When the G-Word Gets in the Way

I’ve always had ambivalent feelings about the designation gifted.

After almost two years here at Third Factor, my feelings about the word remain mixed. On one hand, it’s a word that people google in the hopes of finding content like ours—of connecting with people like our readers. And it goes without saying that I believe our content serves a real need.

On the other hand, I see more clearly than ever how the label is actually separating us, and our readers, from people with whom we might meaningfully connect.

The Word “Gifted” as a Life Preserver

At its best, the label “gifted” can help a struggling person identify and explore their challenges. In particular, it can bring into focus what they should search for to meet their unmet needs. A great example of this is Foske de Kruijf’s story of finding belonging, published in our January/February 2020 issue. Through a community formed around the label “gifted,” Foske came to find great friends and understand herself better.

Most of the people who look into what it means to be gifted as an adult are those who felt weird, unsupported, or othered for something as essential as their very thoughts.

Not all bright, intellectual, or cerebral people grow up around those who value what they have to offer, or who know how to channel it. (I mean, just stop to think about how you feel in response to those words. Don’t two out of three of them have a bit of a negative valence?) Judging from my experience putting together a magazine that does talk about giftedness, most of the people who look into what it means to be “gifted” as an adult are those who felt weird, unsupported, or othered for something as essential as their very thoughts.

I’ve come to see the word, therefore, as a life preserver. The people I’ve just described have been swept out in a riptide, or fallen off a boat.  So when someone tosses them that positively-charged term, they grab it.  And that’s a good thing.

False Positives, False Negatives

But the life preserver is a tool with a very specific purpose. If you hang on to it and just drift, you’re going to run into some problems. And the more we’ve grown, the more these problems have become apparent to those of us on the editorial team behind Third Factor.

For starters, the word “gifted” is nebulous. It therefore gives everyone using it false positives. It’s true that intellectually engaged people do get a higher friendship hit rate when in circles that select for high IQs—but, as our editor Eunice Cu noted when our team was discussing this, these circles don’t guarantee a fit. How many times have you heard of people joining Mensa only to be disappointed that they don’t find their people there? (We’ve published at least two such takes.) Even when I went to the conference of Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG), an organization that embraces Dabrowski’s overexcitabilities, I had both hits and misses. People came to that conference for a lot of different reasons, and only some of them lined up with mine.

Moreover, plenty of people with measured high IQs don’t care a whit about the stuff we talk about here. Some of them actively disdain it. Some of them grew up on a beach where rip currents were virtually unknown.  Some of them are “self-actualizers” with solid careers and social status, with no desire to pursue “transcendence.” We have some friends like that, and we’re happy for them. We also know they’re not usually the ones with whom our articles resonate.

The word “gifted” will also give you lots of false negatives. I have an old friend who, I thought, fits our ideal target audience perfectly: she’s an insightful, motivated, productive writer whom I first met through a creative writing board and who I thought might find the topic of intensity interesting. I invited her to visit. She noted that she wouldn’t have thought Third Factor was for her because she was never in a gifted program. And yet, she’s a match as far as I’m concerned. Who else might we be turning off who really does belong, even if they didn’t ever happen to score in the top two percent on a test of pattern recognition?

Then there’s another sort of problem with hanging an identity on the G-word. When your only commonality is the fact that you both were dubbed “gifted,” there’s only so much to talk about. Sure, there are some useful conversations to have on that point. But as Benita mentioned in our editorial team conversation, once you’ve figured out what this means in your life, then you’re going to need something further to talk about. You’re gifted—okay, so what? Benita learned this through her experience of founding a Gifted Adults Meetup, a story she shares in this issue.

Who else might we be turning off who really does belong, even if they didn’t ever happen to score in the top two percent on a test of pattern recognition?

Or take a look at Maxwell Olin Massa’s recent article, Why a Novel? Long Form Fiction as a Catharsis for the Intellect. I happen to know that Max scored highly on an IQ test back in the day, though, sensibly, he never mentions this in his article. Is what he says in that piece going to get more interest among alumni of the gifted program than it does in the general population? Probably, since gifted programs select for the kind of people who need “catharsis for the intellect.” But what if someone who wasn’t in the gifted program as a kid finds that piece and enjoys it? I happen to know that that’s happened, too. But you’re not going to connect with these readers if you imply that they ought to have passed a test to join your circle.

The Things We Share

All of this is why I want a bit of distance from the word “gifted,” both personally and as editor of this magazine. I’m not planning to drop it; sometimes, after all, a life preserver is what’s needed. (In particular, I support its use by therapists working with this population. In fact, I think we could use more of those.) But as much as possible, I’m going to use language that points more precisely toward what I mean, so as to draw in the people I’m actually talking to and about. If I mean people with an IQ in the top two (or top point-one) percent, I’ll say that; if I mean intellectually intense or highly intellectually engaged, then that’s what I’ll say. (And as Scott Barry Kaufman reminds us elsewhere in this issue, these two things are only moderately correlated with each other.)

You are surely different from other people, but don’t forget that feeling alienated is itself a common human experience.

Moreover, while supporting the needs of people with intense intellects remains a core part of our mission, I think we serve that mission best when we don’t subtly encourage readers to other themselves. Instead, I want to affirm that we are all parts of many possible circles.  I mentioned Foske’s article about finding belonging after the lens of giftedness helped her understand herself. My favorite takeaway from her piece is that, once she did this, she not only made new friends who met the needs she hadn’t been meeting before; she was also able to connect with friends she already had in a more rewarding way.  You are surely different from other people, but don’t forget that feeling alienated is itself a common human experience.

It’s worth noting that, apart from the intellectual intensity that’s correlated with (but not the same as) high IQ, there are two other elements we explore at Third Factor: namely, vivid imagination and strong emotion. Those three things—Dabrowski’s “big three” overexcitabilitiestogether define our audience. Some readers will lead with one of these; others with another. To the extent that these divide our readership into a few different camps, we hope to spark conversations that build bridges between them.

Personally, I’m here because I want to explore the stuff that comes out of all of this—the intense intellect as well as the emotions and imagination. I’m especially interested in what happens when they collide with each other and make that splendid mess we call positive disintegration.

Personally, I’m here because I want to explore the stuff that comes out of all of this—the intense intellect as well as the emotions and imagination. I’m especially interested in what happens when they collide with each other and make that splendid mess we call positive disintegration. From where I stand as editor-in-chief, I’ve seen a mosaic of all our readers’ unique experiences. I see the reader who struggled from an early age to have conversations with her classmates and who ultimately joined the Triple Nine Society. I see the reader who connected deeply with the kids in the gifted program and was therefore particularly wounded when he didn’t make the cut. I see the reader who never thought about this gifted stuff until someone shared it with her and is a little anxious about whether she belongs. I see the reader who relates to the word “intense” and knows this is related to his social struggles, but feels intimidated around bright people because he’s been shot down so many times by people who didn’t understand his ideas. I see the reader who wants to pour out creation and thinks that this is her gift regardless of her IQ score. I see the reader who is driven to make social change and thinks all this giftedness stuff is a distraction, and maybe even a harmful one, even though sometimes he relates to bits and pieces of it.

I see this as a coherent group of individuals who could make meaningful connections with each other, sometimes because of their differences. The conversation I want to have with all of them is this: how can we harness these various strengths, drives, and intensities and channel them constructively into the larger world, rather than allowing them to cut us off from it—and from each other?

Can Your Toes Touch the Bottom?

Some of our readers will find us as they need the life preserver. I hope we can toss it to them, whether it’s this label of “gifted,” or the notion that disintegration can be positive, or the company of others who understand what it’s like to have so much going on in that imagination, that intellect, those emotions. That’s why we want to find and share stories of others who have been tossed about on the seas of these intensities, and how they eventually made it back to shore. We know we have readers who still fear drowning in the waves. We also know we have readers who have made it back to shore after a lot of hard swimming and have wisdom to share on this note.

It is my hope that all of our intense readers can swim safely out of the riptide and back in through the waves. I hope that we can help them stretch their feet down and find, as their toes stir up the sand, that the water isn’t actually over their heads. As Imi Lo reminded us in our last issue, you are part of the world. As Scott Barry Kaufman told us, the trick is to find a way to be you, as the unique person that you are.

I hope that by truly coming to believe these things, we won’t need to other ourselves. We can feel secure enough to take off the life preserver. To dry off under the warm sunshine.

After all, there’s a whole world waiting on the shore.

Editor in Chief at Third Factor jessie@thirdfactor.org Web Posts

A divergent thinker who can't abide an echo chamber, Jessie has served as assistant to the Consul General of Japan, Google Policy Fellow, and CIA leadership analyst. She is now an independent writer and analyst.