Transcending Labels An Interview with Scott Barry Kaufman

If there’s one author I repeatedly recommend to Third Factor readers, it’s Scott Barry Kaufman. He’s got expertise on so much we discuss here: in Ungifted, he explored the ways different groups define giftedness; in Wired to Create, he dives into traits common to creative people; and in his brand new Transcend, which we reviewed last month, he explores the lifelong journey of self-actualization, offering concrete steps we can take toward growth, no matter where we are in our personal journeys. He has received awards from the likes of the American Psychological Association and Mensa International for his research on creativity and intelligence, and Business Insider named him to a list of fifty scientists who are changing the world for his work “redefining the way we measure human intelligence.”

I was therefore thrilled to sit down and talk to him ahead of the release of Transcend. Given his familiarity with of our favorite topics, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Kaufman also happens to be well versed in Kazimierz Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration (TPD). And given his work in the fields of intelligence and gifted education, he’s quite familiar with how the theory is used—and how it’s misused.

Unpacking Overexcitability and IQ

To bring us all onto the same starting point, let’s take a look at an excerpt from one of Dabrowski’s books. This excerpt, as I told Dr. Kaufman, describes the audience we had in mind when we launched Third Factor. Here, have a read:

When one studies the life histories of writers, composers, artists, scientists, one is struck by the fact that from early childhood they manifest an enhanced mode of reacting to the world around them. Furthermore, their enhanced reactivity is coupled with intensified experiencing in cognitive, imaginational, and emotional areas. One observes a similar pattern in gifted and creative children and youth (Dabrowski, 1972). In tracing the development of such individuals it becomes quite clear that in those cases where development reaches toward universal human values, i.e. values which persist across epochs and cultures, emotional factors play a dominant role. They appear as internal conflicts, striving through anxieties and depressions for true empathy and genuine concern for others, striving for unique and exclusive bonds of love and friendship, desperate search for the meaning of human existence, or a desperate search for God not as an abstraction or institutionalized father figure, but as a personally felt living presence. (Dabrowski, 1996)

You can probably see how this passage offers comfort to bright, sensitive, creative people who might also be struggling. Perhaps you even relate. But as Kaufman noted, research has progressed since Dabrowski’s day. And there’s a lot lumped together in this passage that researchers today would stop and untangle.

“I see a lot of people in the gifted community really drawing a lot on those concepts that you just read, and Dabrowski’s OEs as they call them—the five overexcitabilities,” Kaufman told me. “My reaction is that it’s very poetic sounding, but empirically, it’s important to separate things out from each other. In modern day language, you can link all those OEs to openness to experience, which I’ve been studying for twenty years. It has multiple aspects or components to it.”

In fact, Kaufman had tweeted a perfect example of his relevant work on this subject as I was preparing for our talk.

In his 2013 scholarly journal article, “Opening up Openness to Experience: A Four-Factor Model and Relations to Creative Achievement in the Arts and Sciences,” Kaufman gives us examples of many ways we might dive into the five domains of overexcitability and parse them even further.  For instance, while explicit cognitive ability is correlated with intellectual engagement, they are not the same thing; moreover, the correlation between the two is only “moderate.” Meanwhile, affective engagement is also correlated—but again, only moderately—with the first two. The same is true for aesthetic engagement.  As the paper goes on to conclude:

This finding is consistent with prior research showing that Intellect is a larger construct consisting of both the ability and drive to engage in complex problem solving and reasoning (DeYoung, 2011; DeYoung et al.,2007; Stanovich, 2009; Stanovich & West, 2000). The essence of the Intellectual Engagement factor appears to be a drive to engage in complex ideas, rational thought, and the search for “truth” (Johnson, 1994), and this form of engagement is at least partially separable from explicit cognitive ability.

This research backs up those overexcitability scholars who have noted elsewhere that intellectual OE is not the same thing as being “smart”; rather, it’s what Kaufman’s study is describing here as intellectual engagement. If this were the only way TPD is being used clumsily, it would be a smaller matter; a question of definition, but not of purpose. But Kaufman offered another critique that speaks more to the second point.

What Can the Theory of Positive Disintegration Offer?

“People in the giftedness community focus on a very narrow part of the theory [of positive disintegration],” he continued, “and not even the part that’s most complex or even relevant to giftedness.” The subject of the narrow focus Kaufman was referring to is, of course, overexcitability—a construct that has been embraced by parts of the gifted community (and scorned as a response by other parts).

You’ll see it said that gifted people feel things more deeply than other people in the world. […] Where’s the empirical evidence that because someone has a higher IQ score, they feel more deeply, or that they’re more imaginative, or they care more about truth and justice?

Scott Barry Kaufman

As I talked to Dr. Kaufman, it seemed likely to me that overexcitability was a construct he’d relate to. (“As you can tell, I have overexcitabilities!” he added later in our conversation.) His intellectual engagement, drive, and passion for both justice and personal growth are apparent when he speaks. And the notion that bright people necessarily feel more deeply than others clearly stirred up his strong feelings, even as he signaled he did not want to step on mine:

“I think it’s so silly when I see people saying—and this may go against what you believe; I’m sorry if I’m trodding on deeply held feelings here—you’ll see it said that gifted people feel things more deeply than other people in the world,” he said. “I think these memes are really horrible! They aren’t really true in any meaningful way. Where’s the empirical evidence that because someone has a higher IQ score, they feel more deeply, or that they’re more imaginative, or they care more about truth and justice?”

As I assured him, this did not step on any of my beliefs. The passage from Dabrowski above is indeed a poetic portrait, and a nice frame for your own life story if you’ve grown up seeing yourself as an oversensitive misfit. But to the extent it stands up to the present day, it is only a rough, impressionistic landscape of creative people’s path through disintegration, of the type that might (though we can’t guarantee it) be positive.

And part of the reason we can hope for disintegration to be positive is that, through growth-oriented practices like subject-object in oneself, we can see where we need to take responsibility for our own growth and start putting in the necessary effort to make it so.

“We need to separate out the different elements,” Kaufman reiterated. “Dabrowski was right that there are individual differences. Some sensitivity can be psychologically damaging. Vulnerable narcissism corresponds to sensitivity! But then there’s also sensitivity to beauty. And that’s different from sensitivity to the truth. Imagination and intelligence or intellectual giftedness—these are only moderately correlated with each other.”

The Dangers of Telling Yourself You Have Developmental Potential

I was glad that Kaufman brought up vulnerable narcissism, because I’d jotted down some questions for him about that after reading Transcend. Those scoring high in vulnerable narcissism, as Kaufman writes in Transcend, “are concerned about receiving approval and validation from others while avoiding the consequences of not appearing perfect.” (75)

And if I may be frank, it describes something we see from time to time in the gifted and positive disintegration communities. It certainly doesn’t describe everyone in that community; and it also describes something that a person may grow out of; but it is there.

As regular readers will know, we launched Third Factor to reach the group of people, often but not always falling under the “gifted” umbrella, who could benefit from looking at their life through the lens of Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration. The theory, of course, includes the idea that only a small group of people have what Dabrowski called “developmental potential”—i.e., the capacity to go through a disintegrative episode and reintegrate at a “higher level.”

And to be sure, speaking for myself here, I do still think that trying on the word “gifted” can have some benefit to certain adults—people who truly think they are flawed messes and have never framed certain traits as potentially positive. In that sense, the G-word can be a life preserver in a time when you’re drowning, as I argue in a separate article in this issue.

Unfortunately, in some cases, “gifted” and “developmental potential” become fuel for a superiority complex—or at least what looks to others like one. That projection of superiority, of course, is actually more like a fragile sheet of tinfoil that a wounded person is holding up to try to shield themselves from the harshness of the world. Or, to use Kaufman’s sailboat metaphor from Transcend, it’s like trying to raise the sail of the ship of self-actualization while the hull has a gaping hole.

“Vulnerable narcissism is a deep insecurity, fear of rejection,” Kaufman said when he spoke to me. “It’s not really fodder for growth. If you spend all your time defending yourself, you never move forward, like the boat metaphor.”

Overcoming the Dangers and Fixing Your Sailboat

And that’s the thing about the theory of positive disintegration: it’s about striving for growth. And so, if someone’s built a shield out of the notion of having Dabrowskian developmental potential or a high IQ, how might they put down that shield? To patch the holes in their sailboats’ hulls and sail out to sea, truly engaging the drive for exploration that, as Kaufman asserts in Transcend, is fundamental to their growth and well-being?

Some sensitivity can be psychologically damaging. […] If you spend all your time defending yourself, you never move forward.

Scott Barry Kaufman

As it happens, this is just the sort of issue that Kaufman wrote his latest book to help address. “Do the questionnaire,” he said—in the case of vulnerable narcissism, there’s one on page 66 of Transcend; you can probably also find some online—“then do the exercises in the back of the book.” Appendix II contains a wealth of what it calls “Growth Challenges.” If vulnerable narcissism isn’t your particular challenge, don’t worry: there will be something there to help you grow, too, whether it’s facing your fears, challenging cognitive distortions, practicing healthy assertiveness, developing your signature strengths, finding your ikigai, or many others.

In other words, we’ve all got something we can work on.

Having looked through the activities (and we’re going to be doing them as a group over in the Third Factor Discussion Forum over the coming months!), it strikes me that a lot of these are also exercises in the Dabrowskian dynamisms subject-object in oneself and in hierarchization: recognizing the truth about oneself, seeing higher and lower paths, and attempting—though it takes hard work and resolve—to pursue the higher one.

So, for those who have used developmental potential or giftedness as a shield, what higher paths could they aim at instead?

“People who score high on narcissism, their brains process information in relation to the self,” Kaufman explained to me, whereas “the transcenders that Maslow was talking about, if you read the full list of characteristics, these are individuals who are motivated by B-values as ends in themselves—justice, truth, beauty, and all of those.” (Maslow contrasted B-values, short for being values, with deficiency values or D-values, such as belonging, respect, and safety.)

“Transcenders also yearn for peak experiences and plateau experiences—beautiful moments that make life worth living,” Kaufman continued. “All of that takes you outside yourself in a lot of ways. It’s as different from narcissism as it could be!”

What’s Beneath the G-Word?

Kaufman has worked hard to get us to think differently about intelligence and the construct known as giftedness. In his book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, he guides the reader through the history of intelligence, IQ, and learning disabilities, presenting many competing schools of thought and how they’ve each sought to define the term “gifted.” All of this is poignantly woven together with his own experience as a kid who gravitated to the gifted program and the kids in it, even as he was banished to special education after doing poorly on an IQ test. In the epilogue, he recounts going back to thank his special education teacher—after completing his PhD at Yale—for asking him what he was still doing in special education and believing he had something to offer. Kaufman has gone on to advocate for the needs of what we now recognize as “twice-exceptional” students—that is, those who have both high intellectual potential and a learning disability.

Given his experience, I was curious about what Kaufman thought of the way the term “gifted” is used, especially by adults.

No one owes you resources—and that’s where you get into vulnerable narcissism. You stop taking responsibility for yourself and your own power to steer your life the way you want.

Scott Barry Kaufman

“Giftedness is a label that’s used in school, to give kids resources that they need,” he replied. “But what does it mean when you’re an adult? No one owes you resources—and that’s where you get into vulnerable narcissism. You stop taking responsibility for yourself and your own power to steer your life the way you want.”

“I think transcenders wouldn’t refer to themselves as gifted,” he continued. “There are certain reasons why someone as an adult would feel the need to use that label to be the core of their identity. It’s usually because other things in their lives aren’t giving them satisfaction. If that’s all there is to your identity—that you’re an intelligent being—well, you’re still gonna be likely to lack the stuff that the rest of us humans need, like meaning and purpose and all the needs I talk about. So there’s great value in viewing your whole self as more than just one aspect of yourself.”

But, as I interjected, there is something there beneath the G-word that even a healthy adult might have cause to refer to. Is there a word, I asked, that Kaufman thinks is more useful?

“You just have to be clear what you’re talking about,” he replied. “I’ve long thought about that—anyone can join nerd culture! To join Mensa, you need a certain IQ, but why do you need a certain IQ to enjoy intellectual challenges? I would much more like an inclusive spirit.”

“A lot of people in the gifted community are so fragile,” he continued. “They have a knee-jerk reaction to ‘all children are gifted.’ There needs to be a little bit of humility—there are some aspects of it that are inherently exclusionary. You can’t just say we’re all about inclusivity and all these buzzwords of the day when they’re so charged with exclusionary connotations.”

The Limits of Labels

If you really want to be a transcender, get to the point where you don’t have any label. […] Can’t you just be a unique person who has a unique set of drives and motives, and no one else in the world has that set of motives?

Scott Barry Kaufman

Kaufman, as I noted, is an expert in twice-exceptionality, having lived it as a child and worked to support twice-exceptional children as an adult. But what about adults who are finding new understanding of themselves through the term “twice-exceptional?”

This, by the way, was the question that spurred Kaufman to note with a laugh his own overexcitability, as it clearly stirred up his passion for growth and transcendence. “What does any of this stuff mean? What will it mean 400,000 years from now? I always go to the existential level for everything,” he said. “We have to step outside of ourselves and not get so caught up in these identities. This is the point of what Maslow said. The point is a bridge to transcendence. Its function is to erase itself eventually. If you really want to be a transcender, get to the point where you don’t have any label. Just stop with the freaking labels! Do you have to be gifted? Do you have to be ADHD? Do you have to be autistic? Can’t you just be a unique person who has a unique set of drives and motives, and no one else in the world has that set of motives? So bring your unique self into existence—and then raise existence!”

Theories Are Many, Truth Is One

Ideally, Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration is about doing just that—bringing your unique self into existence, in the hopes that by doing so, you’ll help raise existence for all of us. In Transcend, Kaufman introduces us to another theory with a similar ultimate aspiration: Abraham Maslow’s Theory Z. In this passage from a journal entry, Maslow wrote about a conversation he’d had with his friend Henry Murray, the founder of personology:

I told him [i.e. Henry Murray] of my new discovery. . . . The B-person may be more symptom-loaded and have more value pathology than the symptom-free “healthies.” Maybe one is symptom free only by virtue of not knowing or caring about the B-realm, never having experienced the B-realm in the highest peaks (now that must be changed also . . .). Having value-pathology symptoms is “higher” (& B-healthier?) than being symptom-free. . . . Value pathologies can be a very high achievement. And one can respect profoundly those in whom one can see—through the symptoms of frustrated idealism—the beautiful B-realm that they are reaching for and may therefore get to. . . . The ones who are struggling & reaching upward really have a better prognosis than the ones who rest perfectly content at the [self-actualization] level. . . . (I’ve really been touting value pathology & singing its praises!) (quoted in Kaufman 2020, p. 219)

At this point, in the margins of my copy of Transcend, I scribbled “positive disintegration!” So naturally, I had to follow this up with a question. Kaufman knows both Maslow’s and Dabrowski’s ideas well. In his eyes, what are some of the key themes that jump out in both of their theories?

“There’s a great confluence with Theory Z as well as other theories positing a higher order nature to humans,” he told me. “I really like the idea of suffering and struggle, and even periods of inactivity as being good fodder for growth, for the eventual possibility for putting yourself back together and what you put yourself back together as. Your whole person is better than it was before, and you reconfigure your priorities.

“Maslow described Theory Z transcenders as those who were ‘beyond health,’ and I like that,” Kaufman continued, echoing Dabrowski’s assertion that sometimes what others call mental unhealth is actually a positive, developmental experience. “They may be really frustrated. There’s what he calls ‘the cosmic sadness.’ That doesn’t mean that you don’t have feelings of happiness, but it does mean that you’re unhappy about the things that matter in life—as opposed to being happy and not caring about the things that actually matter.

I really like the idea of suffering and struggle, and even periods of inactivity as being good fodder for growth, for the eventual possibility for putting yourself back together and what you put yourself back together as. Your whole person is better than it was before, and you reconfigure your priorities.

Scott Barry Kaufman

“Maslow talked about transcending and non-transcending self-actualizers,” he explained. “You can self-actualize and fulfill your individual potential and think that’s everything in life. But until you help fulfill humanity’s potential….

“It’s not being above the rest of humanity, but about being as deeply engaged with humanity as you are with yourself.”

As our conversation wrapped up, I threw out there that I hoped Third Factor could do a little bit to help those who want to be transcenders—who do want to engage with humanity, though they’re still dealing with their D-needs as much as their B-needs, to use Maslow’s language. Or, to come back to Dabrowski’s, those who may at present be going through the early stages of disintegration—in which they may be doing a lot of inward-focused work—but who are striving to come out the other end of that and figure out a healthy way to help engage with humanity and the world. And he had this to say:

“I just want to throw in that I think, what I’ve tried to do with Maslow, you’re trying to do with Dabrowski. We both have a very similar mission, which is to help people get really deeply in touch with their highest nature, and use it for good in the world. I think you’re doing a really great job.”

To that, I can only echo the thanks I gave him when we spoke, not only for his time and his kind words, but for furthering so many truly important discussions.

And thank you, readers, for being here and working on this with us. If you’d like to join us in discussing Transcend—and in working through the exercises in the appendix—we’re still early in our discussion as this article goes to press. Come and join us!

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.