Who me, gifted?

Two days ago, I wrote about how being gifted results in an experience of life and existing which is usually markedly different in intensity and complexity than what normal people experience. Today I’m going to talk about why so many highly intelligent people fail to see themselves as gifted and and why gifted people need to understand their giftedness and teach their children to do the same.

The first point which needs to be made is that contrary to the perception that unusually smart people are arrogant and think that they are better than everyone else, many, many highly intelligent people are in denial about their giftedness. People who belong to Mensa report that one of the most common things they hear from other members are jokes that someone must have messed up their test because they aren’t actually smart enough to be there. People who counsel and work with highly intelligent people find that many of them suffer from “imposter syndrome“. Imposter syndrome is a situation where a person feels that they are simply faking their way through life, that anything they have accomplished is due to luck and that their real abilities fall short of what others are capable of. I’m not aware of any actual research into the self perception of people with unusually high intelligence. However, based on reports from people with high intelligence and those who deal with them, it is probably safe to say that a large percentage of highly intelligent people do not see themselves as such. Contrary to the stereotype, many gifted people are not arrogant to the point of being unable to hold an accurate view of their own abilities.

Compounding the problem is the fact that in our culture it is rather hard to come right out and identify ourselves as gifted (although we all seem to want that label for our children, whether they deserve it or not). We believe that if we were to say, “I am a gifted/unusually intelligent person” we would be perceived as an arrogant braggart who thinks that they are better than everyone else. However, the fact is that a highly intelligent person is who he or she is.  We really put people into a bad position if they cannot just be themselves without being accused of trying to make themselves look good at the expense of others.  It is true that a minority of gifted people in a few circles such as high level scientific work or some university settings may view themselves as superior to everyone else. However, for the most part people with high intelligence have no interest in lording their smarts over anyone. After all, intelligence is an unearned attribute which doesn’t in and of itself make a person any better or worse than anyone else.

Further, because declarations of intelligence can trigger feelings of hostility and inferiority in others, people who come right out and say that they are gifted can be opening themselves up to impossibly high expectations from others coupled with increased scrutiny. Who wants to walk around feeling that people are watching you, just waiting for you to fail? Besides, being intelligent doesn’t mean that you won’t make mistakes. In reality, it probably just means that you’ll make bigger, more complicated mistakes than most other people.

Coupled with these barriers to acknowledging one’s self as gifted or unusually intelligent, most of us have an unrealistic idea of what giftedness is/looks like. (And those barriers have their base in unrealistic ideas of what high intelligence looks like anyways.)  First of all, since giftedness runs in families, a person can see their very unusual abilities as completely normal.  If your mom who is just a homemaker can finish a monster soduku puzzle in less than 5 minutes, then that must be what is normal.  If dad who is just an accountant can memorize the entire official rulebook for his softball league verbatim, then that must be what is normal.  The extraordinary becomes a baseline for average.

One of the other barriers to developing a realistic view of a person with unusually high intelligence is the fact that there is a greater diversity of abilities, interests and behaviors among the gifted than one finds in other populations.  Most people live within the range of normal ability.  While there is a great deal of diversity among people within this range, there are certain abilities which people do not expect to find within this population.  A person of normal intelligence has no expectation that they must have a photographic memory, be able to speed read, memorize pi to 1000 digits, come up with ideas that turn the world on its head, learn multiple foreign languages quickly, create whole new fictional universes, etc.  They do not feel pressure to maintain their “normal” status by exhibiting characteristics held by others in the normal range.  No one would say, “I can’t seem to get the hang of knitting, so that must mean that I don’t have normal intelligence.”

OTOH, when looking at the gifted population, there is the same range of abilities found among normal people plus a dizzying array of other potential markers for intelligence.  It would be impossible for one human being, no matter how intellectually gifted, to encompass all of the potential abilities of the human mind at its best.  For this reason, it is pretty much impossible to create a check list of unusual abilities that a person must have in order to be called gifted.  Rather, giftedness is assessed by comparing someone to what is normal and looking at how far outside the range of normal a person is.    Instead of using this measure, gifted people tend to assess themselves completely differently: how they compare to other people who are gifted.  Many people will look at someone who is gifted in ways that they are not, think to themselves, “well that person is really smart and I’m not anything like them, so I must not be really smart.”  And the second person may also say to themselves, “well, that person is really smart and I’m not like them, so I must not be really smart.”  What is so funny is that the two may have the same IQ.  We have a strong tendency to write off the things we are exceptionally good at as “just what I do”, “no big deal”, “easy”, “anyone could do it if they wanted”, etc.  Then we look at those who have abilities we don’t have, use them as the stick by which we measure unusual intelligence and find ourselves lacking.  (This article has a good explanation of this dynamic.)

Again, unusually high intelligence is an unearned trait.  We tend not to value what we do not earn.  But if we cannot acknowledge that we do have unusual abilities, it will be hard for us to develop them to their fullest extent in order to actually do something worth being proud of with them.  We need to value our abilities, not because they are just so magical and special and set us apart as better than others.  We need to value them so that we can develop them.  For this reason, some people refer to highly intelligent people as “high potential” rather than gifted.

If we can get a clearer view of our own abilities, free from the misconceptions about what it means and looks like to be gifted, then we will be in a better position to actually reach that potential.  When I think of the number of things that I didn’t attempt to do or even view as a possibility as a young person because those were things that “other, smarter people” do, it makes me cringe.   The simple fact is that being unusually smart is neither inherently good or bad.  Unusual intelligence brings a lot of potential pitfalls as well as potential accomplishments.  It is my opinion that we have the best chance of overcoming the pitfalls and attaining the potential when we have a reasonable, clearheaded view of ourselves.  Sometimes that means having the courage to say, “I’m a really intelligent person” and not modifying or apologizing for that.  Besides, you probably won’t be telling the people around you anything they don’t already know.  For reasons such as those above, the smartest people are sometimes the last to really know.

BTW, if you or your kids are (or think you are) gifted, I would highly recommend checking out the Hoagies’ Gifted website.  It is a great clearinghouse of resources, links and information.  In particular, I have found the “gifted adults” page very useful.  It’s all well and fine to learn about the kids and their needs, but if you aren’t at peace with your own giftedness, it will be hard to raise a child who is a peace with theirs.

10 thoughts on “Who me, gifted?

  1. I just finished reading this and your post from a few days ago. My father is a teacher and recently finished a short course on “giftedness” from which he and my mother IDed him (my father) me, and my husband as *textbook* ” gifted.”

    They showed me the lists, I’m convinced now, and ever since I’ve been trying to decide how to use this new information. I really like your terminology of “high potential” and your analysis of the challenge of communicating this is just how you are.

    A parallel way I can understand this is through music. In my family of origin, everyone can sing. I was 20-something before I believed there were actually people who couldn’t sing. You’re spot-on with the not appreciating what we don’t earn. I recognized the value of my voice (the church-culture tells you it has high value) but I still had a *need* to learn a “real” instrument: one that took skill to play.

    And this could have been a comment on the last post, but *yes* I can always tell after I’ve done something wrong socially, but I have been frustrated at how hard it is to learn (I wrote a very frustrated post of “rules” I’ve learned– many the hard way: http://untanglingtales.com/?p=495).

    I’m curious to see what else you have to say of the topic, and thanks for linking the “gifted adult” page. I’m going to check it out next.

  2. What a great set of posts on giftedness!

    I was mid-20’s when I took an IQ test for which I was shown the results, and boy was that an eye-opener! Good grades were something I rarely had earned, and I could not understand why college classmates had expected me to get A’s — certainly no one else had expected that, before. In fact, when I had done well, people were both surprised and suspicious. Once I got the test results, tho, I found some vindication for being different. (And yes, I also wondered if I’d just got lucky on some answers!)

    But what you disclosed about behaviors — that is just as eye-opening. Some of my differences I’d attributed to intelligence, but other differences you cited I’d not seen as arising from giftedness. This does explain more, and I appreciate the insights you presented.

    It’s great to have discovered your blog. Thanks for your service.

    On another note, your son will be fine. He is certainly gifted, but the behavior you’re concerned about is not only something a mother should worry about, it’s also normal.

  3. Cheryl M. Ackerman, PhD notes in her article Gifted Adults, “It is important to remember that just because a person was not identified as gifted when they were in school, doesn’t mean she isn’t a gifted individual.

    “In addition, something that may seem as benign as whether or not a person was identified as gifted can have significant effects on the development of his self-concept and self-esteem.

    “While the fundamental characteristics of gifted adults are the same regardless of whether or not they were identified earlier in life, those who were not identified face the challenge of making sense of their gifted characteristics without the gifted label to guide them in any way.”

  4. One factor that you didn’t mention is that people who are gifted tend to come from a family where many of the members are gifted and often they live in a community with a significantly higher-than-average concentration of gifted individuals. So they may have a skewed impression of what is “normal”. There’s a great statistic from The Bell Curve talking about how if one took a random sampling of 12 American adults the chances of finding 4 or more graduates of the most elite universities (the Ivies plus Stanford, MIT, CalTech, Duke, and Chicago) are less than 1 in 1 BILLION. The fact that many of us come from social circles where an elite college degree is the norm shows how much cognitive stratification there is.

  5. Found your blog tracking down Ed Herman and just wanted to leave you a quote

    “It is possible, of course, to keep educated people unfree in a state of civilization, but it’s much easier to keep ignorant people unfree in a state of civilization. And it is easiest of all if you can convince the ignorant that they are educated, for you can thus make them collaborators in your disposition of their liberty and property. That is the institutionally assigned task, for all that it may be invisible to those who perform it, of American public education.”
    THE GRAVES OF ACADEME-Richard Mitchell



  6. I found out 3 days ago I was gifted after I was told my son may be. This article was fantastic after spending 3 sleepless days pondering the initial idea being great to the other extreme thinking this was almost devastating news I wished to take back. I am putting this down to a cycle of emotions I must go through while trying to comprehend this news. So thanks for the article it was a fantastic read. With the last line being of the utmost importance to me. If I can’t come to peace with this how will I ever expect my child to. I guess my peace will come with time, knowledge and a little self reflection. So Thank you for a little voice of reason!!

  7. This is a very, very interesting article. I have always been a very good student; at first, I attended a normal school, and was a straight-A student without ever studying and rarely doing homework at home (I could usually finish it all in class while everyone else was working on the actual classwork that I had long finished). When I reached middle school, my teachers advised my parents to transfer me to an elite school, and they did. I was still a very good student, but no longer the best of the 250+ students in the grade, and high grades were simply the norm at the school. I started getting a B every now and then, which for me was devastating, especially since I did actually start to study to keep up. Still, my GPA when I graduated was among the 20 highest of my year; I heard all my teachers, all my life, commenting on how intelligent I was… and I never once believed them. Why? Because I knew I wasn’t good in the exact sciences. I told them and myself that I couldn’t be that intelligent if there were people getting A’s and A+’s in maths and physics and chemistry, when I got A-‘s and even B’s. Not only that, but give me some really advanced physics problems, and my brain will go completely blank, and I’ll just stare at it like it’s written in Chinese. It took me arond 6 years to understand exactly what you said: that I was not only comparing myself to other highly intelligent students my age (we were all taking AP classes, so really, it wasn’t that bad to tae a B in an AP Physics test, but I still used it as a parameter), but I was considering only one aspect of it, i. e., the ability with exact sciences. I didn’t consider the ability to learn languages, for instance, which seems to be my strong point so far (English is not my first language, by the way), or my ability to write, both artistically and dissertatively, the latter being essential to my profession.
    In my senior year, most sutdents from my grade took prep courses outside of school, but my parents couldn’t afford them, so I just studied on my own at home. In the end, I made it to the second-best Law School in Brazil (my country), when many other kids didn’t. I never applied to the best one, because it was on the extreme opposite side of the country, whereas the second-best by less than a point was right in my city. I graduated this past July, with a GPA of 9.36/10, which was the second highest in my 100-student class. A month later, I was to take my bar exam, and I was literally freaking out because of it. I was sure I wasn’t going to pass. When my therapist reminded me of the fact that I had always been a great student, and was obviously one of the best recently graduated ones, all I could say was that it had been luck all along. I had just been lucky that the questions in every test that I had taken were about things that I knew, I had made right guesses when it was multiple choice, I had been able to write convincing answers in written tests even if I had no clue what I was talking about… I wasn’t intelligent enough to pass the bar exam on my first trial, when the average in my country is for people to try it 3 times before passing.
    To calm me down, my therapist had me take an IQ test, which I had taken once upon entering the elite school, but the results had never been disclosed to me; all they had told me was that it was more than enough to get in. Apparently… I have a pretty high IQ. I say “apparently” because I completely identify with the joke of the Mensa guys you mentioned in the last article. I’m still somewhat convinced someone must have screwed it up somehow when grading it. Your aticles were a great resourse, and after doing some thought on them, I may be coming to terms with the fact that the test just might be right, after all.
    Thank you so much. 🙂

  8. Hi, i just found your page (apologies in advance for my english its not my native language)…well i just read you and was like oooh!!!. I am 31 and i always tend to see my acomplishments, that people around me seem to see as amazing, as things that i just can do and even i must do because i can, and that other people could do too if they want, i had wasted a lot of my time trying to communicate with other people and to be accepted, at school and work things has not been easy, i just figure out few months ago throught a test that i am “gifted” i hate labels because seem so determinant as it were excluyent from other parts of you and try to survive with that label in a sub country as mexico is a master,you will see that our education system do not support people outside the media and you will face several reactions as bulliying, agression, missunderstanding, people labeling you as snob or that you feel superior than them… i came to understand that other people reactions is not my problem, but i have this other one I had procrastinated a lot, i had run away several times for works and schools after acomplish something IN PANIC!!! feeling like at some point they will take my mask off and see that i am not that smart and they will reject me even more than they do,but because of that i had lost a lot of opportunities and i am paying for that, now i am reading about the impostor sindrome for the first time throught your blog and i wanna thank you for your post that is such a good starting point.

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