s not quite true that “I” made “him”. I had to walk through the world and gather the molecules from which my son would assemble himself, according to codes so complex that we don’t yet understand them. In this process I was neither the agent nor a mere vessel: he and I grew as entwined systems, evolving, communicating, sharing the resources of time and energy. It continues even now, as my limited time must be allocated among family members and my ever-growing list of projects, becoming myself among them.

In the varied practices of meditation and yoga, I learn to hold up my motivations to my own internal scrutiny. On the one hand, I don’t want to be a mother who treats her children as an extension of herself. This is an easy mistake to make, in a world in which we are judged based on our children’s behaviours. I admit feeling a pinch of pride when older women stop me in restaurants to say, “Your children are so polite.” (I even put it in here. You may call me on it.) Yet I pat myself on the back for having chosen to let them grow away from me organically. I take a certain amount of satisfaction in having faith that they will be OK for a month, even while feeling like I should probably miss them more.

It is a matter of some effort, placing my awareness on this ever-shifting boundary: where do I stop and you begin, child of mine? When I do this thing for you (whatever it is) am I responding to an actual need, or am I projecting one of my needs upon you? Worse, am I doing it to prove something to myself or the world around me, that I am able to play this role, that I am worthy to be this Mother of myth?

Which brings me back to that ashram in India. There is a message for my children even in my absence, and it is this: Someday you will be adults and you will leave me. We are in this for the long haul, you and I, but one of my tasks is to grow away from you, so that when you leave the parting will be gentle. The motion of two human beings, having walked together for so long, finally walking apart.

And in the meantime, as in so much of our practice, the instructions are, “Not too tight, not too loose.”

Peaceful Practice

This was originally posted on The Peaceful Professional, another blog of mine which has apparently suffered catastrophic failure due to neglect. That is to say, I can’t find it any more, having made some errors in setting it up that I haven’t been able to repair. It is dead (for now), but the writing lives on. Go, writing.

A couple of years ago, in a moment of frustration/inspiration, I grabbed a permanent marker and wrote on the wall in my sunroom. “Life is Practice,” I reminded myself. I was in the middle of parenting, writing, partnering, thinking about the meaning of it all, and trying to make time for practice in the midst of the chaos. It was around the same time that I placed the shelf with the children’s toys on it directly below my own shelf of sacred objects (among them a statue of the Buddha, a bowl for alms, a carving of the triple goddess, and a Galilean thermometer.)

But as true as this was, it didn’t negate the need for time on the mat, on the cushion, and alone with my thoughts. The practice of daily life is to apply the practice of… well. Practice. It’s like daily life is the performance, and the time for intentional Practice is the warm up, the rehearsal. The scales, if you will allow me to continue my musical metaphor.

“My life is not busy, it is full.” A new friend reminded me of this the other day. It echoes the words of another friend/teacher of mine, who said when I commented on her heavy bags at the farmer’s market, “No, not burdened. Laden.”

This is the fruit of Practice. The mind leaps to new places, develops new tracks, new default ways of framing experience. We are able to think different things, having confronted, relaxed with, and integrated the things we thought before. In my case, Practice leans heavily on Buddhist meditation and yoga… although I’m exploring the subtleties of those. I’m starting to realize that they may not be strictly compatible in terms of foundational assumptions about the world. Nevertheless, they provide useful ways of working with the mind. “Skillful means,” in the words of the Buddhists.

This is an approach that works with my engineering/scientific training. On the one hand, I am very interested in how things work… but on the other, I am equally contented to explore whether they work, whether we understand the mechanism or not. I understand that I may therefore be doing things that are not necessary. Perhaps someday we will be able to trim this all to the bare essentials. I am down to following the breath while sitting on a comfortable cushion on the floor, though, so there isn’t a lot more to trim down. Not in the ritual, at least. Notice the thought, label it thinking, come back to the breath. Such simple instructions, such a difficult thing to do. Some days my labelling sounds like this: “Thinking, thinking, thinking, th, thi, th…”

But somehow, it translates into a calmer mind. I find myself in the midst of frustration spontaneously labelling: “Thinking,” I think, and sometimes the quiet comes. Sometimes only for a moment, but sometimes… sometimes it just works. It didn’t used to work.

The goal… it is not to stop thinking. So many people I love tell me, “Oh, I can never meditate. My mind just runs on and on and on…”

“Of course,” I want to say, (but I am their friend, not their teacher.) “That is what minds do. And then they catch themselves. And come back to the breath.” Dearhearts, that is why it is called practice. Not performance. Not perfection. Just… Practice.


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