Book Reflections #7: Exceptional Talent

So much has been going on with pandemic parenting these days that I haven’t spent as much time exploring giftedness in adults – with one exception: reading Frans Corten’s delightful book Exceptional Talent: A Guide for the Gifted, The Inventors, and Other Birds of a Rare Feather (2021), recently translated into English from Dutch.*

Corten opens his book with the following quote:

“If you stick a bird in a cage, flying will become a disorder instead of a talent.”

This reminds me of the following oft-used cartoon in educational circles:

The Education System: “Now Climb That Tree” | The Marquette Educator

By “birds of a rare feather”, Corten is referring to people with exceptional talents – i.e.,  rainforest minded people, or gifted adults. Corten has spent years coaching such individuals, and shares his many insights and experiences in this beautifully illustrated text, clearly made with aesthetic appeal in mind.

Artwork from Exceptional Talent, p. 64

Corten open his book in Chapter 1 by explaining “Why This Guide?” (“to help exceptional talents find their way in their lives and work”), and sharing his own story with giftedness.

In Chapter 2 (“Exceptional Talent Does Not Flourish Of Its Own Accord”), Corten offers a valuable reminder of the reasons why gifted individuals almost always require additional support to thrive, despite widespread assumptions that “high intelligence in itself will make sure that the person finds their niche” (p. 14). On the contrary, Corten estimates that “the percentage of gifted people who are mental healthcare clients, who live on benefits or are homeless is substantially higher than the percentage in society” (p. 15) – a statistic I personally don’t doubt for a moment.

[As a brief side note, I grew up in a fringe spiritual group in which nearly all the adult members were likely gifted to some extent – and many did indeed struggle with mental health concerns, career issues, and/or ongoing financial or housing instability. In another post, I plan to write in more detail about the intriguing correlations I see between giftedness, spirituality, and life challenges.]  

Back to Corten’s book, he acknowledges that “exceptional talents have too few role models as examples” given that “the usual career pathways and tests don’t always work well” – something I’ve most definitely found to be true for myself, as well as for plenty of the rainforest-minded graduate students I’ve mentored over the years.

In Chapter 3, Corten concedes, “I can’t offer you a scientific definition of an exceptional talent. The essence is that your talent really belongs to the exceptions, leaving you to discover many things for yourself” (p. 18). He offers a useful chart on page 18 of how individuals with exceptional talent may perceive situations in their workplace, versus how their employers view them. To provide just a couple of examples:

  1. A workplace might feel that an employee has “many conflicts with management and authorities”, while the individual believes about herself, “I have a strongly developed sense of justice”.
  2. A workplace might characterize an employee as having “poor timing, in meetings for example” while the individual feels, “I’m constantly meeting resistance; it all goes so slowly.”

This chart reminds me of the ones provided by Mary-Elaine Jacobsen in her book The Gifted Adult (1999), in which she represents the two extremes (“collapsed” and “exaggerated”) of intensity, complexity, and drive as manifested in a variety of ways, while also providing a more “balanced” ideal for each. The ultimate goal of both authors is to encourage flourishing.

Corten points out that very often the “high flyers” of large organizations are flourishing; his book is not designed for them, but rather for those who exhibit the “typical characteristics” of exceptional talent:

  • heightened powers of observation
  • vulnerability
  • combinations of talents
  • uniquely innovative
  • a tendency to “think and speak too fast for other people to keep up, often without knowing” (p. 22).

He follows up on these ideas in Chapter 4 (entitled “A Large Gap”) by noting, “The essence of being exceptional is that you deviate greatly from the average” (p. 23). He reminds readers that it’s important not to assume “that people are deliberately thwarting you” but instead to keep in mind that most “people can’t see what you see, can’t easily make the connections you make, can’t think through the consequences of a decision as far ahead. You just go far too fast.”

This echoes the advice in Jim Webb’s book Searching for Meaning (2015), in which he writes: “Once you stop denying the differences that exist between yourself and others, you can appreciate your abilities. You also may find that you appreciate the uniqueness of others.” (p. 119).

I’m also reminded of the Giftedness Knows No Boundaries public awareness campaign put forth by the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) in 2016, which emphasizes the key phrases “See Me, Know Me, Challenge Me, Teach Me”.  In order to meet the needs of gifted individuals of all ages, we must first see them – but a key difference is that with children, the onus and moral responsibility for this lies on the adults around them,  whereas gifted adults must learn to advocate for themselves. This is tricky business – especially for those who weren’t adequately supported in their younger years.

In Chapter 5, Corten advises us not to adapt, but rather to adjust, and reminds us once again that “the first step is realising that most other people don’t see” your exceptional talent, given that they “come from another world in terms of thinking and doing and that’s just how it is” (p. 35).

Corten recommends the following strategies: looking for soulmates; opening up; using expressive language; finding your way around social media; learning to ‘mix and match’; appreciating what you get; taking your feelings seriously; speaking in the first person; making your needs the starting point; being okay with mistakes; considering the correlation (if any) between money and worth; and creating “space and peace” for yourself.

There is a lot covered in this chapter, and it’s worth reading closely while taking notes. I personally have found solace in many of the ideas here, and also recognize a number of them from other readings I’ve done. For instance, the notion of learning to “mix and match” to create a fulfilling and viable career is discussed in Emilie Wapnick’s How To Be Everything: A Guide For Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up (2017), and is a direction I’ve ended up following for myself.

Meanwhile, making peace with – i.e., “finding your way around” – social media is invaluable advice; I was relieved to read Corten’s statement that he often hears his clients saying “I’m not interested in social media.” (Hear, hear!) And yet, as he points out, ignoring it completely comes at its own cost on numerous fronts. 

One more idea that stood out to me from Chapter 5 is Corten’s advice to “only commit yourself to matters which either bother you or from which you benefit” (p. 43). This directly addresses the challenge so many gifted individuals face in terms of genuine overwhelm by the countless injustices in the world, and how impossible it is to sufficiently address everything. You can’t. You must pick and choose, as Corten advises – and his metric makes sense as a way to realistically and meaningfully narrow down your scope. 

In Chapter 6 (“Your Career Path: Listening As You Go”), Corten draws upon his decades of experience as a career coach to offer “essentials for a gifted career”, which include responding to and reflecting upon the following four prompts:

  1. What is it I want?
  2. How do I truly make contact?
  3. What do I have to offer?
  4. What do I need?

Clearly, each of these questions is huge, and ideally would be done with support from a suitable counselor or coach. Corten discusses the critical concept of discovering your “core talents”, as well as the need to clearly distinguish between “burn out” and “bore out” in one’s workplace (pp. 52-54).  The list of examples provided on page 54 is an invaluable resource for those wanting insight into the unique challenges they’re facing at work – though it’s good to keep in mind, as Corten points out, that “something which forms a burn-out risk for one person may be an essential condition for achieving pleasure at work for another.”

One more key take-away from Chapter 6 is the permission Corten gives for us to “learn to carefully sense which moments or hours in the day are suited to which tasks, and act on that” (p. 58). His advice is: “Respond to your own rhythm and make things as easy as possible for yourself.” While I’ve actually been doing this for years, I’ve simultaneously felt residual guilt from a lifetime of earlier institutionalized indoctrination that humans must follow the timelines and rhythms set forth by “those in charge”. Not necessarily true by a long stretch – and certainly not the healthiest way to live, if you can help it.

In Chapter 7, Corten turns to more “Direction and Guidance”. He reassures us that “when gifted people and other exceptional talents find a trajectory that suits them, their personal and professional development can suddenly go really fast” (though he provides fair warning: finding that one “small thing” to pursue can take awhile). He advocates being open to the idea of a “higher self” in whatever fashion that takes, and finding a “balance between challenge and safety”, which he believes is “key to a successful approach”.

Corten concludes his book in Chapter 8 by offering five portraits of individuals he’s worked with over the years (two female and three male, ages ranging from 43 to 62 – thus all in either the Exploring or Navigating stages of their life, according to Fiedler [2015]). I saw much of myself and others I know in these portraits, and found myself highlighting certain quotes that specifically stood out to me, which I’ll share below:

  • Jantien (age 52): “I always wanted to work in a broader perspective and with strategic issues, but logically speaking that’s often not possible at a young age” (p. 74). Yes, exactly. I, too, have always wanted to skip straight to the interesting and complex challenges of life – whereas in reality, we can’t do everything at once, and must accept that some stages are indeed both linear and necessary. Later, Jantien adds, “The internet has helped me enormously. I can go to it with everything that’s happening in my head” (p. 76). What a wonderful way to put it! Despite the many challenges the internet has brought, I’m ultimately a huge fan – it’s been a true game-changer on so many levels.
  • Gustave (age 50) writes, “If I immerse myself in a subject, I keep going and associate everything with everything else until I understand the system behind it. That takes a lot of time, but not much effort” (p. 87). Here’s to the value of enjoyably immersive deep dives for gifted adults! Meanwhile, echoing my rainforest-minded husband, Gustave also writes, “I can apparently reach a level of knowledge which equals that of experts in associated subjects” (p. 88); this has happened repeatedly to my husband, who is often mistaken for a professional in areas which he simply has a (gifted) layperson’s interest in.
  • Irani (age 43) shares about her hypersensitivity (yep) and her desire to do “everything at once” (yep), while telling us that her clients “often say that they love the fact that I don’t judge. I do, by the way, but I can also quickly let go of such a judgment. My attitude in life is that I take things as they are” (p. 95). I respect and relate to this pragmatic approach to life, which is my preferred m.o. as well.
  • Finally, Willibrord (age 62) – a choir conductor and composer among numerous other skills and responsibilities – writes that, “As far as I’m concerned, God is in people. I see God as a kind of language, or platform for communication for all those subjects we do not understand or are unable to explain, and which matter in life. We started calling that God and that makes it possible to talk about them” (pp. 101-102). This perspective echoes that made by Corten in Chapter 7, and rings very true as a creative conceptualization of “why God exists”.

I strongly recommend Corten’s book to “birds of a rare feather” seeking affirmation and advice as they explore what their next steps may be, career-wise. It’s a valuable addition to the far-too-limited literature on conditions necessary for gifted adults to thrive – and as Corten writes, “All of society will benefit if we learn to interact better with exceptional talents” (p. 10).

To purchase a copy of this book, go to: www.exceptionaltalent.eu

Please note that shipping to the United States currently takes about six weeks from the Netherlands. 

Artwork from Exceptional Talent, p. 49

References

  • Corten, F. (2021). Exceptional talent: A guide for the gifted, the inventors and other birds of a rare feather. Werk en Waarde.
  • Jacobsen, M-E. (1999). The gifted adult: A revolutionary guide for liberating everyday genius. Random House Publishing.
  • Wapnick, E. (2017) How to be everything: A guide for those who (still) don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. HarperOne.
  • Webb, J.T. (2015). Searching for meaning: Idealism, bright minds, disillusionment, and hope. Great Potential Press.

NB 

* On the copyright page of his book, Corten writes:

Dear Publisher,

I published this first edition independently so that the world could see it. I’m now looking for a publisher who is willing to distribute a second edition worldwide. If you are interested, or know someone who might be, please get in touch with me.

Thank you, Frans Corten

publisher@exceptionaltalent.eu

Copyright © 2021 by HalfoftheTruth.org. Please feel free to share with attribution.  

Book Reflections #5: “Searching for Meaning” by James T. Webb

“Among bright and caring people, disillusionment is not rare, and it can lead to feelings of despair and aloneness” (p. 9). 

For my fifth Book Reflections overview, I’ll be discussing my thoughts on James T. Webb’s Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope (2015). Dr. Webb, who passed away in 2018, is well-known in gifted circles as the founder of SENG and co-author of A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children (2007).  As described by Austina De Bonte (former President of the Northwest Gifted Child Association) in her August 2018 newsletter:

[Jim Webb] was a truly remarkable person – the spiritual leader of many in the gifted community, and the kindest, most welcoming soul I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. [He] founded SENGifted.org, wrote some of the most important books in the field, started the “Misdiagnosis and Missed Diagnosis” initiative, and was extremely generous with his time, speaking often at conferences and in various communities – including a west coast tour last spring that included several stops in our area. Jim‘s work dramatically increased the awareness and support of the emotional needs of gifted individuals – and his legacy invites each of us to carry on and do our part in continuing this vital mission.

Like Austina, I am deeply grateful to Dr. Webb on so many fronts – and I write this blog post with keen appreciation and happiness that he was able to pass along his values and ideas through this book, as part of his own “ethical will” (a concept he proposes and discusses in Chapter 8).

I’ll begin with a brief overview of how this book is structured. [The teacher in me likes to prep readers for what’s to come…] 

In Chapter 1 (“Searching for Meaning”), Webb provides a succinct overview of key ideas from his book. He then moves directly into discussing idealism and illusions in Chapter 2 (“Idealism: Do You Get it From Your Parents, or Does it Just Come Naturally?”), and in Chapter 3 (“Bright and Inquiring Minds Want to Know!”) he describes how and why gifted individuals are more likely to be idealists who become disillusioned.

Webb turns to the “heavy topic” of depression and despair in Chapter 4 (“Gloom and Misery and Despair: So Much Depression Everywhere”), which I’ll only touch on briefly here, but will return to in a future blog post given how much there is to say on this topic. He shifts to “personal meaning” in Chapter 5 (“Life Meaning and Existential Concerns”), and in Chapter 6 (“Awareness and Acceptance”) he addresses life stages (covered in further depth in Ellen Fiedler’s subsequent Bright Adults [2015]).

In Chapters 7 and 8 (“Some Not-So-Healthy Coping Styles that Feed Illusions” and “Healthier Coping Styles that Go Beyond Illusions”), Webb discusses the variety of ways in which we tend to cope with disillusionment and despair – some less helpful, some more helpful, and some dangerous. Webb wraps his book up in Chapter 9 (“Hope, Happiness, and Contentment”) by reminding us that he can’t provide us with answers, but can hopefully provide a framework for our own unique journey towards a life of personal meaning.

Webb’s book – written from both a personal and professional stance in his own life – was a straightforward and useful read for me, neatly summarizing many key ideas I’ve incorporated over the years from various sources (many of which Webb cites). As someone who’s spent decades searching for meaning, managing my idealism and disillusionment, and finally emerging in recent years with tentative hope (albeit intermingled with ongoing questioning and challenges), I was gratified to see that the unwieldy paths I’ve followed seem to map onto Dr. Webb’s recommendations. I’m grateful to have an invaluable resource (this book) to recommend to those in the midst of crippling confusion and despair (as I once was – many times), and I appreciate Webb’s validation that none of us will ever be “done” with existential despair. Instead, it’s something we must learn to live with.

Below, I’ll briefly share just a few of the key ideas and quotes that stood out to me from each chapter of Webb’s book:

Chapter 1: “When metacognition is combined with idealism, intensity, and sensitivity, it often results in people feeling separated from the world around them” (p. 15).

This powerful quote stood out to me instantly as I started reading Webb’s book. I’ve used the terms “disembodied” and “dissociated” to describe how I’ve felt at times when I’ve (metaphorically) looked down at myself and wondered who I am, what I’m doing, and what the point of it all is. Existential musings and concerns have been an inextricable component of my life from a very early age – and I hear similar echoes in statements from my three gifted kids. My 8 year old daughter I., for instance, mused out loud the other day while doing schoolwork: “I wonder how life happened? I wonder how my hand is moving?” And during read-aloud time at night, my 10 year old son D. has said to me numerous times, “I keep waiting for the book that will show us this is all a dream we’re going to wake up from one day.” He says this with bemusement and wonder rather than distress, though I anticipate this might change as he gets older; we’ll see.

Chapter 2: “We create illusions and beliefs about things that we cannot see, prove, nor disprove… ‘Fictional finalisms’ . . . are part of our idealism [and]  lessen our anxiety because they help us feel more in control of our world and of things we do not understand” (p. 31).

I appreciate Webb’s mentioning of the term fictional finalisms (coined by psychotherapist Alfred Adler), since this acknowledges humans’ need to create illusions that we can hold on to for security – as well as the challenges that emerge when said illusions are questioned and/or confronted. I can recall many such instances in my own life, each filled with just as much pain and anguish as Webb outlines in his book. It’s not easy to confront and overcome “convenient fictions”, but it’s also often inevitable. This topic merits numerous additional blog posts in the future, so I’ll leave it at this for now. 

Chapter 3: “Not surprisingly, bright minds are usually also high achievers. These individuals set goals and want to succeed at things that give their lives meaning and that satisfy the questions ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘What is my purpose?’ But therein lies a problem. Achievement in what? Should they try to reach their potential in all of the areas they’re involved in? What really is success?” (p. 56)

Here, Webb accurately identifies the stickiest of challenges facing many gifted individuals: the meta-questioning behind our strivings. Even once we determine our next goal, there’s no guarantee we won’t question the “veracity” of that, too. This leads me to the quote I selected from the following chapter…

Chapter 4:  “Even when [gifted individuals] make progress toward a goal, they focus on what is still left to do. Their idealism prompts them to engage in ‘goal vaulting’. That is, they set a goal, but then when they get close to achieving it, they vault over it and set a new and loftier goal, meanwhile forgetting that they have accomplished the original goal they set for themselves. They continually raise the bar on their level of aspiration” (p. 73).

In a recent episode of Emily Kircher-Morris’s “Neurodiversity Podcast (formerly known as the “Mind Matters Podcast”), she talks with a doctoral student researching “imposterism” (a.k.a. “imposter syndrome”), and during their talk, Webb’s concept of goal vaulting is referenced. I’ve been doing this my entire life without realizing it has a name. I received my doctoral degree in 2007 and immediately thought, “Okay, that’s done – now what? Where’s the coveted professorship I’m supposed to embark on next?” Goal vaulting is a bedeviling tendency – one that never allows a person to rest or celebrate (at least for long). 

Chapter 5: “Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?” (Stephen Hawking, p. 87)

In Chapter 5, Webb argues that while “most people seem… reasonably content in life” (are they? I’ll have to trust him on this one), gifted individuals must decide:

“How will we choose to spend the time we have in this life in ways that matter to us?” (p. 88).

When our “intensity is combined with multipotentiality” (that is, “brightness in several areas”), gifted individuals “… may become frustrated with the existential limitations of space and time… They have to make choices, but the choices among so many possibilities feel unfair because they seem arbitrary; there is no ‘ultimately right’ choice” (p. 98).

Again, this circles back to meta-questions of ultimate “authority” and “correctness”. Without fictional finalisms to rely on, we must determine alternative methods for making peace with our choices.

Chapter 6: In this chapter, Webb discusses Vince Sweeney and Andrew Mahoney’s “Awareness Model”, consisting of the following As: Awareness, Acknowledgment, Appreciation, and Acceptance.

“Once you stop denying the differences that exist between yourself and others, you can appreciate your abilities. You also may find that you appreciate the uniqueness of others…” (p. 119).

The “four As” of the Awareness model sound deceptively simplistic. In reality, each of these critical stages can take years to address, but can also help move a gifted individual closer to happiness, peace, and meaningful contributions to society.

I understand at least part of the 4 As process as follows: the inherent “narcissism” of childhood must eventually be overcome (in a completely developmentally appropriate fashion) in order to recognize that our own “lived reality” isn’t universal, and that we can (and should/must) learn to get along with a diverse array of humans while maintaining integrity of our own complex identity. (Here I use the term “integrity” in the sense of keeping one’s sense of self intact rather than descending into permanent disintegration – a concept discussed by Kazimierz Dabrowski, and covered briefly by Webb in Chapter 5, where I humbly refer the reader for more detailed information.)

Chapter 7: “Some individuals avoid facing difficult personal issues by keeping busy. Their inner voice tells them, If I stay frantically busy, then I don’t have time to think about life or about the meaning of my behaviors” (p. 132).

There are many strategies used by bright individuals to keep the demons of disillusionment at bay. Webb names the following twelve:

1) insisting on knowing The Truth; 2) “trying to control life, or at least label it”; 3) “keeping busy”; 4) “deliberately not thinking and using distractions”; 5) “clinging to things”; 6) “becoming narcissistic”; 7) “learning to not care”; 8) “numbing your mind”; 9) “seeking novelty and adrenaline rushes”; 10) “camouflaging to keep others from knowing you and your ideals”; 11) “withdrawal and detachment”;  and 12) “anger”.

Keeping (overly) busy (#3) is one way I coped with existential angst as a teenager – though I eventually (inevitably) crashed and burned into #11 (more specifically, I dropped out of school and couldn’t figure out what to do next).  Paralysis – either from too many choices, or from intense self-doubt about one’s ultimate efficacy and value to the world – must be addressed and overcome in order for gifted individuals to thrive… Which leads to the following chapter.

Chapter 8: Here, Webb offers numerous positive strategies for dealing with disillusionment, including the following:

“creating your own life script”, “becoming involved in causes”, “using bibliotherapy and journaling”, “maintaining a sense of humor”, “touching and feeling connected”, “developing authentic relationships”, “compartmentalizing”, “letting go”, “living in the present moment”, “learning optimism and resiliency”, “focusing on the continuity of generations”, “mentoring and teaching”, and “rippling”.

These are all excellent strategies – ones I’ve dabbled with and found solace in over the years – but the final strategy (‘rippling’) merits further mention. Webb writes that rippling – that is, the influence of one’s life rippling “out widely to affect the lives of people”, many of whom you don’t know –

“… is one of the most powerful realizations that can help people manage their idealism and even their disillusionment… Each of us, during our lives, creates ripples that have the potential to spread far…” (pp. 159-160).

I’ll return to the topic of ‘rippling’ in a future blog post.

Chapter 9: “Choose what you want out of your life and start working your way there… You may be concerned that your direction is not the best one or the perfect one for you, or you may doubt that it really has any ultimate meaning. Even so, make a decision to engage in something that seems meaningful to you or to others… The research indicates that making a decision will increase the likelihood that you will experience a sense of contentment, happiness, and hope” (p. 164).

For better and/or for worse, existential angst and questioning are an integral part of many gifted adults’ existence – nonetheless, we must make choices.

Finally, Webb posits that “people who are best able to maintain hope – and their idealism” in the midst of “unhappy or disturbing truths” are:

“… those who have been emotionally supported along the way in their lives, who are able to connect to other idealists, and who have learned how to be resilient in the face of disappointment and failure” (p. 26).

These are powerful words to end on (for now). Support, connection, and resilience are key. Let’s make sure we continue to promote these, even through the most challenging of times.

References:

  • Webb, J.T. (2015). Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope. Great Potential Press.

Copyright © 2021 by HalfoftheTruth.org. Please feel free to share with attribution.  

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.

Copyright © 2020 by HalfoftheTruth.org. Please feel free to share with attribution.  

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.

Copyright © 2020 by HalfoftheTruth.org. Please feel free to share with attribution.