How I found out I was gifted
It was the first day in a course of fifty students. I happened to choose a spot right behind her. She was extravert and very enthusiastic, almost like Hermoine Granger in Harry Potter, raising her hand to the ceiling to answer the teachers’ questions. I behave in a similar geeky way and felt comfortable around her straight away. We became friends that first day of the course. As I would soon find out, there was a reason we connected so well.
During one of the breaks she shared with me she was gifted and suggested I should contact dean Ruur Boersma for a talk. My first reaction was that I don’t consider myself extra smart or intelligent. Almost the opposite. I feel like a cheat because I know what people expect from me and I usually only learn for exams until the very last moment. My friend told me that denying intelligence is a common trait among gifted people, as I would later also read in a book about the subject by Paula Prober.
I arranged a talk with the dean, saying I was referred by my new friend. I was a bit hesitant at first. In primary school I had been considered one of the smarter children but somehow I failed to connect with other kids during simple games in the playground. I tried to analyse all of their, often contradictory, signals and often interpreted too many motives behind their behaviour. In secondary school I didn’t learn much for exams and instead of being a top student I started failing classes. I discovered I only had motivation for topics that covered my personal interest or if I liked the teacher’s character. I got several warnings that I needed to do more homework (something that wasn’t necessary in primary school) and managed to graduate with good grades after putting in some extra hours of work.
Learning in an academic environment was a different story still. I noticed that I could memorize and process large quantities of knowledge. But while trying to get in the honours program I couldn’t learn effectively. I was getting lost in side thoughts or felt the need to dive into specific details of certain theories, rather than learning the utmost necessary. Social misunderstandings persisted. Though I joined a study association and learned how to small talk, I much rather had philosophical discussions with people at the bar than get drunk and wild. I found freedom performing on stage in a theatre association, where I felt I could embody weird roles and be completely accepted for it. I also reconnected with my creative and fantasy-rich self. During my studies I had taken an IQ test to see if that was the explanatory factor for my social disconnect, but I did not end up in the top 2% of the population. I tried to blame it on my perfectionism, preventing me from giving answers in a timely fashion. I didn’t realize the limits of IQ testing and that giftedness is not so much about intelligence as it is about the way brains process information.
During the conversation with Ruur it only took her 10 minutes to recognize my giftedness. I told her my history and that I often procrastinated work. That I needed to go into depth with topics or not study them at all. That I often explored interdisciplinary subjects beyond the confinements of university courses. I told her I was convinced that I was a highly sensitive person and could reach tremendous euphoria on the one hand but be enormously affected by bad news, injustice or disappointments on the other. I told her about conflicts in group collaboration in which I applied my own high standard to other people. The lack of connection with fellow students had also led to feeling misunderstood and lonely. And I confided in her that I had suicidal thoughts since being 8 years old. To all this Ruur responded by saying I was probably a very creative person who is markedly different and shows many signs of giftedness, though there is not one true type. Being accepted felt like a huge relief and a bit like homecoming. I could finally explain why I had felt different for all these years. Thanks to the concept of giftedness I could see my struggles in a new light and find ways to address or accept them.
Discovering the characteristics
In the ensuing weeks and months I dove into the world of giftedness and found out a few things. Mainly that there are two types of gifted people. The first group are the introverts. They usually excel in exact science and logic. The outside world might misperceive their introversy, weird humour and lack of adherence to social conventions as a social disorder. Internally this group may not feel like their behaviour diverges from the social norm at all, nor be bothered by it. The second group are the extraverts. They feel different on the inside but try to hide it with all their might and try to fit the social norms at all costs. They thrive in social contact with many different people and are liked by others for their goofiness and assertiveness (though bullying can take place due to extreme creativity or the inclination to go against the mainstream). People of both groups may never know they are gifted because they get misdiagnosed or because they are able to adapt so well.
So how do you know you are gifted?
It certainly does not have to do with IQ testing. There is a checklist with a lot of categories, and not every gifted person ticks all boxes. There are three traits that seem to apply in general. 1) Gifted people are highly perfectionist and autonomous. They excel in individual work and can be hard to collaborate and communicate with in groups because their thought pattern literally takes different routes. 2) Gifted people are extremely curious and investigative. They philosophize about the meaning of life at an early age or are extremely fascinated by natural phenomena or patterns. Once they find a topic that interests them they want to know everything about it that they can. 3) Gifted people tend to be hyper sensitive. They cannot handle loud sounds and their battery gets drained by visiting crowded or impulse-rich environments. While extraverts need social contact to flourish the introverts need a lot of time to themselves.
There’s also a distinct difference between gifted girls and gifted boys. Gifted girls tend to blend in more than boys because they are better at planning and routine. Society discourages them from attracting attention or acting smart, thus they don’t try to stand out in class and become invisible. Gifted boys on the other hand find it extremely hard to concentrate because they follow their thoughts everywhere and struggle with social pressure from manhood. They tend to underperform or over perform to fit in with the peer group and struggle to make connection to their feelings.
One thing that made me realize I was gifted is that when going to the movies I laugh at jokes slightly sooner than others. A second personal sign is that the beauty of art or the beauty of nature can move me to tears. A third sign is that I can sense other people’s emotions and anticipate their behaviour, sometimes even premonitions. Each gifted person is unique and will have different character traits or signals in which they deviate from the norm. Where some gifted people will register other people’s body language super fast, others will excel in math, have an excellent memory or be very good at playing music or working with machines.
It can be quite hard to talk about giftedness because of the stigma. A common misconception is that it has to do with intelligence or being smart. In Dutch, the term for giftedness is hoogbegaafd which translates as ‘highly capable’, implying a hierarchy between smart and dumb, lower educated and highly educated. Rather, giftedness is a horizontal concept and indicates the bandwidth through which you experience life. Yes, you can process information more rapidly, sometimes also reproduce it in a coherent way. But above anything else, gifted brains receive, filter, process and store information in a different way. This means you can experience feelings more deeply, but also that you may have a hard time empathizing with people who experience emotions more flat.
Gifted people like to associate freely and let their thoughts wonder to various places. Non-gifted people prefer to follow a clear structure and keep to the path. Gifted people learn best through top down learning in which they are presented an overview of the entire situation, while non-gifted people learn best bottom up, looking at separate situations first and connecting the dots later. Gifted people can have difficulty in finishing seemingly unchallenging tasks. For example, keeping a room clean is considered an easy chore by some. To a gifted person it may present a formidable challenge. If one part of the chain is disrupted it can lead to disorientation and even demotivation to finish the task. Beginning work on something is daunting because it often feels like an all-or-nothing situation.
Giftedness can also lead to mental illness: Some gifted people resort to ‘dumbing down’ to fit in. Others suppress boredom or emotional disconnect by using narcotics. Others suffer depression because they crave deep connection but cannot find it in their environment. The bright side is that once gifted people recognize their talents or find a stimulating place, they can put their potential to use in extraordinary ways. It may be frustrating that your mind goes from Z to B to F to A, instead of from A to B to C. But it also brings a rich and diverse set of experiences and skill set that many organizations would love to have on board. The medal always comes with two sides, like most things in life.
Being different counts
What helps in talking about giftedness is explaining there’s a lot of scientific data that backs up deviating brain patterns in other types of animals. It’s a mechanism for populations in nature to survive because gifted individuals see other possibilities and opportunities where others don’t. Cherish that you’re special, and surround yourself with at least one person who is gifted too. You may be able to tell because they have the same strange hobby, talk in a similar way or are the odd-one-out in a social situation. Gifted people can be thought of as obnoxious, bossy, stubborn know-it-all people, but also as daring, caring and compassionate justice fighters who don’t let social conventions stand in the way of logic.
It will not surprise you that Wageningen is a town that attracts a lot of gifted people. It is close to nature, has a combination of creative and exact studies and is not too crowded. In fact, gifted people can flourish here and find a lot of helpful resources at the university. There are international meet and greet events, dean office hours and specialized coaches. It is also possible to join a thesis buddy group when you have to write your thesis. Doing a project in which you are solely responsible and are interested in EVERYHTING can get you stranded easily. A particular obstacle might be putting things down on paper that are imperfect, while it’s a necessary step in the learning process. Being in a weekly meeting with gifted peers can also help build a routine, keep you motivated and provide helpful insights in how others deal with abstract thinking, procrastination and perfectionism.
Besides the university’s offerings, it’s possible to read about giftedness in several books. One that is very practical to start with (and short!) is Paula Prober’s Guide Into Your Rainforest Mind. Other good books are Searching for Meaning by James T. Webb, Living with Intensity by Susan Daniels et al and The highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You by Elaine N. Aron. Of course there’s a lot of video’s and blogs that you can find on the world wide web as well (Emilie Wapnick about multipotentialites, for video’s in Dutch, Kathleen Venderickx and Tijl Koenderink talk about gifted children) and you can also meet gifted people online.
Some personal advice
I’d like to end with a piece of advice an aunt of me gave me that brought a lot of peace to my mind. She told me: “Daniël, I’ve seen a lot of types like you that wonder around life without a specific goal, not knowing what will become of them. Sensitive and creative minds who start a lot of different projects but don’t persist in them. It’s common for gifted people to try a lot of jobs and flavours before they’re 30 years old. Trust me, around that age something magical happens. They find a true passion that truly drives them forward, something in which many types of work come together. From that moment on their mission takes off like a rocket. Hang on in there, you’ve got a bright mind. Give it time and space to blossom, your time will come!”
If you are gifted, know that you’re not the only one. Once you know the signals, it’s easy to detect it in others or trace it back to persons in your environment (or famous people that you can relate to). Be bold and brave enough to talk about your suspicions. In my experience, people are very understanding, especially if it improves communication and emotional connection. Wear your medal with pride and shine your light, it might just illuminate the path of others. Just like my Hermione friend did for me in the break of that summer class. I am still thankful she approached me and shared her hunch, without knowing me personally. I hope others show the same courage as her so we can all unlock our potential. Trust me, it’s less scary than you would think.
Alohomora, may your obstacles be relieved.
Daniël van Duijn