When you first start watching the TED talk by teenager Bo Grove, you might think, “Cool, a smart coder kid, interesting story.” But pretty quickly you learn he’s not just a coder. He’s a multipotentialite—and he talks in a really unique way about how he learns and why.
Emilie and I knew right away we wanted to talk to Bo and feature him on Puttylike. He has the kind of enthusiasm that gets you excited about learning, trying new things, and being a multipod. So I sat down with him (and his awesome mom Saskia) for a video interview a few weeks ago. I asked him all about what it’s like being a teen multipotentialite, what’s going on in his fascinating brain, and his advice for other teens and adults.
“What I call ‘skimming’ is jumping from one subject to another, so you never run out of new information.”
That’s Bo, during his TED talk, describing how he gets bored if he spends too long on one thing—he’s endlessly curious for new subjects and how they all connect. He tells the audience about an all-too-familiar chorus to many of us multipotentialites: facing disapproval from folks who think you need to focus on just one passion in order to succeed.
But I wanted to know more about skimming itself—whether it’s a continuous process of evaluating each subject, or whether it’s just the act of jumping itself, after boredom happens.
When I spoke to Bo, he told me one of his current interests is biology; he’s taking extra classes outside of school. Genetics, DNA, RNA, stuff like that.
“Do you think it’s something you’ll want to explore for a while?” I asked. “Or is it just kind of like, ‘I’m doing the skimming thing’ to see?”
He and his mom laugh. “Always—” she starts.
“I’m actually always skimming,” he says. And he usually doesn’t go too deep.
But, he says, biology is a very basic, underlying thing—nearly every subject connects to it. So that holds an appeal. He could be into it for a while.
He also told me about a creative writing project he just completed. He and a hundred other kids learned about how to write stories, and then each wrote a story about how they would have created the earth (an amazing prompt, for those of you reading who are writers!). The project will become a published book soon. Bo seems as delighted by constructing a story as he is by understanding genetics.
I ask him if he knows what’s next—does he keep a subject or interest waiting on the horizon? Not really, he says. “I do things, and then I come across something and I go ‘Oh, I want to try that.’ And then I try it.”
On Bo’s team
Even from the TED talk, I could see that Bo is thriving. It made me imagine an incredible future, where all the multipotentialite teenagers out there might thrive, too. I wondered how Bo got so assertive and articulate about his own thinking. What kind of opposition had he faced? And what kind of team was backing him up?
He told me the toughest opposition to his multipotentiality is the school system: “In Belgium the schools are quite specific. There are art schools and tech schools and science schools. They make you make the first decision at twelve years old, which is quite early. And your university depends on it. So that was quite hard… that they force you into a box at such an early age, and the rest of your studies depend on that choice.”
Bo started at an art school, where he spent two years specializing in traditional art (painting, drawing, etc.). It was fun, he says. “But I realized—I’m not going to spend my whole life doing that.” And it’s not just a matter of changing a few classes: “The schools are like, physically different school buildings of specialization.”
Luckily, he was able to switch to a science school, which he chose “because the options there were the most open… we get science, math, and three languages.” And the science school is also the least restrictive choice for his options at university, later.
I ask Bo if people at his new school have been supportive of his wide interests. He says yes—he feels good about it. “Our school is very open, and modern, and they really focus on keeping all your options open, and letting the students explore.”
One of his friends is a “skimmer” like him, too. “He is really into art, and also music, and all this other stuff… he actually wants to be an architect right now, but that sentence has changed like five times this year—”
“Just like yours.” Bo’s mom teases. “Every week!”
We laugh. I ask Saskia what that’s like, as Bo’s mom.
Bo says, “Annoying.” He’s laughing.
Saskia laughs, too. “Annoying.”
She makes us laugh even more with her impression of Bo. “Well, we try to be as flexible and supportive as possible, but it goes from like… ‘I’m bored in English class because I have an English dad, so I wanna learn Japanese.’ And then after two years of Japanese we get ‘I wanna go play baseball,’ and then after two months of baseball you get, ‘I’m gonna play badminton.’ You know?”
She may find it annoying to constantly be getting into new routines. And yes, each new interest requires books or outfits, and all kinds of logistics. But I can tell I’ve found one of Bo’s biggest supporters right next to him, incredibly proud. I wish every mulitpod teen had a winning team like his.
Navigating with a mind map
In Bo’s TED talk, he describes something remarkable. He says “I’ve created an overview in my head of all the different subjects that I’ve seen and explored, up to now.” In the overview, some subjects are bigger: the ones he’s spent more time on, or understands more, or feels a connection to. These are the subjects that he might want to dive deeper into, stick with for a longer period of time. “And I’ve only found these subjects because I’ve skimmed.”
I wanted to know all about this overview. Is it a visual? Or a physical representation in his mind?
“Yeah. It’s basically like a mind map, in categories. And they’re somehow—all linked together. So the sports will be together. But then that would link to biology, for like, muscles and heart rate and stuff like that.”
I am totally fascinated by this. I love knowing a lot of random things, and finding connections between different subjects. But being able to visualize a map of all of my current knowledge? I am in love with the idea of doing this, even as I’m baffled by the challenge.
I ask Bo if he ever makes unexpected connections based on where subjects overlap on his map.
He says yes. I put him on the spot by asking for an example, but he comes up with a really great one: “I was recently playing the piano… [not just playing around but] actually, actively playing the piano. And I was surprised of how much mathematics goes into music.”
Bo’s mom asks him if he could draw a picture of his mind map, and he says that would be quite hard. Different subjects on the map form “on the spot” as he reflects, and he’s always making new connections and changing it all. So it would be difficult.
I tell him that when his interests cycle back to art, drawing his map is his next challenge. He just laughs.
Don’t be afraid of choices
I asked Bo if he has any advice for other teens who are skimmers or multipotentialites. And he didn’t disappoint:
“I would say don’t be afraid of the choices, because you don’t need them yet. I know there’s like… the thing with the Belgian school system, right. Where you have to make choices. But they still didn’t stop me from doing things. You’re at an age where you can just— you’re allowed to just experiment and just try things out, you know.”
For those of us with teen multipotentialites in our lives, I think this is great advice to build upon. We need to support our teens exploring their many interests and trying stuff out—no matter how weird or unconnected they may seem to be, or how much our specialist culture might be pressuring them to narrow it down. The choices they make now don’t have to define their identity or future.
What about adults, the older multipods? Bo says, “If I were an adult, I don’t think I would stop skimming. Like even if I had the most boring job. You can still like—do things, you know. I don’t think that anything you chose to do, should be the end.”
It makes me think of his ever-evolving mind map again. Again, I wonder what the world would be like if we all thought a little more like Bo: less invested in being experts, and more invested in being curious, and always learning something new. I think that would be pretty neat.
Don’t forget to watch Bo’s TED talk for a bit of inspiration! (Or maybe you just need some more #BrightThings in your day!)
Do you skim like Bo, or do you dive deep and then resurface for another dive? What about that mind map– do you have a visual in your head of everything you know?