As a professor of career education, I spend a lot of time working with students who haven’t decided on a major. I’m a big advocate of these students, especially since I was one. I agonized over choosing a major, trying to find a way to incorporate my love of psychology, sociology, english, technology, religion and classical mythology into one degree. In the end I chose psychology, because my parents thought it was the simplest to explain, and took classes in the rest.
Now I teach and counsel college students who are trying to choose a major and forge a meaningful career path out of their diverse interests. I get excited about any new ideas, books or videos that encourage students to think big about their careers and stay true to what inspires them.
A few years ago, I decided to try something new. I took three of my favorite career “gurus” and taught my students about each of their career philosophies. I wanted to make sure they were exposed to different ways of thinking, so I picked three pretty distinct approaches: Cal Newport, who recommends ditching “passion” and choosing one valuable skill to hone over time; Parker Palmer, who tells us to dig deep and listen to our call to authentically serve the world; and Emilie Wapnick, who encourages multipotentialites to design a career that reflects their varied talents and interests.
I asked students to choose which of the three thinkers best represents their career aspirations, and the most popular choice, year after year, is Emilie Wapnick’s concept of Multipotentiality.
This year, I looked at those students more closely, gathering some info from those who identified as multipotentialites. I recorded 74 of my multipod students’ personality test results, reactions to Emilie’s book, How to Be Everything, and hopes and fears about their careers.
I’ll share the results in two blog posts, starting with this one—their personalities and strengths.
Multipotentialites and the Myers-Briggs
Everybody seems to have opinions on the MBTI, but whatever your stance, the test has some interesting things to say about personality. It has four facets: Extraversion vs. Introversion, Intuition vs. Sensing, Feeling vs. Thinking and Perceiving vs. Judging. After taking the assessment and verifying their results, students get a 4-letter type, something like “INTP” or “ESFJ.” There are 16 possible types.
I looked at my multipotentialite students’ results to see if any types were more common than others. The pattern was surprisingly clear.
23%, almost a fourth of the students, got ENFP as their result. That’s Extraversion, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving. My multi students were three times more likely to be ENFPs than Americans in general.
So what’s an ENFP like? Well, they’re curious, creative, friendly, energetic, adaptable and spontaneous. This probably sounds familiar! ENFP weaknesses include having a hard time focusing on one thing and following-through, especially on administrative tasks. They also tend to overthink things, work too much and burnout and struggle with handling criticism, stress, conflict and rigidity. If you relate to this, you may be an ENFP type or something similar, and the good news is that you’re not alone.
28% of multi students were either INFJs or INFPs, who, though introverted, present similarly creative, emotionally sensitive profiles. Remarkably, not a single student in 74 came out ISTJ or ISTP. These are classic “just the facts” types, with strengths in logical analysis, creating order, and staying calm under pressure. They’re common in the American population in general: together they make up 17% of MBTI users.
While it would be interesting to find an ISTJ who identifies as a multipotentialite (and I know you’re out there!), it’s definitely more the exception than the norm.
Multipotentialites and CliftonStrengths
Over the last few years, the CliftonStrengths assessment has taken workplaces and colleges by storm. With more than 20 million users, this inherently positive model organizes personal and professional strengths into 34 themes. Users who complete the assessment receive their top 5 strengths in order of dominance. Strengths include things like Discipline, Focus, Communication, and Empathy.
All 34 CliftonStrengths appeared in my multipotentialite students’ results. They obviously have a wide variety of talents. The two most common strengths, by a pretty sizable margin, were Restorative and Adaptability. Restorative is a problem-solving strength. People with Restorative in their top 5 are energized by figuring out how things work and bringing new life back to dysfunctional systems. Adaptability is exactly what is sounds like: taking things as they come and responding to the demands of the moment, rather than being bound by previous plans.
Let me give you a sense of just how common these strengths were in my multipod students. Almost half (43%) had Restorative in their top 5, while another 42% had Adaptability. For comparison, according to the latest frequency data, Restorative appears in about 25% of college students in general and Adaptability in about 23%. My multipotentialite students were almost twice as likely to have these strengths as the average college student.
So multipotentialite students are great at adapting and solving problems, something Emilie herself has talked about. But what about their least common strength?
No surprises here. Only 1 student of 74 had what CliftonStrengths calls Focus in their top 5. This is the ability to set and adhere to long-term goals. Obviously, Focus and Adaptability are often at odds. It’s not hard to imagine that multipotentialites everywhere tend to be better at adapting to changing interests and demands. It’s how many of us are wired and we’ve been doing it for a long time. That flexibility lends us an edge, if we can find or create the right environment to support it.
Incidentally, only about 8% of college students have Focus. That’s much more common than the 1% of my multipod students who had it, but it still raises an interesting point.
Among college students in general, Restorative and Adaptability are in the top 3 most common strengths (#1 is Achiever). Focus is the 4th from the bottom, not very common at all.
In spite of the fact that multipotentialite students often feel unsupported in their environments—and potentially by parents and teachers—their strengths aren’t so different than those of college students in general. In other words, tons of us are wired this way, even those who may not have found multipotentiality.
I did look for data on the general population. A few years ago, CliftonStrengths released numbers for their then 15 million users (across 160 countries). Restorative and Adaptability were the 9th and 10th most common strength, respectively, a bit lower than our college sample, but still popular strengths. Focus was the 6th least common, appearing in 10% of users’ top 5 strengths, a bit more common than for college students.
In other words, this data suggests that college students look more like multipotentialites than adults in general. My guess is that multipod strengths are becoming more common with each new generation. My Millennial and Gen-Z students sound more and more like multipotentialites every year.
If you think about it, technology is giving us access to many interests and worlds while simultaneously conditioning us to divide our attention. The rising cost of everything from education to food means a lot of us have to get used to finding multiple sources of income. Multipotentialite skills are in demand, and there are lots of ways to build them.
Whether you buy that argument or not, people with a talent for high achievement, adaptation, and solving complex problems (at least according to CliftonStrengths data) are a growing majority among college students.
I imagine we’d see a similar picture for personality. We need all kinds of personalities for our world to function: social people, analytical people, friendly people, critical people and everything in between. All sixteen Myers-Briggs types bring their own value.
Yet I would argue that of all the types, the INFP type, and perhaps by extension the ENFP type, tend to be undervalued, at least in the U.S. My INFP and ENFP students often struggle to find their place in schools and organizations that value productivity, structure, detail-orientation, “objectivity,” networking and planning. But to the extent that technology better supports multi-tasking, jumping into new projects, access to new information, more inclusive ways to “work,”and bringing to life creative projects—there may be hope on the horizon for Intuitive, Feeling personalities.
These changes mean good news for multipotentialites everywhere. Hopefully, it is only a matter of time before schools and organizations evolve to embrace and reflect our talents.
In part two of this blog series, I look at multipotentialite students’ reactions to Emilie’s book, How to Be Everything.
Do these results surprise you? Do you know your MBTI type or Clifton Strengths? Share your results and thoughts in the comments below.
Melanie Buford is a writer and assistant professor of career education. Both her students and her fictional characters grapple with questions of identity, purpose and authenticity. She has been an AmeriCorps fellow, a curriculum developer, a database tech, a project manager, and a museum docent, so she has a healthy appreciation for those who wear multiple hats. In fact, she thinks stretching your limits is an essential part of contributing to the world. Feel free to find her at melaniebuford.com or on twitter at @