A review by Jennifer Harvey Sallin
Finally, a book specific to giftedness in the workplace – and it is a book worth reading! Especially for any gifted adult or teen who is struggling, or has ever struggled with, career indecision or workplace issues. It is a book that would have saved me years of struggle, had I been able to read it in late high school. Or that would have clarified a lot of questions for me when I was trying to make it in the corporate world without losing my mind!
Looking at gifted people as “missiles”, Noks and Sieuwke point to our very powerful energy that, when aimed at the right target, can make a huge positive impact. However, when off-track, that same powerful energy can be a destructive force to both to ourselves and others. Their book demonstrates a truth most of us know all too well: our gifted qualities cause many of us to go off-track when working within typical workplaces, work hierarchies, and work teams, turning us into “unguided missiles”.
The stories in this book illustrate subtly but powerfully a frustrating paradox common to gifted people: we can be so smart, yet we can sometimes be so ineffective at dealing with others around us. And the authors show why: very often it is because of irrational beliefs we hold about ourselves and the way things should be. Most gifted people can, for example, sympathize with the first of the eleven case studies: Liz, a gifted woman who, though she is highly intelligent, still holds onto irrational thoughts that hurt her – thoughts such as, “I need to be perfect and successful in every way to be worthy of respect and be appreciated by society. I therefore should not make any mistakes – either at home or at work.” I’ve rarely (if ever) known a gifted person who doesn’t or hasn’t struggled with this kind of irrational perfectionism. And just as with Liz, it isn’t a sustainable way for any one of us to live our lives, or to succeed in creating fulfilling professional opportunities or relationships. So, like Liz, instead of enjoying our uncommon abilities and potential, we end up blaming ourselves for others’ problems, and demanding that we be perfect or that we make sure that others are perfect, even when the others in question don’t want to reach perfection. We uphold an ideal even when collaborators do not share that ideal, and Noks and Sieuwke paint a clear picture of the emotional results of the paradox: we feel guilty toward ourselves and furious toward others all at once.
Where does all this inner and outer conflict come from? In part, our gifted mind and its naturally high idealism; but also in part from our upbringing, which teaches us to take that naturally high idealism and use it as a standard rather than a source of inspiration. As Noks and Sieuwke write, our upbringing creates well-worn mental paths that control the movement and direction of our intense inner experience. In theory, the movement of our intensity can lead us in healthy directions – striving for excellence and joy instead of perfection, for example; but often it does not, and we find ourselves on the familiar mental tracks of seeking perfection, even while fully admitting that what we seek is a logical impossibility, given the constraints of the imperfect and incomplete knowledge we all must contend with in “real life”.
A major theme that shows up again and again throughout the case studies is something I call in my coaching practice “Binocular Behavior”. This is the phenomenon of believing that others perceive the world as we do and interpreting their behaviors only in light of the way we see the world (not in light of how they see the world). Noks and Sieuwke succeed in demonstrating something that is often very hard to demonstrate: how gifted people and their typical characteristics can be perceived by non-gifted people, and how a gifted person using what I call “gifted binoculars” can go through life largely or completely misunderstanding how others perceive him.
This is hard work in coaching, helping clients grasp the contradiction that what they perceive as “unjust” in terms of others’ reactions to them is actually not so unjust when we understand how non-gifted people perceive them (especially their gifted standards and communication style). For example, gifted people are often perceived as chronic complainers and criticizers, when in their own minds, they really are just trying to provide helpful suggestions and creative solutions to problems. And while sometimes it’s true that they are “just being helpful,” it is also true, as Noks and Sieuwke point out, that they are at times pushed by forces that are less than helpful, such as another series of common gifted irrational thoughts: “I must be right”, “My opinion is the best one” and “disaster will strike if I don’t say anything and I can’t bear that.” More thoughts that can come in part from our upbringing, which in my own practice, I talk about in terms of carried emotions. Noks and Sieuwke illustrate very well the need for identifying where these messages originated, replacing them with healthier messages, and learning and practicing effective communication – a form of communication that includes expressing emotions, negotiating, and giving feedback, and which takes into account our own cognitive biases and the very important differences between gifted and average cognition.
They show how “immature” (my word, not theirs) we can be as gifted people when we are using communication strategies unconsciously, such as using physical pain, magical thinking, and manipulation to communicate our thoughts, feelings and needs, rather than speaking up clearly, assertively, and respectfully. They mention the “Santa Claus Effect”: not making a wish list, yet expecting Santa to get what you want, and then being angry when you receive a computer game instead of an electric car. I really liked this metaphor as it is one that I have often struggled with in my own life, and regularly see my gifted clients struggle with. It’s certainly not an effect that is unique to gifted people, but when it is used by gifted people, the effects can be extra dramatic and painful, as the sense of injustice can be disproportionately felt. The antidote: make a clear wish list (be clear on your needs), and communicate what’s on that list in ways that other people (especially the non-gifted people in your life) are able to hear and understand.
This points to another red thread throughout Noks’ and Sieuwke’s case studies: overcoming what I call in my practice “The Authority Problem”. This shows up in cases like Kitty’s in chapter five, where she as an adult is still being ruled by her mothers’ wishes for how she uses her gifts. She has not yet figured out how to use her gifts for her own good, and instead keeps using them to try to please her mother or the role of authority she projects on everyone around her. Other examples in the book of clients leaving their jobs, PhD programs, or other roles they accepted based on others’ choices, are very encouraging to any of us who are still waiting in the wings of our own lives, waiting for someone to give us permission to use our gifts to bless our own lives and to enjoy who we are and what we do!
Noks’ and Sieuwke’s case studies highlight situations in which it was possible to be identified as gifted by a professional treating occupational problems, and to be treated specifically as a gifted person. Many healthcare professionals, however, are never trained on giftedness and often don’t even know what it is. In my coaching practice and within InterGifted discussions, I have heard so many stories of unidentified gifted people who went to professionals for occupational help and were told that they just needed to calm down, learn how to cooperate, or stop being so difficult. Noks’ and Sieuwke’s book is therefore a wonderful addition to and resource for the effort to let helping professionals around the world know that giftedness exists and that gifted people, with the right help, can hit the right target!
I wish for a world where all gifted people can readily be identified and receive the gifted guidance they need, in the same way the people in this book were. We are slowly working on initiatives for spreading the word in the healthcare domains via InterGifted. I hope to have news on that soon! And if you’d like to help, let us know! Gifted Workers is a great place to start.