Book Reflections #4: “Bright Adults” by Ellen Fiedler

As I’ve noted previously, the body of literature about adult giftedness is fairly small, presumably because of (at least) the following two assumptions:

1) We have a legal and moral responsibility to support and nurture gifted children and teens (who are minors under our care), but there is no such formal mandate to continue this support through adulthood.

2) If giftedness is defined as asynchrony between intellectual capacity and other developmental milestones, this developmental asynchrony must presumably come to an end and converge at some point – in other words, a grown person ultimately “catches up” to their intellect and can simply proceed from there – right?

Of course, it’s not that simple – and in Bright Adults: Uniqueness and Belonging Across the Lifespan (2015), Ellen Fiedler directly addresses this through her emphasis on developmental stages for gifted adults throughout their lifetimes.

Fiedler highlights and defines the following six distinct phases of gifted adulthood:

  • Seekers: Usually 18-25, on a quest to find their place in the world
  • Voyagers: Usually ages 25-35, purposely journeying through life to establish themselves
  • Explorers: Usually ages 35-50, matching their lives to their identity and priorities
  • Navigators: Usually ages 50-65, using prior knowledge, including self-knowledge, to fulfill their goals
  • Actualizers: Usually ages 65-80, on a path of self-actualization as well as helping others actualize their goals and reams
  • Cruisers: Usually age 80 and beyond, using minds that remain intensely active regardless of physical changes

Before proceeding, I’ll briefly share some of Fiedler’s own discussion of how she developed this model. In Appendix 1 (pp. 217-219), she notes that she was inspired by Erik Erikson’s work on adult development; David Shaffer and Daniel Levinson’s publications on “seasons” of an adult’s life (early, middle, and late);  Mary-Elaine Jacobsen’s The Gifted Adult (1999)Marlou Streznewski’s Gifted Grownups (1999); Willem Kuipers’ work on XIP (Extra Intelligent People); and Gail Sheehy’s classic book Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life (1974, and updated).

Back to Fiedler’s model: she writes that what bright or gifted adults at all these six stages have in common is  a tendency to “search for answers about how to live their lives and directions they should go” (p. 2). She notes that such individuals “are usually intense, idealistic, complex, multifaceted, strong-willed, and impatient”, and points out that they “seek to discover if they are ‘there’ yet – that indefinable place where they can find meaning in their lives.” She posits that “in the same way that gifted children often hit their life stages earlier and more intensely than other children, so do gifted adults” (p. 3)

(A ha! Asynchrony again.)

As someone who is constantly questioning my own life and decisions, Fiedler’s acknowledgement of how tumultuous this journey can be is a welcome balm. It’s difficult to explain exactly how painful it is to live with a relentless sense of existential angst and wondering. While of course it can be a beautiful and wondrous thing to question the complexity and mysteries of existence (this is what I hope to see in my own kids!), it can also lead to paralysis, depression, and deep fatigue.

Fiedler takes time early in her book to clarify how common it is for gifted individuals to question their own traits, and to resist a designation of giftedness due to either “fear of failure to live up to the label” (p. 10), fear of being seen as arrogant, heightened sensitivity to perceived disapproval, and/or continuous comparison of one’s own talents or gifts to those in other (distinctive) fields.

(Gifted adults tend to focus on what they haven’t done, rather than what they have done.)

Fiedler provides a useful overview of “significant needs and issues throughout the lifespan”, which include:

  • Acceptance
  • Meaningful connections
  • Living with intensity (either intellectual, sensory, imaginational, and/or emotional) 
  • Access to resources
  • Relevant challenges
  • Finding meaning

Next, in Chapters 4-9, Fiedler covers each of the gifted adult developmental stages, including “waypoints and strategies” to help gifted adults navigating through typical challenges and needs. Here are the stages:

Ages 18-24: Seekers (Heading Out): Seekers are on a quest to “find somewhere in the world where life is the way they think it really should be” (p. 43). They are typically “dealing with gaining greater clarity about their identity, overcoming isolation, finding relevant things to do and think about, making college and career choices, coping with entry-level courses and jobs, finding like-minded mentors and colleagues, [and] dealing with newfound freedom” (p. 55).

Ages 25-35: Voyagers (On With the Journey): Voyagers are journeying through life to establish themselves, often “with more purpose than they had as Seekers, even though they are not necessarily tied to specific destinations” (p. 68). They may experience “bore-out” (the self-explanatory flip side of “burn-out”), and are often dealing with or seeking out “the complexity of identity, career decisions and career moves, advanced training, mentors, relationships, [and] parenting” (p. 82).

Ages 35-50: Explorers (Setting a Course): Explorers are matching their lives to their identity and priorities, and often “barely have time for snatching a bit of conversation in the midst of busy, busy lives” (p. 97). Fiedler points out that life for gifted adults “at this stage may look quite different… than for others in the general population because of the characteristic intensity of these bright adults” (p. 98). For instance, while “most people between the ages of 35 and 50 simply want to settle into a comfortable life with a good, solid job and enough money to pay bills each month”, “explorers want more”.  Issues faced by Explorers during this stage include: “coping with hectic lives; dealing with higher standards than others; questioning everything about their lives; reevaluating patterns of thinking, behaving, and responding to others; developing lives that fit with their emerging worldviews; [and] dealing with major life events” (p. 108). [As someone who’s been in this stage for awhile, I can attest to all of this as being super-accurate!] 

Ages 50-65: Navigators (Smooth Sailing or Stormy Seas):  Navigators use their prior knowledge, including self-knowledge, to fulfill their goals and “typically” (though not always, of course) “have increased clarity about their personal goals and values” (p. 117). Waypoints and strategies named by Fiedler at this stage include “coping with conflicting feelings and asynchronous development; using prior knowledge, including self-knowledge; responding to an urgency to accomplish something worthwhile; dealing with dissatisfaction; balancing everything in their lives; [and] setting a new course in life” (p. 124).

Ages 68-80: Actualizers (Making a Difference): Actualizers are on a path of self-actualization in addition to helping others actualize their goals and dreams. This is a time “for bright adults to determine what activities they really want to be involved in so that they can spend their time on their deepest interests and passions”.  Hallmarks of this stage – all positive, by the way! – include “reflection, enjoying deeper clarity about their identity, seeking ongoing opportunities to expand their knowledge, connecting with others, [and] generativity” (p. 144).

Ages 80+: Cruisers (Sailing On): Finally, Cruisers have minds that remain intensely active regardless of physical changes, and know who they are and what they want in their remaining years. They move along at a speed that works for them, take care of what’s most important, and may have to respond to ageism. Typical issues dealt with at this stage include “being selective about how to spend their time and energy; continuing to have vibrant, interesting lives; dealing with physical changes; intense drive to exercise their minds; having meaningful relationships with others; remaining independent as much as possible; generativity; [and] being ‘ageless'” – that is, tuning out people who expect you to “act your age” (p. 167-168).

In Chapter 10, Fiedler addresses the issue of “the invisible ones” – i.e., gifted adults who fly “under the radar” – from a variety of perspectives. First she discusses the issue of “stealth giftedness” – that is, those whose giftedness “was never recognized, encouraged, or nurtured”, or those whose “abilities somehow disappeared from sight”, either temporarily or permanently (pp. 183-184). In a section entitled “Rough Going”, she outlines three ways gifted adults may “avoid confronting existential issues”:

  1. “Moving away from” – i.e., “avoiding and rejecting traditional society by withdrawing”;
  2. “Moving toward” – i.e., accepting society’s traditions by conforming but remaining “prone to feeling as if they are imposters and, later in life, to feeling that their efforts have been shallow and without meaning”;
  3. “Moving against” – i.e., “rebelliously rejecting society” (p. 186).

Fiedler acknowledges that the invisibility of some bright adults is due to “complex causes”, including:

  • “difficult experiences in childhood or adolescence” (p. 187);
  • gender-conformity struggles (pp. 189-193);
  • “differing abilities and disabilities” (pp. 193-194);
  • mental illness (pp. 194-195);
  • personal choice.

Fiedler talks readers through a list of (mostly healthy!) strategies that can be used by “the invisible ones” to cope with their challenges. These include:

  1. Accepting giftedness;
  2. Dealing with overwhelming options;
  3. Numbing themselves to pain (not healthy!); 
  4. Dealing with gender-prescribed roles;
  5. Coping with how they learn and process information;
  6. Finding a satisfying, meaningful life.

This is all much easier said than done, of course, but Fiedler’s final chapter at least offers an acknowledgement of the many entry-points invisible gifted adults might take “in order to have satisfying and meaningful lives”, – and, critically, she reminds us it’s “not necessary… to achieve lofty levels of fame and fortune” (p. 208).

What remains under-discussed in Fiedler’s book (and Jacobsen’s) is the issue of “invisible” gifted adults whose lives go so far afield they end up in prison. Streznewski  does acknowledge this possibility in her book, so I’ll return to her work as a starting point for a later blog post on that topic.

For now, I’ll close by saying that it was refreshing to see myself reflected in the earlier stages of Fiedler’s model; reassuring to know that my hectic life right now is on par with other Explorers; and eerie (but comforting) to know that older age will bring its own unique opportunities for happiness and satisfaction.

Reference: 

Fiedler, E. (2015). Bright adults: Uniqueness and belonging across the lifespan. Gifted Unlimited, LLC.

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.

Book Reflections #2: “If This is a Gift, Can I Send it Back?” by Jen Merrill

As my second Book Reflection blog post, I thought I would comment on If This is a Gift, Can I Send it Back? Surviving in the Land of the Gifted and Twice Exceptional (2012) – a delightfully humorous and insightful book by Jen Merrill, author of the Laughing at Chaos blog and interviewee about parenting self-care on the Mind Matters Podcast.

On the back of her book, Merrill asks us:

When is life like a prize fight, a garden, and a quiz show, all hurtling down the road on an office chair, wrapped in song?

Her response:

When you’re living in the land of the gifted and twice exceptional.

The enduring theme throughout Merrill’s book is brutal honesty about how hard parenting a 2E kid (each one “more unique than snowflakes”) can be. Yes, of course it’s also rewarding, invigorating, and often fun – but more than anything, Merrill argues, you’ll need to roll with the challenges each day, allow yourself a glass of wine before conking at night, and accept that parenting doesn’t look anything like what you planned it to be.

Actually, prior to becoming a parent, I don’t recall holding many preconceptions – but I CERTAINLY didn’t anticipate how bone-crushingly exhausting it would be. There’s simply no way to know the truth of Parental Exhaustion until you enter into those shoes for yourself. And with 2E kids, Even More So.

With that as my brief introduction, here are my take-aways from Merrill’s book:

Chapter 1: Connecting the Dots 

Citing a commencement speech by Steve Jobs, Merrill notes that sometimes you can’t make sense of your child’s journey until you’re looking backwards and “connecting the dots” (p. 2). I love this framing of life as the narrative we create for and about ourselves: it empowers us to search for key points that may have seemed like insurmountable challenges, but turn into critical milestones in retrospect.

I also appreciate Merrill’s coining of “adult-onset, child-induced ADHD” – such a perfect description of what happens to even the brightest (perhaps especially the brightest?) of new parents. After admitting that she’s “been entirely unable to concentrate on one thing for longer than a few minutes” since her oldest (2E) son was born, she adds:

It’s just, well, I miss my brain. We used to go for long walks through thoughts together. Double-dated with new ideas. We used to dive into activities and barely take time to come up for air. Now my brain is crashed out on the mental couch, drooling a little, while I perch anxiously, waiting to spring into action, my Mom Radar spinning wildly 24/7 (p. 7).

This was exactly how I felt when my kids were younger, and I was desperately reaching out for daily support and assistance in as many ways as possible. Now that my kids are older, I’ve learned to tame my brain enough not to be on super high alert, given that quiet no longer means something challenging or dangerous is about to happen – it simply (ha!) means parental guilt that I’m leaving them to their own devices (literally).

Finally, Merrill offers a list of things she wishes “the world knew about parenting 2e kids”, including:

We are not making up this stuff (p. 8).

(This reminds me of how gifted kids can sometimes be “gaslit” into disbelieving their own uniquely intense reality, as described by Linda Silverman. Apparently the same is true for parents of 2E kids.)

Sometimes we appear over-protective, while sometimes we seem neglectful (p. 9).

(Every day, in every way, I need to continue to practice the art of – as my husband would put it – “not giving a f***” what other people think about my parenting decisions. As a former people-pleaser-extraordinaire, this has been a monumental challenge – one I’m still working on.)

Not every 2e kid has the same issues. Every single one of these kids presents differently, and they are not in parenting magazines or books, mainstream blogs, or general societal acceptance (p. 10).

(This is a sobering reminder of how isolating it can be to look at “mainstream” parenting sources and not see our own experiences and realities reflected – hence, the need for support groups, blogs, podcasts, and books specifically for parents of 2E kids.)

Chapter 2: One Heck of a Ride 

In her second chapter, Merrill responds with brutal honesty to the quip “Must be nice to have a gifted child” with her own “must be nice” rejoinders:

Must be nice to have a child whose racing brain doesn’t keep her awake into the wee hours (p. 13).

(My 12-year-old C has “insomnia issues”, just like me. In addition to endlessly racing minds, we each have our own laundry list of hacks and supports needed to help us fall and stay asleep. I’ll write more about insomnia in another post.)

Must be nice to not have to worry about your child making and keeping friends (p. 13).

(My number one wish for my 10-year-old neurodiverse son D. is that he’ll finally make a new and trusted friend this year – not exactly easy during a pandemic.)

Must be nice to take your kid somewhere new and not worry about having to leave early because of over-stimulation (p. 14).

(Heck, I’ve always just assumed we won’t stay long! We aim for an hour, and anything beyond that is bonus.)

Also included in this chapter is a hypothetical letter written by Merrill to her child’s teacher (“You have too many students, not enough time, and there’s just no money to do anything different… Trust that I wouldn’t tell you how he learns unless I thought it would help you help him.”), and Merrill imagining what her own Gifted and Talented Conference opening speech might sound like (“Parents, you need to remember to take care of you.”)

Chapter 3: Taking the Leap 

Here, Merrill talks about “taking the leap” to homeschooling her 2E son. In a hilarious passage, she compares a series of statements said by a teacher to “what’s actually meant” and “what is heard” by the parent on the receiving end:

What is said: Your child refuses to participate in any class activities and will not put down a single word, even when given the words to write.

What is meant: Your kid is the most passive-aggressive ODD child I’ve ever known and I haven’t the slightest clue how to motivate him…

What is heard: Your parenting skills are just below those of a psychotic hamster. (p. 31)

I resonate with Merrill’s insecurities. Like her, I was formerly a classroom teacher, and well remember what it was like to feel frustrated and exhausted by “out of the box” kids who, quite simply, made my job a lot harder. Now, as a parent, I’m constantly walking a fine line of wanting to empathize with teachers while also advocating for what my kids need – and hoping I come across as just-the-right-mixture of humble-but-proactive-and-informed parent.  It’s tricky.

Chapter 4: Our Grand Homeschooling Adventure 

When discussing her experiences with homeschooling (only chosen as an option when her designated gifted kid was denied services at his new local school due to his twice-exceptionality), Merrill shares:

I am not a patient woman. I know this about myself and barely accept it. I walk fast, I talk fast, and I want to scream when my computer isn’t as caffeinated as I am (p. 36).

Hear, hear. My nickname as a kid was Speedy (no joke), and it remains insanely challenging to slow down enough to roll with the ride of parenting and accept imperfection on a daily basis. I may know (hypothetically) all the things I “could” be doing with my kids to optimize their learning experiences, but constantly have to settle for the reality of how much I actually get done – because ultimately, self-care trumps even the illusion of “parenting perfection”; nothing is more important.

Chapter 5: Living My Walter Mitty Fantasy 

In her final chapter – after singing the praises of Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004) as the ultimate cinematic representation of a gifted family (love that movie!) – Merrill notes that back in her pre-kid days, as a professional flutist, she was actually living her “Walter Mitty fantasy” – that is, her daydream of a perfect alternative life. Now, as a parent of a 2E kid, she vacillates between loving and hating the work she has cut out for herself:

I love homeschooling my son… I don’t miss the fights over homework, the breathtaking anxiety about his psyche, or the conferences with teachers about everything he was doing wrong and nothing about what he was doing right.

I hate homeschooling my son. It’s all on me. (pp. 55-56)

Yes, exactly. I’m thrilled that during this learning-at-home pandemic time, it’s actually not “all on me”: I get to do a mix of both, with my kids’ teachers determining their curriculum (for better and for worse – but mostly for better), and it “simply” being up to me to supervise them and make sure it all gets done.

Back when I first attended a SENG parent support group, our facilitator reminded us repeatedly that there’s never a perfect solution to our kids’ schooling needs – there’s only compromise and striving for the “best possible”.

That’s certainly been my own experience, with plenty of highs and lows over the years. So much depends on the grace, understanding, and flexibility of our kids’ teachers – and, like Merrill, I “stand with teachers” (p. 38) while also standing with students and parents.

I appreciate Merrill’s closing reminder in her book:

“If you decide to confide in others, you’ll discover you’re not alone” (p. 58).

Speaking of that, last night I participated in a webinar and support group for parents of gifted kids (hosted by the Institute for Educational Advancement), and got multiple dopamine hits from having my experiences and challenges validated again and again – ping, ping, ping.

I was reminded that the more we come together and share honestly – as Merrill does in this book – the happier (and less alone) we’ll be.

 

Book Reflections #1: “Giftedness 101” by Linda Kreger Silverman

This is the first entry in what I hope will be an ongoing series of reflections on books related to giftedness and 2E learning.

After listening to a Mind Matters podcast interview with Linda Kreger Silverman – Episode 20, entitled “IQ Isn’t Everything: Reevaluating Evaluation” – I ordered and read Silverman’s Giftedness 101 (2013) by Springer Publishing.

This book is part of a series of “Psych 101” books, described on the back cover as “short, reader-friendly introductions to cutting-edge topics in psychology… for all students of psychology and anyone interested in the field”.

The chapter titles alone were enough to pull me in:

  1. Invisible Gifts
  2. What is Giftedness
  3. The Crusade to Vanquish Prejudice Against the Gifted
  4. Life at the Extremes
  5. The Psychology of Giftedness
  6. Comprehensive Assessment of Giftedness
  7. Optimal Development of the Gifted
  8. Where Do We Go From Here?

While I couldn’t help turning immediately to chapter 3 (what a tantalizing title!), I quickly realized I should start at the beginning and work my way through – which I did, in concentrated chunks over the last few days. I marked up pages like mad with my pencil, and will share a few of my thoughts – accompanied by quotes – from each chapter.

Chapter 1: Invisible Gifts

“Undetected ability is an immense loss to society; the pain borne by the individual is beyond measure” (p. 2).

Silverman’s poetic first chapter makes a case for the fact that giftedness is often hiding under the surface of the small percentage of individuals who stand out through their “eminence” – indeed, one of the most commonly used strategies to cope with giftedness is “invisibility”.

“Without being given the opportunity to soar, [gifted kids] disappear into daydreams. Thousands of extremely gifted children become so disillusioned that they drop out of school and insist on being homeschooled” (p. 6).

As the quotes selected above indicate, the consequences of not acknowledging and supporting gifted kids can be dire – both societally and individually.  Although my own giftedness was recognized at a fairly early age (through elementary school testing) – and I was placed in a weekly pull-out program – I didn’t receive counseling or other emotional support. I ended up developing a life-threatening eating disorder at the age of 12, and dropping out of school in the first semester of 7th grade. I only made it through morning classes in 9th and 10th grade before formally dropping out of K-12 schooling for good.

I insisted on being homeschooled – actually, on being an autodidact – and became obsessed with forming my own curricular path based on my unique passions and interests. This included several part-time jobs out in the “real world”, where I deeply appreciated the chance to interact with adults rather than teenagers. (My best friend was 20 years older than me.) I made it through my teenage years, just barely – but I sure wish I’d had more support earlier on.

Chapter 2: What is Giftedness? 

“Giftedness is a political football” (p. 20)

In this chapter, Silverman discusses the fascinating history of how we’ve chosen to define giftedness over the decades – and the ramifications this has had on both identification and services. While she notes that emphasis was previously placed on “eminence” (that is, gifted kids who “achieve their potential” in society), she points out how problematic this is on so many fronts.

Silverman prefers viewing giftedness as “asynchronous development”, with a focus on training “therapists and counselors who understand [gifted kids’] inner worlds and the role that giftedness plays in their identity development” (p. 49). She points out that while giftedness studies originated in psychology, they’ve drifted away towards the education realm (i.e., talent development) – and she posits that psychologists have a moral imperative to step back into the fray.

The quote I selected from this chapter stood out to me given my own professional journey in education, and how I’ve been forced to “take sides” one way or another given the political tides at play. I’m hopeful that once Marc Smolowitz’s documentary “The G Word” can finally be released, it will provoke a much-needed and overdue societal discussion about how to best meet diverse gifted kids’ needs.

Chapter 3: The Crusade to Vanquish Prejudice Against the Giftedness 

“Stereotyping the gifted is commonly accepted and, in the past, has mushroomed into scapegoating… and persecution” (p. 67).

In Chapter 3, Silverman provides additional historical context for giftedness – including wading into the decidedly unpleasant waters of Sir Francis Galton’s founding of eugenics (boooooooo!) while also covering the trajectory of work by Alfred Binet, Lewis Terman, and Leta Hollingworth (who coined the challenge of “the woman problem” in giftedness – i.e., being responsibility for child-bearing and caring while also nurturing one’s own gifts).

Silverman debunks numerous myths and stereotypes about gifted individuals – both old and new. Older myths include “Early ripe, early rot” and “giftedness is akin to madness”. Newer myths – still ever-present – include “all children are gifted”, “giftedness is just a manifestation of helicopter parenting”, “acceleration is socially harmful”, “gifted programs are elitist”, and “gifted kids can make it on their own”. A recent interview with my own parents reveals that they hold several of these beliefs, and that I would not have received any special services for my giftedness unless my school had provided them.

Chapter 4: Life at the Extremes

“The higher the individual’s IQ, the more intense the struggle for identity, meaning, and connection” (p. 87).

In this chapter, Silverman compares and contrasts the atypical developmental needs of kids at both ends of the intellectual spectrum. She argues that just like intellectual disability, giftedness should be seen as an “organizing principle” that would allow behaviors to be “perceived within the context of those with similar abilities, rather than viewing them as ‘aberrant’ in relation to those in the average range” (p. 93). She names such challenges of extreme giftedness as advanced vocabulary (which “hinders communication”), depression, loneliness, so-called “mania” (i.e., intense focus and enthusiasm), and “perfectionism” (actually a common character trait of giftedness, rather than a defect to be overcome).

Silverman discusses the various levels of giftedness, noting that “gifted educators have been so focused on the development of talented children (approximately 120 IQ and above) that they have not taken seriously the needs of children in the higher extremes of ability” (p. 101) – many of whom are “hidden” due to being homeschooled.

Finally, in this chapter Silverman discusses giftedness throughout the lifespan, beginning with the earliest potential indicators in infancy (including the high value of early identification – especially for kids who may not otherwise be given services to nurture their gifts), and giftedness in adults – which I’ve written about quite a bit already on this blog. (Naturally, much of this portion of the chapter is heavily underlined… )

Chapter 5: The Psychology of Giftedness

“It is time for a psychology of giftedness – time to recognize the developmental differences, personality traits, lifespan development, particular issues and struggles of the gifted, as well as the consequences of not being acceptable” (p. 121).

Silverman covers quite a few topics in chapter 5, including: feeling different (and what this means for “stages of friendship”); gifted kids’ quintessential adaptability (“Who would you like me to be today?”); the inner experience of being gifted; Dabrowski’s “theory of positive disintegration”; perfectionism (both healthy and unhealthy); and introversion.

So many ideas in this chapter resonated with me – perhaps most especially the idea that gifted kids “quickly learn what is expected of them and how to elicit the responses they desire from adults” (p. 129). This was enough the Story of My Childhood that I’ll devote a specific blog post to it later on, since it played a pivotal role in my eventual disintegration into an eating disorder and “failure to thrive”.  Briefly, I spent so many years being who others thought I was – or wanted me to be – or needed me to be – that I was unable to make it safely across the bridge of adolescence without crashing and burning numerous times.

In Silverman’s discussion about the “inner experience of giftedness”, countless ideas stood out; here are just a few, rat-a-tat:

“Excitement with new insights is dampened when there’s no one with whom to share them. Social exchange becomes a minefield when one is attuned to a symphony of nuance” (p. 131).

“It isn’t fun or funny to be laughed at for who you are. The dread of being ‘abnormal’ impels the gifted to lead a double life. They feign normalcy attempting to mask their vulnerability” (p. 132).

“Anti-intellectualism, under the guise of egalitarianism, is pervasive worldwide” (p. 132).

“The tall poppies syndrome is a social phenomenon of attacking those with exceptional ability” (p. 133).

“Benign neglect of the gifted is customary, with the rationale that they can take care of themselves and other students are in more need” (p. 133).

Yikes – and, yes!

Silverman undeniably has her pulse on the inner worlds of gifted kids – and how many challenges they face that most would consider insignificant. It’s tiring “feigning normalcy”, feeling unheard, trying not to “stand out”, and knowing that your needs are considered much less important than others’.

However, I really stood up and took notice during the next portion of this section, in which Silverman discusses various “personality characteristics” associated with gifted kids – and I saw my own challenging history in each one:

First:

“The gifted are gullible. Their first inclination is to be truthful, so they tend to believe nearly anything anyone tells them… Early humiliations leave deep scars…” (p. 134).

I was relentlessly bullied (by my so-called friends) in second grade, and will write about that in a separate post – but yes, the scars ran deep.

Second:

“When gifted individuals cannot find anyone who understands their reality, they begin to doubt their sanity” (p. 134).

Because others “do not observe, apprehend, feel, experience, or intuit in the same manner” as gifted kids, they may tend to feel “gaslit”.  So interesting. I hadn’t made that connection before, but it rings very true.

Third:

Gifted kids tend to have a “logical imperative”, leading to “imposter syndrome” because they:

“… compare their knowledge with all there is to be known about a subject” and “soon become aware that they’ve barely scratched the surface… The gifted often feel like they’ve just fooled everybody into thinking that they are smart, and at any moment they will be found out” (p. 135).

Ummm… Yes. Exactly. And, making things even worse:

“The gifted hate hypocrisy and they have uncanny perception, which often puts them at odds with bosses, co-workers, teachers, and parents who sport inauthentic facades” (p. 135).

I can’t stand in-authenticity!!!!  I’ve had to intellectualize and compartmentalize its social necessity in order to function. (FWIW, studying sociology and evolutionary psychology has been a godsend for this.)

Furthermore, Silverman notes:

“[Gifted kids] are paradoxical: self-assured and insecure, bold and timid, idealistic and practical, compassionate to others and unkind to themselves, mature and immature” (p. 135).

How is it that so many contradictions mutually co-exist? And yet, they do.

Moving on, Dabrowski’s work deserves its own blog post, especially given how much controversy there is in the “gifted world” around his concept of “overexcitabilities” or OEs. Perfectionism and introversion are also blog-worthy entries in their own right, so I’ll also pause on those for now.

Chapter 6: Comprehensive Assessment of Giftedness 

“IQ scores are never an end in themselves; they are simply tools to be used wisely in the hands of professionals who understand giftedness” (p. 190).

As someone completely unversed in psychometrics, I learned the most from – and feel most humbled by – this chapter. There is a LOT that goes into accurately assessing giftedness, and I finished this chapter with more questions than answers. This is clearly a growth area for me; in the meantime; I’m grateful for all the individuals who dedicate their lives to doing this important work, and doing it well.

Chapter 7: Optimal Development of the Gifted 

Silverman begins her penultimate chapter by emphasizing the need to stop “bashing” parents of gifted kids, instead focusing on the critical role they play in their children’s development – and pointing out that they need support (yes!).

She discusses how to foster an optimal home environment (primarily by being responsive to kids’ needs and interests) and the fact that giftedness tends to “run in families”. (Unfortunately, she seems to take genetic relatedness among all members for granted, which is far from always the case; or, if I’m misreading her, the importance of environmental influences rather than or in addition to heritability should be called out more explicitly.)

She also briefly covers elements of an “optimal school environment”, which among other things boils down to listening to what kids want and need – and then listening some more.

Chapter 8: Where Do We Go From Here? 

Silverman’s short closing chapter is a “call to work” for fledgling psychology students to join the fray of the giftedness sphere – which she acknowledges has “no truce in sight”. She reminds the reader:

“If the gifted and twice exceptional should become your passion… you will be paid in appreciation. Your work will be a wellspring of creativity. You’ll be outside the box anyway, eyed suspiciously by the system, so you might as well enjoy the freedom to access your creativity” (p. 232).

I appreciate that Silverman doesn’t sugarcoat the realistic challenges of working with and for gifted individuals. I’m writing this blog anonymously (for now) for a reason. I need more time to make peace with my passion for giftedness – which has always been there, but wasn’t allowed to blossom until I finally had kids of my own and needed to find ways to help them.

In closing, I recommend Giftedness 101 for anybody just stepping into this world, who wants a concise yet compassionate overview of where we’ve been, where we’re at, and where we should head.

As Silverman notes, there’s plenty of work left to do.