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Giftedness in the Workplace: Can the Bright Mind Thrive in Organizations?

By Mary-Elaine Jacobsen, PhD

So Many Interests

Inspiring though they may be, tales of eminence often imply that from an early age the truly gifted know exactly what they must do and undeviatingly pursue their lifework.

Such distortions exacerbate gifted people's inner pressure to make their mark in the world. Furthermore, instead of the expected coming-of-age exhilaration, the transition from full-time learner to full-time worker can be painfully disillusioning.

Dreams fade quickly when gifted employees begin to equate work with constraint and exploitation. Can the bright mind thrive in organizations?

Could the goals of work and gifted needs be aligned? The key may be a systematic set of "street smarts" for the gifted worker — a thorough understanding of gifted traits combined with a strategic plan that balances self-support with judicious compromise.

INTRODUCTION

Exceptional intellectual and creative abilities can lead to highly successful careers, sometimes in multiple fields. Indeed, the gifted individual who is passionately involved in a particular domain, who also has a channel for the ongoing expression of talents, may achieve far beyond traditional definitions of success.

From time to time relatively unfettered bright minds alter the direction of their domain as a whole. Stories of eminent figures fascinate and inspire us.

At the same time glorified images of illustriousness can imply that early in life those who are truly gifted know exactly what they are to do with their lives and pursue their rightful lifework unimpeded — all the way to the full realization of their potential and the rewards of eminence.

Against such a backdrop, gifted individuals enter the world of work looking forward to an increasingly good match between their special talents, needs, style, and personal goals, and their workplace atmosphere, peers, supervisors, and the organization's bottom-line agenda.

With the bulk of their formal education behind them, novitiates in the world of work often enter with a full head of steam, ready and willing to roll up their sleeves and make their mark.

Their exuberance also stems from their gifted traits, particularly the powerful sense of drive and urgency — an inner pressure to delve into something difficult that tests their intellectual strengths, and to aim for something that might make a constructive difference.

In short, they have been learning, accommodating, proving themselves, and waiting their turn, and now yearn to live out the promises of high potential on their own terms.

However, the transition from full-time learner to full-time worker can be a bumpy road indeed, and can easily engender deep disappointment instead of the anticipated coming-of-age gratification.

Many of my gifted adult clients recall feelings of shock and dismay upon entering a career track. One brilliant young economist described his feelings: I couldn't wait to graduate; I was so excited.

Finally I'd be able to stretch my wings and move ahead at a pace that fit my natural energy and dedication.

I couldn't have been more wrong! It was like having the wind knocked out of me when I was told: ' take it easy' and 'wait your turn'. Somehow I was supposed to just hunker down and be invisible while I put in my so-called dirt years!

SEEING THE GIFTED ADULT

A survey of clinical and educational literature reveals that the bulk of research and information about giftedness focuses solely on child development and gifted education.

Though a thorough investigation of gifted children is understandable and necessary, to avoid pinhole thinking it is essential that we view childhood giftedness within the context of the emerging gifted adult:

Interest in gifted young people is fundamentally directed toward the future. The extensive literature on identifying the gifted, on educational programs for the gifted, and on advice to teachers and parents of gifted children represents visions of these children's hoped-for future as creative adults.

But giftedness in childhood is different from creativity in adulthood... The clear implication is that creativity develops. . . For the creative adult, his or her abilities have become a means, an integrated, seasoned instrument, for organizing and living a purposeful creative life. . . . If giftedness in childhood is to lead to creativity in adulthood, then understanding more about adult creativity will expand one's understanding of giftedness (Wallace, pp. 361-363).

The essential traits that stand as the hallmarks of giftedness do not simply vanish upon graduation from school. And yet, if a gifted adult was never identified as such in childhood --- especially if he or she was considered an underachiever --- the same gifted traits that can serve as the foundations of excellence can be misunderstood and misused (Jacobsen, ).

When that happens in the workplace, being bright can quickly backfire if one is placed on the proverbial misfit list and exceptional talents can be locked down in organizational politics. Because the vast majority of gifted adults have been told so little about their gifted characteristics and have experienced an array of criticisms about their intense natures, they often develop a distorted self-view.

For adults, knowing what makes one tick as a gifted person and how to manage their intensities successfully is far more important and practical than numerical findings of achievement or IQ tests.

Rather than rank themselves, they need to grasp the identifying characteristics of giftedness that fall more in the realm of personality traits, habits, and/or needs.

In general, the gifted exhibit sensory and emotional sensitivity, difficulty in accepting criticism, extraordinary empathy and compassion, passionate dedication to causes, deep concern and worry, overwhelming feelings of responsibility for the well-being of others and the advancement of humanity, and become easily outraged by injustices and inhumane acts (Dabrowski, 1972; Lovecky, 1986, 1990; Piechowski, 1979, 1991; Post, 1988; Roeper, 1991; Silverman, 1993b).

Not unexpectedly, gifted adults are prone to periods of existential depression. On the other hand, one of the more glaring traits of giftedness is extraordinary goal orientation that coexists with a relentless curiosity.

Challenge seems to be more of a need than a want, and feelings of being driven or pressured to understand and excel are the companions of achievement. Entelechy (from the Greek entelekheia meaning full realization, a vital force urging one toward self-actualization) is the sum and substance of their remarkable self-motivation and perseverance (Lovecky, 1986, 1990; Piechowski, 1991; Roeper, 1991; Rocamora, 1992).

We can see evidence of adult giftedness in a broad knowledge base that is woven together over time and easily linked to new information (Coleman & Shore, 1991; Larkin, McDermott, Simon & Simon, 1980; Resnick, 1989; Shore & Kanevsky, 1993).

They also display a habit of self-monitoring and self-guidance, personal insight and metacognition --- often in the form of harsh self-scrutiny (Flavell, 1976; Meichenbaum, 1980; Shore & Kanevsky, 1993; Coleman & Shore, 1991).

Gifted adults generally rely on their pliable thinking and unusual perceptivity. They share an ability to see through the veneer, to quickly ascertain problems (adept problem-finders) and reinterpret things beyond traditional views.

They can cut through complex issues to the heart of the matter and move directly toward creative solutions by combining intellectual strengths (e.g. verbalizing internal images) (Clark, 1992; Davidson, 1986; Dover & Shore, 1991; Getzels & Csikszentmihalyi, 1976; Kay, 1991; Lewis, Kitano, & Lynch, 1992; Lovecky, 1986; McCrae, 1987; Piechowski,1986).

The astute observer will detect signs of adult giftedness in their love of puzzles and preference for complexity, their penchant for original responses, and fondness of novelty. These characteristics become all the more obvious when they stay the course and tolerate ambiguity long after others have bowed out of the investigation (Bowen, Shore, & Cartwright, 1992; Piechowski,1991; Roeper, 1991).

The gifted adult often displays a tendency to be excitable, especially when something new tweaks challenges their imaginations. They may appear to have unusually high levels of energy (not hyperactivity), shifting from one area of interest to another without loss of zeal.

Sometimes excitability is evidenced by overt expressiveness, love of intense discussion and debate, the ability to concentrate for long periods of time, multiple interests that reflect their multipotentiality, and by complaints of being easily bored (Clark, 1992; Freed, 1990; Gallagher, 1985; Lewis, Kitano, & Lynch, 1992; Lovecky, 1986; Meckstroth, 1991; Piechowski, 1979, 1986, 1991; Schiever, 1985; Silverman, 1983a; Whitmore, 1980).

Frequently gifted adults in counseling report a history indicative of uneven or asynchronous intellectual, emotional, psychomotor, language, and/or social development (e.g. reasoning ahead of language skills; complex ideas ahead of ability to sufficiently express; emotional maturity lagging reasoning) (Jacobsen, 1999).

They may be proud of their exceptional intelligence and high academic achievement or self-conscious and baffled about experiences of underachievement despite their recognized exceptional ability (Kerr, 1991; Page, 1983; Piechowski, 1991; Roedell, 1980; Silverman, 1991; Terrassier, 1985; Tolan, 1994; Webb & Kleine, 1993; Webb, Meckstroth & Tolan, 1982).

When gifted adults feel free to reveal information about their inner lives they often admit to being perfectionists and complain that they have find mundane tasks intolerable.

Many report feeling driven by, and often suffering from, exceedingly high standards for themselves and others; pulled toward high achievement by their profound idealism while simultaneously engaging in devitalizing self-criticism (Clark, 1992; Frost, Marten, Lahart & Rosenblate, 1990; Hamachek, 1978; Hollingworth, 1926; Kaiser & Berndt, 1985; Parker, 1995; Powell & Haden, 1984; Rocamora, 1992; Roeper, 1988; Silverman & Conarton, 1993; Webb, Meckstroth & Tolan, 1982).

Particularly for the gifted female, it is not uncommon to find a self-perception distorted by accompanying feelings of being a failure, a fraud or impostor, or a belief that it is others who are truly gifted (Bell, 1990; Bell & Young, 1986; Clance, 1985; Clance & Imes, 1978; Dweck, Davidson, Nelson & Enna, 1978).

Contrary to popular opinion and faulty expectations of nerdism, the gifted adult commonly shows unusual psychosocial maturity, popularity, charisma, trustworthiness, social adjustment and relationship competence.

For many of them, leadership is a natural role that is upheld by self-assuredness and an excellent sense of humor (Hollingworth, 1931; Mönks & Ferguson, 1983; Olszewski-Kubilius, Kulieke, & Krasney, 1988; Robinson & Noble, 1991; Silverman, 1993b, 1993c; Terman, 1925).

Despite their abilities, the gifted experience recurring feelings of isolation and being largely misunderstood. Most have been aware since early childhood that they are inherently different, though they may not know in what ways, and typically believe their differences are disreputable.

Likewise they may eventually admit to chronic experiences of deep loneliness in spite of a preference for working alone. In addition, many have been berated for being picky, perfectionistic, or overly-committed to orderliness because neither therapist nor client realize it is normal for the gifted to seek security by systematizing.

Gifted adults may fail to respect their own need for solitude, reflection, and time to daydream or play with concepts and ideas. They may shame themselves when their strong bids for autonomy result in a pattern of butting heads with authority figures when most have never been told that they challenge tradition because of their deep personal values and a reverence for truth and authenticity (Clark, 1992; Dabrowski, 1972; Gallagher, 1985; Krueger, 1988; Lewis, Kitano, & Lynch, 1992; Piechowski, 1979, 1986; Silverman, 1983).

Overall, the gifted adult is almost entirely unaware that the so-called excesses of their nature are the very same traits that underpin excellence. With help, as gifted adults discover their true identities, they can rewrite their histories in terms of assets rather than liabilities.

They may come to understand a gifted child’s tears and rage over playground unfairness or pointing out politically incorrect truths were early signs of moral leadership.

They many finally realize that badgering teachers and parents with questions and getting into all kinds of investigative mischief often foreshadows entrepreneurism and innovation.

They may also discover that when the gifted child’s touchiness seems excessive, it may be a harbinger of profound empathy, the kind revered in social reformers and servants of the poor and needy.

Thus, a corrected personal history is fundamental for self-support, a prerequisite for confidently embarking on new ventures in a world that is still stuck on stereotyped notions about the gifted.

Can a gifted employee, whether in a small business or as one amongst thousands in a mega-conglomerate, develop and make good on giftedness without being unduly exploited or feeling smothered by constraints?

Since few young adults have the power to significantly change the organizations in which they work --- no matter how bright and talented they may be --- the answer I suggest is a combination of psychoeducation about gifted traits and a strategic plan that balances self-support with judicious compromise — a systematic set of "street smarts" the gifted need to adapt and even thrive at work instead of hunkering down and betraying themselves and their exceptional gifts.

Exceptional intellectual and creative abilities can lead to highly successful careers, sometimes in multiple fields. Indeed, the gifted individual who is passionately involved in a particular domain, who also has a channel for the ongoing expression of talents, may achieve far beyond traditional definitions of success.

From time to time relatively unfettered bright minds alter the direction of their domain as a whole. These stories of eminent figures fascinate and inspire us. At the same time such images covertly imply that early on those who are truly gifted know exactly what they want to do with their lives and subsequently pursue their rightful lifework unimpeded — all the way to the full realization of their potential.

Against such a backdrop of illustriousness, gifted individuals enter the world of work looking forward to an increasingly good match between one's own talents, needs, style, and personal goals, with the workplace atmosphere, peers, supervisors, and bottom-line agenda.

In addition, gifted people often experience a powerful sense of urgency — an inner pressure to delve into something difficult that tests their intellectual strengths, and to aim for something that is likely to make a constructive difference.

They yearn to live out the promise of high potential. However, the transition from full-time learner to full-time worker can engender deep disappointment instead of the anticipated coming-of-age exhilaration.

Many of my gifted adult clients recall feelings of shock and dismay upon entering a career track. One brilliant young economist described his feelings: I couldn't wait to graduate; I was so excited. Finally I'd be able to stretch my wings and move ahead at a pace that fit my natural energy and dedication. I couldn't have been more wrong! It was like having the wind knocked out of me when I was told: ' take it easy' and 'wait your turn'. Somehow I was supposed to just hunker down and be invisible while I put in my so-called dirt years!

Can a gifted employee, whether in a small business or as one amongst thousands in a mega-conglomerate, develop and make good on giftedness without being unduly exploited or constrained?

Since few have the power to significantly change the organizations in which they work, the answer may be a combination of psychoeducation about gifted traits and a strategic plan that balances self-support with judicious compromise — a systematic set of "street smarts" the gifted need to adapt and even thrive at work rather than betraying themselves or their gifts.

PREMISE: Creative productivity for the gifted adult must be understood within a context as far-reaching as evolution itself and as narrow and more personal as the daily tasks of the everyday genius at work. Investigators in giftedness and creativity have discovered that creative excellence is the result of a particular blend of internal and external factors, a process that requires special understanding, proper atmosphere, and self-management.

Giftedness is more than intellectual prowess. It impacts and underlies everything because giftedness is a quantitatively, qualitatively, and motivationally different way of being.

This means living and experiencing the world and responding to stimuli in ways that stand out from the crowd, differences that are often criticized by others as "off track" or excessive.

Yet these differences are the very traits that are fundamental building blocks of innovation and extraordinary achievement.

The best of both worlds occurs when "my way/ my view" gifted strengths are integrated with the creative powers of others in a goal-directed team.

This is only possible for those gifted employees and leaders who fully understand what makes gifted individuals tick and how to successfully merge their talents, opinions and distinctly different styles. This calls for advanced development education suited to this special population and the organizations in which they work.

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© Dr. Mary-Elaine Jacobsen, April, 2000, all rights reserved.

Published through kind permission of the author.

M. Jacobsen


Dr. Mary-Elaine Jacobsen is a Clinical Psychologist, speaker, trainer, coach, and author of the books :

The Gifted Adult: A Revolutionary Guide for Liberating Everyday Genius

[book site: http://everydaygenius.com/

Despierte su genio natural (Spanish Edition of The Gifted Adult)

The Brat Stops Here! : 5 Weeks (or Less) to No More Tantrums, Arguing, or Bad Behavior

[book site: http://bratstopshere.com/

She is also founder of the new International Society for Gifted Adults and Advocates (ISGAA) -”to support behavioral research and better the lives of Gifted people based on the research, principles, and writings of Dr. Mary-Elaine Jacobsen.”
http://isgaa.org/

Contact Dr. Mary-Elaine Jacobsen about individualized phone consultations on being gifted at: mjacobsen@isgaa.org

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Related pages :

GT Adults blog - gifted/talented/high ability

Intensity / sensitivity

Intensity / sensitivity resources : articles sites books

GT Adults giftedness

Giftedness : articles

Giftedness : books

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