Let’s not call it “gifted”

The gifted would call it anything but.

Image credit: Unsplash

Growing up, if you found that every time you talked with someone you felt misunderstood, no matter the words you used or the tone you took — almost like you were speaking an alien language — and that almost every encounter left you unsatisfied, you would probably keep to yourself. It’s easier like that.

If the teacher routinely ignored you to give others in the class a chance to answer — but you could only barely pass your exams — you would wonder what you were doing wrong. And eventually you would stop raising your hand. It’s easier like that.

If you were depressed and anxious or your self-esteem was nonexistent before you were even a teenager — when angst usually kicks in — yet people still told you that you were incredibly smart, you wouldn’t believe them. It’s easier like that.

Now you are an adult.

Your college professor ignores you to give others in the class a chance to answer. And you are still barely able to pass exams. Your GPA is pretty average, many of your classmates even think you are dumb, an underachiever. You eventually manage to graduate after failing out a few times and you set off into the world of work.

You somehow manage to communicate — in writing and in person — your interests, your intensity, and your ability to learn quickly. You manage to not overwhelm any of the people interviewing you with your ideas, your insight, and your suggestions about how to run their business more effectively or how to go after new markets. Against all odds, you get the job. (You actually become practiced at this routine.)

You become bored after a few months on the job. As you try to communicate your need for stimulating work to your manager, to your colleagues, even to HR, you once again feel like an alien. You want to keep to yourself but you are paid to interact and you are measured on what you produce. This isn’t easy.

And so you are stuck in your day-to-day and your motivation goes down, your colleagues take notice and mention it to your manager, and then your productivity drops for real. You are depressed too and everyone around you feels it. And because the workplace has consequences, you are “laid off”, a friendly euphemism for being fired. Your self-esteem, never strong to begin with, resumes its downward spiral, making it hard to believe you can ever get hired again.

Now instead of failing at school, you fail at your career. (Your in-laws wonder what is wrong with you and your spouse works hard to shield you from their judgment.) And because your resumé shows that you can’t keep a job, companies are less willing to hire you. That makes it hard to plan for the future, which makes it hard to imagine having a future at all.

If someone told you that this way that you had experienced life — with every day punctuated by some form of heartbreak — was precisely because you were “gifted”, you would probably ask them what they were smoking.

How indeed could this very miserable existence — from a young age onward into adulthood — ever be considered a gift, even in the most extreme case of narcissism?

From gifted children to gifted adults

It is now commonly understood that one does not grow out of high relative intelligence and the other characteristics of being gifted. The gifted are apparently wired the way they are … for life.

However, just like the extra intelligence that doesn’t go away — leading to highly intelligent adults — the accumulated emotional baggage of being gifted doesn’t go away either. In fact it compounds as you get older. The adaptations in personality and in mindset — the false self — that are made just to survive, let alone the damaged self-esteem and self-confidence that result from repeatedly banging up against life and coming up short.

The problem with the word gifted for an adult, particularly one that only learns of giftedness later in life is that at that point it is really about one’s potential intelligence if and only if one manages to overcome the very real life challenges that flow from giftedness. The actual possible intelligence that can be deployed day-to-day and the potential life satisfaction fall somewhere in between.

Image credit: Unsplash

That word

Gifted is a word that was given to describe or qualify those very real characteristics of children and adolescents: the empathy, the reasoning ability, the curiosity, the memory, the sense of justice, the attention to detail, etc. The high IQ is really just a marker, it is these day-to-day characteristics that mark out the “gifted” individual.

Guess what ?!? The gifted never actually asked for that word.

But if you asked many of the people who have been labeled as gifted, they would tell you that it didn’t feel like a gift at all. They were just trying to get by in a society that thinks, acts, and values things differently enough that they don’t fit in, every encounter is a test, they don’t perform well according to conventional measurements, and they ultimately fall behind, with the mental and emotional scars to show for it. Society alternately perceived their intelligence as a gift or a threat.

If it makes it easier, let’s not call it gifted. Call it whatever you want so that you don’t feel intimidated, so that together we can figure out how to make whatever this “thing” is into a gift, to the benefit of us all.

Postscript: I am documenting my journey through giftedness here on Medium:

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