Book Reflections #3: “The Gifted Adult: A Revolutionary Guide for Liberating Everyday Genius” by Mary-Elaine Jacobsen

The literature available on gifted adults is relatively sparse, with only a few book-length titles available that I know of.

One of the first to be published was this book by Mary-Elaine Jacobsen, Psy.D. (a psychologist), originally entitled Liberating Everyday Genius and then retitled in a way that more closely matches a similarly themed book published the same year: Marylou Kelly Streznewski’s  (1999) Gifted grownups: The mixed blessings of extraordinary potential.

I’ve written about discovering Streznewski’s  book a number of years ago, and what a profound impact this had upon me as a newly self-identified “gifted adult” (so that’s what I am!). Recently I decided to read through Jacobsen’s book to get a sense of the differences between the two.

And as it turns out, the books are quite different – thus giving credence to the notion that even if two creative individuals embark on a similar (much-needed) project at the same time, their results can and likely will be quite different. (I mention this given how easy it is for gifted adults to assume that their unique contributions to the world don’t matter because someone else will surely get to it anyway; not really true!)

In this post, I’ll provide a brief overview of the key points in Jacobsen’s meaty book (it’s 399 pages, small font), and a few of my thoughts on how they apply to my own situation as a gifted adult.

Her book is divided into the following four parts:

I. Identifying Everyday Genius™

II. Evolutionary Intelligence

III. When What’s ‘Wrong’ With You is What’s Right With You: Revealing and Healing Everyday Genius

IV. Managing Thyself: Self-Mastery and Integration

In her first chapter, Jacobsen puts forth the following five “facets of freedom”:

  1. Identify thyself: We (gifted adults) must recognize that we’re not an “ugly duckling” but rather a swan-in-disguise.
  2. Understand thyself: We must move beyond outdated notions of IQ=intelligence and explore our multiple intelligences.
  3. Reveal and heal thyself: We must let go of the need and desire to ‘fit in’, and confront the ‘false self’ that has driven us for too long.
  4. Manage thyself: We must learn to “regulate the flow of Everyday Genius™ energy, especially Intensity”, and “avoid unintentional abuse of our gifts” (p. 19).
  5. Liberate thyself: By following the above four steps, Jacobsen asserts, we will arrive at the “place where Everyday Genius™ traits and skills and vision are finally integrated” (p. 20).

Early in her book, Jacobsen makes it clear that one of her central beliefs about gifted adults is that we have a moral obligation to uncover and manifest our “Everyday Genius™” in order to “create a better world” (p. 21). This relates to Jacobsen’s notion of “Evolutionary Intelligence”, which – to reduce and simplify her work quite a bit – boils down to collective intelligence, thus potentially alleviating the immense guilt felt by many gifted individuals when considering how their own personal lives could possibly matter to the rest of humanity.

Jacobsen argues that they very much do matter – and that to allow our giftedness to lay fallow is actually the worse “sin”. To that end, I should add as an FYI that Jacobsen uses overtly Christian language several times throughout her book – not just in the Biblical use of “thyself”, but in a direct quote from Mother Teresa (“Together we can do something beautiful for God”, p. 204) and references to “the Creator’s blueprint for evolution” (p. 305).  

In Chapter 2 (“Gifted? Not Me”) Jacobsen addresses common misconceptions about giftedness: gifted people know they’re gifted; giftedness solves all of its own problems;  giftedness has nothing to do with personality; early underachievement is a sure sign that one is not gifted; the truly gifted never suffer from self-doubt or feel like imposters; a gifted person automatically grasps and aims for his or her best career direction; the gifted always do great things early in life (p. 32).

Ha!

Having explored literature on giftedness in both kids and adults for awhile now, these myths seem almost laughable in their inaccuracy – but at the time Jacobsen’s book was published (1999), I can see that these may have been critically important to surface, and she spends much time in her book providing anecdotes of clients who have struggled with overcoming these myths.

In chapters 3 through 5, Jacobsen continues to make the case for why we must tap into our Everyday Genius™, which she argues will allow us to be “fully alive” through “two distinct but inseparable missions: first, being free to be oneself, and second, being dedicated to the betterment of others’ lives” (p. 75).

She goes on to write:

“Being fully alive and liberated means embracing this two-fold life in earnest, accepting that the actualization journey is simultaneously freedom and obligation, threatening and electrifying, harassing and tranquil, crystal clear and totally confusing” (p. 75).

In other words, “liberating” one’s giftedness isn’t easy or peaceful, but is gratifying and ultimately worth it.

In Section 2, Jacobsen explores the notion of Evolutionary Intelligence in greater depth, culminating in an EvIQ test which readers can take and score for themselves. This consists of two sections: Section One: Special Abilities (Multiple Intelligences + Gifted Traits) and Section Two: Advanced Development (Humanistic Vision + Mandated Mission + Revolutionary Action).

In the first portion of Section One, readers are asked to identify aspects of their various multiple intelligences (drawing directly from Howard Gardner’s work), with “intelligence” expanded to incorporate being “body-smart”, “word-smart”, “spatial-smart”, “music-smart”, “logic-smart”, “relationship-smart”, “nature-smart”, and/or “self-smart”. The next portion of Section One asks readers to consider their gifted traits of Intensity, Complexity, and Drive (or ICD). Intensity refers to both Excitability and Sensitivity, while Complexity refers to Complex Thinking and Perception, and Drive stands on its own.

The EvIQ test (pp. 95-108) is a bit overwhelming, but does appropriately acknowledge how many facets there are to giftedness – far more than simply one’s IQ score. Jacobsen argues that “all the factors in the [EvIQ] formula can and must be put together each Everyday Genius in order to move high potential into the realm of Evolutionary Intelligence, where it can release its full power” (p. 122).

By this point in reading Jacobsen’s book, I fully understood how much of a “self-help” guide it was – one with a very specific mission: helping gifted adults “harness” their unique talents in order to advance humanity and ourselves. This allowed me to understand exactly how her book differs from Streznewski’s, which is written from more of an exploratory and ethnographic perspective.

In Part Three of her book, Jacobsen supports readers in “revealing and healing” their Everyday Genius – in part by reframing common criticisms we may have leveled at ourselves for years. In Chapter 8 (“Gifted or Cursed?”), she encourages us to uncover the powerful foundations of our “too-too” traits. Rather than referring to ourselves as “too driven”, for instance, she writes that this trait means we possess the following gifts: “advanced depth of knowledge; ability to delve into life’s largest questions; outstanding achievement and self-actualization” (p. 128). And rather than being “too complex”, we are actually capable of “visionary research and discovery; bridge-building effects on progress”. Etc.

Jacobsen closes Chapter 8 by listing the “top 10” criticisms that tend to lobbed at gifted individuals, from (in her perspective) least impactful to most impactful:

10. Why don’t you slow down?

9. You worry about everything.

8. Can’t you just stick with one thing?

7. You’re so sensitive and dramatic. 

6. You have to do everything the hard way. 

5. You’re so demanding!

4. Can’t you ever be satisfied?

3. You’re so driven!

2. Where do you get all these wild ideas?

1. Who do you think you are? 

These criticisms rang sharp and true for me, and I appreciated Jacobsen’s candor in naming them.

In Chapters 9 and 10, Jacobsen helps us begin the journey of confronting and then freeing ourselves from the “first five criticisms” (actually, numbers 10 through 6) and then the “top five criticisms” (numbers 5 through 1). In Chapter 11, she takes a deeper dive into “meeting the false self”, which includes “indulging the false self”, “denying gifts and talents”, “avoiding risks in the ‘safe life'”, “seeking approval”, and “imposterism”.

In Chapter 12 (“How Assets Can Become Liabilities”), Jacobsen introduces the idea of “teachable moments” as a way for us to reframe the more challenging aspects of our personalities.  Indeed, she is blunt in presenting the many challenges giftedness brings, and encourages readers to think about how they can emerge from the lifelong traps that our “false selves” present.  This is intense work, and Jacobsen doesn’t shy away from noting the at-times dramatic shifts that must occur in order for gifted adults to feel happy, fulfilled, and authentically engaged.

In the next section of her book (Section III: Managing Thyself), Jacobsen takes a deeper dive into what she refers to as “the big three differences: intensity, complexity, and drive” (p. 253). She tells us:

“Years of investigating the psychology of the gifted as well as working with my Everyday Genius clientele have repeatedly revealed how gifted adults struggle at the extreme ranges of behavior that occur when no energy is flowing through and around a given trait, or how its flow can become overwhelming and out of control if not managed correctly. Both expressions are hazardous” (p. 254).

She uses the terms “collapsed” and exaggerated” to represent the two extremes of how giftedness vis-a-vis Intensity, Complexity, and Drive can manifest in toxic ways, with “balanced” as the desired goal. She provides detailed charts of what each of these can look like, referring to the various manifestations of Intensity as “quantitatively different”, those of Complexity as “qualitatively different”, and those of Drive as “motivationally different”. I’ll provide just one example of many from each chart, to give a sense of her heuristic:

Intensity: Verbal Agility

  • Collapsed: Dodges controversy; steers toward popular opinion
  • Exaggerated: Intractable opinions; dominates conversations
  • Balanced: Engaging conversationalist; comfortable with intense discussion (p. 259)

Complexity: Self-Awareness

  • Collapsed: Self-negative or self-loathing
  • Exaggerated: Distorted self-image; grandiose
  • Balanced: Honestly introspective; self-knowledgeable (p. 268)

Drive: High Standards

  • Collapsed: Chronic procrastinator; wavering and unprincipled
  • Exaggerated: Chronic perfectionist; stubbornly holds out for perfection and loses ground
  • Balanced: Holds firm to vision of the ideal; discerningly pushes for excellence; lives by solid standards (p. 280)

Each of her three charts are rich with useful examples, and I was able to clearly see myself in so many of them. As a teenager, I tended to have either a “collapsed” or “exaggerated” sense of self, whereas I’m happy to say that in my current middle age – after many years of therapy (which Jacobsen is a huge fan of) – I’m much more “balanced” in so many ways.  There’s plenty of room for improvement, of course, but Jacobsen’s charts are invaluable in allowing us (me) to chunk out and make sense of our challenges, both past and present.

In the remaining chapters of her book, Jacobsen continues to provide support and insights into how we tend to problematize our giftedness, and how we can turn it around. She argues we can be “smarter than ever” by aiming for “becoming superconscious” (p. 303) – in other words, being a more “integrated self”. As Jacobsen writes:

“Contrary to what might be expected, gifted adults often report feeling as though they are ‘coming apart’. Yet they often fail to understand the origins of their distress. It is frequently a direct response to external rule – changing masks among the different selves to meet the pressures of external demands” (p. 304).

This is exactly what I’ve dealt with my entire life. I vividly recall a session with my therapist when I was 17, telling her that I was unable to determine the best course of action because I could viscerally visualize a row of people standing in front of me who would each have different advice for me; whose should I choose? How could I make them all happy?

Again, I’ve made a ton of progress over the years, but I still occasionally catch myself wondering who in the world really has the “right” answers to the infinite number of dilemmas and choices we as individuals are faced with each day. The healthiest answer should ideally be “your inner self” – but after years of self-doubt and masking, this can be incredibly tricky.

I’ll definitely be referring back to Jacobsen’s book in coming months and years, both for my own growth-process and when writing posts for this blog. I’m grateful that her book supplements rather than mimics the knowledge I’ve gained from other literature on gifted adults, and consider it an invaluable resource in my Rainforest Minded Journey.

References:

Jacobsen, M-E. (1999). The gifted adult: A revolutionary guide for liberating everyday genius. Random House Publishing.

Streznewski, M.K. (1999). Gifted grownups: The mixed blessings of extraordinary potential. John Wiley & Sons.

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