Gifted adults possess a number of characteristics that set them apart from other adults.
Gifted adults are in the top 2-3% of the population intellectually.
Giftedness is defined as having an IQ in the top 2-3% of the population.
IQ is most often measured during the middle-school years to determine whether a child will benefit from receiving special attention in the classroom. Being coded as gifted means the child will participate in an enriched curriculum at an accelerated pace.
Outside the classroom, it is seldom necessary to measure IQ. Many
psychologists are able to estimate their clients’ IQs fairly accurately based on experience. I have no difficulty identifying gifted adults, especially when I also see additional characteristics that they possess.
Gifted adults are different in many ways from the norm.
When we discuss giftedness, gifted adults readily say they are different from the norm. After some exploration, they say they did not know that these differences are normal for the gifted.
One note before we explore the characteristics of gifted adults. If you do not possess all of the characteristics listed, it does not mean you are not gifted. Rather, it may mean that you have a dual diagnosis. For example, you may be gifted and have a learning disability, or you may be gifted and have ADHD.
Gifted adults are unusually bright.
This statement deserves repeating. Gifted adults are unusually bright.
The intelligence can readily be observed through their:
- Extensive vocabularies (a specialized/technical vocabulary may be difficult to spot)
- Remarkable abilities with numbers
- Long attention spans
- Ability to learn new things rapidly
When I ask about the size of their vocabularies and their ability to do math, my clients often nod their heads to indicate, “Yes, that describes me.”
They frequently say they can concentrate for long periods of time, and are able to grasp new ideas quickly.
Gifted adults are always “on.”
Gifted adults’ minds are always going. They tend to be:
- Imaginative and original
- Curious and ingenious
- High degree of energy
- Love of ardent discussion
My gifted clients often nod in ascent when we discuss how their minds are always on. They say, “My mind never stops. It’s always going.”
They share, “I have a huge amount of energy.”
We discuss how their love of ardent discussion makes a dinner party come alive when they are seated beside another gifted adult.
We also discuss how they may dread dinner parties because making small talk, and the associated lack of stimulation, can be painful.
Gifted adults see the big picture.
Gifted adults are:
- Perceptive and insightful
- Able to connect seemingly unrelated ideas
- Aware of things others are not
When we discuss how gifted adults have greater awareness than most, we often initially focus on gifted children and how these children struggle to manage what they are able to see.
For example, a 10-year-old gifted child can understand the plight of polar bears more readily than their same-aged peers. However, they lack the ability to soothe themselves emotionally at this age, and suffer more as a result.
Gifted adults are outliers.
Gifted adults are often described by others as:
- Quirky and eccentric
- Perfectionists with high standards
Because only 2-3% of the population is gifted, this means that gifted adults are statistical outliers, by definition. And so, of course, they are perceived as different from the norm.
It is critically important to note that gifted adults are not outliers vis-a-vis members of their own cohort.
We frequently laugh as we discuss how they are outliers. They easily say, “Yes, I’m non-conforming,” and, “Yes, I’m quirky.”
They share, “I have impossibly high standards… even for myself.”
This last sentence can launch a discussion concerning why their standards are so high. A typical comment is, “I can see how a project should be done, and it drives me crazy to watch things go awry.”
Gifted adults are their own worst critics.
Gifted adults can be:
- Introverted and need periods of contemplation
- Their own worst critics
Gifted adults see so much more that they need to slow down and find some quiet time to process what they have taken in.
The work for gifted adults in therapy frequently includes learning to be gentler and kinder towards themselves.
Gifted adults are highly sensitive.
Gifted adults, as a group, are highly sensitive to:
When we discuss this point, we explore how all the senses of the gifted are amplified. I ask whether my gifted adults had to cut the tags out of their t-shirts as children. I usually receive a positive reply, and then a comment such as, “I still do that.”
Gifted adults need constant intellectual stimulation.
This group needs to be challenged to be happy. They are:
- Flexible and adaptable in their thinking
- Tolerant of ambiguity and complexity
- Thrive on challenge
Gifted adults say, “I need to have ambiguity and complexity in my daily work to remain at my job.”
When we discuss their need for stimulation, they talk about thriving on challenge. This is not a group that retires quietly. They continue to need to contribute to the world in some fashion throughout their lives.
Gifted adults are self-starters.
As a group, gifted adults tend to have:
- High degree of energy
- Independent and self-disciplined
- Wide range of interests
- Strong moral convictions
When we discuss their need to be creative and to contribute, they describe themselves as being “all in.”
They talk about how they are self-disciplined, and how their motivation to complete projects at work and at home comes from within.
We frequently discuss how they do not have the time to do everything they want to do.
Gifted adults can be perceived negatively at times.
Gifted adults can find themselves described as:
- Driven and intense
- Threatening and intimidating
- Prone to question authority
When we discuss the negative feedback they may encounter, they are sometimes confused. They recognize they can be seen as intense, but don’t understand how this can be a negative. They may say, “But I get so much done.”
Some gifted adults find it difficult to understand how they can be perceived as threatening. But then we discuss how they grasp the boss’ new ideas before others do, and how they find the holes in the new idea before it can get any traction. And then my gifted clients say, “I guess my comments could be seen as threatening. I’m just trying to help.”
Gifted adults can face additional challenges in the workplace.
They can find themselves:
- Less motivated by rewards and praise
- Unable to comprehend why ideas are not acted upon
- Frequent career changes
When we talk about the workplace, gifted adults say that the worst periods in their professional lives occur when they are under-stimulated.
They can find it difficult to not receive a deserved promotion simply because they have not put in the required time yet.
Gifted adults share they are not motivated by a pay cheque, if it isn’t accompanied by the opportunity to learn, or create, or build something.
They sometimes struggle because they know that the good idea they brought to the table should be acted upon, even though no one will implement it.
It should come as no surprise, then, that gifted adults often make career changes in an attempt to find the challenge and opportunities they need.
Gifted adults are prone to burnout.
Gifted adults more frequently feel burned out. This is because they are:
- Unable to switch off their thinking
- Work themselves to exhaustion
- Work to the exclusion of other activities
When we discuss burnout, most gifted adults can identify periods in their lives when they were in burnout. They say they had a great idea that they knew they could accomplish, and so they set out to see what they could do. They say they ignored that the project was too big because the pull to take it on was seductive.
As a result, gifted adults sometimes work themselves into the ground. They know they can do every part of the project, so why not tackle it? Then they learn, possibly through repeated experience, that working too hard comes at the cost of their physical fitness, psychological health, and ability to show up at their desks every day.
Gifted adults are pushed harder than others.
The expression, “We only push the fastest horses,” can be applied, in particular, to gifted adults.
In her book, “Giftedness 101,” Linda Silverman describes how gifted adults can find themselves overwhelmed. She writes, “Highly capable people are often asked to assume the lion’s share of responsibilities, and life can quickly deteriorate into an endless list of tasks to be accomplished.”
Silverman says, “Gifted people often wear many hats and try to juggle more than is humanly possible.”
Many of my clients identify with Silveman’s assertion, “All of it seems interesting and worth doing.”
“If only there was an infinite amount of time.”
“They’re never satisfied doing a good enough job; they want to do everything to the best of their abilities.”
I like to use these quotes from Silverman as a launching point for discussion because gifted adults identify with these observations. Through Silverman’s quotes, gifted adults can begin to see how their giftedness affects them more globally than they had conceived.
I recommend three books on the subject of giftedness in adults to people who are interested in learning more.
I have written additional postings about gifted adults that you may want to read. They include:
- Are gifted adults prone to workplace burnout?
- Can you tell me about problems gifted adults encounter in the workplace?
- How far are gifted people from the norm on the intelligence spectrum?
- If I’m actually gifted, why do I discount my giftedness?
- What can you tell me about gifted women?
- Do all gifted children become gifted adults?
You may also want to explore how your giftedness may have affected you as a child. Four postings I have written include:
- Do gifted children develop at different rates intellectually, emotionally, and socially?
- Why do many gifted children struggle in the classroom?
- Are all gifted children recognized in the school classroom or are a significant number overlooked?
- Are gifted children sometimes incorrectly diagnosed with ADHD?
— Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta