Third Factor: The Origin Story

Alexis Obernauer / March 29, 2022

As we work to take this magazine and community to the next level, our strategist Alexis Obernauer wanted to reflect on where this project came from. So she sat down to chat with founder and editor in chief Jessie Mannisto. Here’s the result!

Our editorial team has a pile of ideas about how to grow our magazine and community. As we work behind the scenes to develop them, our strategist Alexis Obernauer thought it would be useful to reflect on where this project came from, so she sat down to chat with founder and editor in chief Jessie Mannisto. This conversation was the result. Enjoy!

Alexis Obernauer: I know you have many things you want to do in life, so why did you decide to start an online magazine about the theory of positive disintegration (TPD)?

Jessie Mannisto: Because it’s so timely and useful! Kazimierz Dabrowski came up with frames that make sense of so much of what I’m seeing in the world. The problem is that they’re not well known enough to use.

Here’s just one example: when I was an activist, I thought, wow, Dabrowski’s levels of development shed such a useful light on the people in our organization. The concepts point to the needs that drive people to become activists—and why some were more effective than others. 

I explained Dabrowski’s levels to others in our organization, and they were intrigued. They wanted to learn more. But there weren’t any easy-to-understand online resources for people who want to explore Dabrowski’s ideas the way there are for, say, Jung’s or Maslow’s. So I saw that I’d have to create what I needed from scratch.

AO: Why did you decide on a magazine format?

JM: The initial spark for the magazine came to me while I was sitting at a round table in a conference hall at the 2016 Dabrowski Congress in Calgary. A former grad student of Dabrowski’s was giving a presentation. I thought his talk was interesting, but my companions at the table didn’t feel the same way. These were parents whose kids attended local gifted programs that talked about the theory of positive disintegration. But even though they’d heard of the theory, the talk still wasn’t landing. “Why does this even matter to me? What am I supposed to do with this?” I remember one parent saying, with his friends nodding along.

Image by crystal710 from Pixabay
Image by crystal710 from Pixabay

Then one of those parents turned to me and asked, “What about this theory made you fly from Washington, DC for this conference?” It was as I was trying to explain that the idea for a magazine came to me. Rather than just a personal blog (which I already had), the magazine would ideally bring lots of voices together. It would allow for many perspectives, illustrating the concepts better than one person’s examples ever could. I also realized that we’d have to get simple hooks out there where all these intellectually and emotionally intense people were mindlessly scrolling. And it needed to be shareable.

The idea stayed with me for a long time after that. I didn’t start it until two years later. But I wanted to do something to help promote these ideas that I found so useful. Plus, the role of magazine editor was close to what I did in my day job at the time. As an intelligence analyst, I read page after page after page of intel traffic and then I distilled it down to what mattered to busy policymakers in simple—not simplistic—language that they could easily understand. Like policymakers, those people sitting with me at that conference table were intelligent. They could understand jargon, if they wanted. But they had a lot competing for their attention, and they didn’t know why this was worth their time. As we would say in the intel business, they were missing the “So what?” If you want your analysis to get put in front of busy policymakers, the “So what?” has to be crystal clear, with the bottom line up front.

Those people sitting with me were intelligent, but they had a lot competing for their attention, and they didn’t know why learning about this theory was worth their time. They were missing the “So what?”

Jessie Mannisto

It was clear to me that Dabrowski’s work had a “So what?”—though to this day I struggle to give an elevator pitch for Third Factor. (I’m getting better at this as we figure out our niche.) I do know that it’s easier to share in small doses, through individual articles, which is another benefit of the magazine format. Not all of our articles even talk about TPD, and that’s by design. It’s always there in the foundation if you look for it, but it’s not always explicit. I’m not satisfied with where we are in this respect, but thanks to reader feedback, we’re getting there. (Thank you to everyone in the community who has given us constructive criticism.)

My most general “So what?” is this: overexcitable people shape our culture, both for better and for worse. The “better” unfolds through the psychological forces that Dabrowski called dynamisms. So I think we need a space for people with active intellects, deep emotions, and vivid imaginations to compare notes. To discuss what the higher path looks like! We can get on it more quickly when people engage with us in good faith. I’m betting this will help overexcitable people untangle their intellects and emotions and sort out their values. (That, by the way, is the dynamism Dabrowski called “hierarchization.”) With the Internet turning our relationships and our politics upside down, we need a place to discuss positive and negative maladjustment—and how to tell the negative from the positive. Some of us (maybe most of us) do this best through conversation, and the magazine format can help with that.

My most general “So what?” is this: overexcitable people shape our culture, both for better and for worse. The “better” unfolds through the psychological forces that Dabrowski called dynamisms.

Jessie Mannisto

I know that’s still very abstract. Making it less so is precisely our task! We’ve got to break this big idea into lots of article-size “so whats,” then get them in places where the right people would stumble upon them. Third Factor Magazine is my attempt to do so.

AO: How did you originally find the theory yourself?

JM: Ah, like so many, it was through a Google search related to giftedness, though it was tongue-in-cheek. See, I was feeling bored and frustrated as I tried to launch my career. I was working at the Consulate of Japan in Detroit at the time. There I was surrounded by interesting people—diplomats!—doing interesting things, but as an American staff member, there was only so much I could do. I had to get into my own country’s civil service if I wanted to do that kind of work. And in fact, I had put the effort in; I’d managed to get selected for a federal government hiring program, but then Congress put a hiring freeze and I wasn’t able to get a placement. And so I found myself working for the Japanese government instead, watching other people do the sort of work I’d so wanted to do. I’d be managing the consul general’s schedule, and my mind would be spinning with ideas that had no outlet in my role. I wanted to be able to devote that energy to my career instead of having to squelch it, because it got to the point that squelching it was making me physically uncomfortable. (I hadn’t previously had a problem with psychomotor overexcitability, but suddenly, there it was!) Intellectual engagement was the one thing I knew I wanted out of my career.

Image by fizkes from iStock

So, one day, not having much work to do while my boss was traveling, I googled “gifted adults” after a flippant, passing thought along the lines of, “They told me that if I worked hard and achieved in school, then I could finally do intellectually engaging work, but that turns out to be really hard to come by. Are other grown-up gifted kids having this problem?”

And that was how I found the theory of positive disintegration, because it gets talked about in gifted education. And I’m like, “Wait, what is this?” I bought a copy of Living With Intensity and I highlighted it in like six different colors and scrawled notes all over the margins.

AO: Why did the theory resonate so much with your journey? It wasn’t just that you were frustrated at a boring job, was it?

JM: No, no, not at all. That story about how I discovered the theory doesn’t show what actually captured my attention about it! Our careers are just one place where positive maladjustment can show up—one place that’s probably common for over-educated people who thought their job would fulfill them or help them change the world. But when you start pulling at that thread—What do I want to do and why? How can I do that? Is there even a need for it? What should I de-prioritize or even sacrifice to get to it?—then you start seeing other things unravel, beyond careers.

Our careers are just one place where positive maladjustment can show up. But when you start pulling at that thread, then you start seeing other things unravel.

Jessie Mannisto

To actually answer your question is hard to do in the space of this interview, because it would require telling several stories in depth. I want the magazine to be a place to tell those stories! To illustrate the concepts I’ve found so useful. But let me give it a shot in a really condensed format, even though it’ll be abstract.

First off, like so many, I was drawn to the positive framing of overexcitability. Some people have called me “too much” at various points in my life. But then, I’ve also gotten feedback that this “too muchness” was also related to my strengths. And how much of this was just being Midwestern and female, from a family with working class roots? It can be tough to find useful guidance.

I think this is why I liked Michael Piechowski’s profiles of Dabrowskian exemplars so much. The stories of people like Eleanor Roosevelt and Dag Hammarskjold helped me find courage and confidence. Of course, the key was learning to trust myself. It was all about acting in line with the autonomous factor of development—also known in TPD as the third factor. So I adore stories of intense people going through positive disintegration—they’re like the mentors I never found in person—but they’re like training wheels; the ultimate goal is to trust my values will guide me right, without so much self-doubt.

On that note, I have some level II left in me; I think most intense people do, going back and forth under social pressures and not knowing which way is higher. Then there’s early level III: that’s the stage when a person perceives higher and lower paths but doesn’t always follow them. That leads to dissatisfaction with oneself, which in TPD is a dynamism—Dabrowski’s word for a force for personality shaping. From this explanation, you can probably see why I’ve made courage a major theme here at Third Factor.

And then, the key to all of this—to fixing those places where we’re stuck in level II and early III—is being able to identify your values and put them into a hierarchy. This helps you determine whether your maladjustment is actually positive or not. Once you’ve sorted out your values, you can follow your autonomous third factor with a lot more confidence.

The key to all of this—to fixing those places where we’re stuck in level II and early III—is being able to identify your values and put them into a hierarchy.

Jessie Mannisto

AO: What do you think is the biggest misconception about the theory of positive disintegration?

JM: It seems to me that there are a lot.

One is the mistaken belief that, in TPD, overexcitability is always good. I’ve met people who seem to believe (or to want to believe) that having OE means they have developmental potential, and that this makes them superior. From the outside, that looks like an attempt to shield themselves from their own weaknesses. And that’s the opposite of what we should take from the theory! Most of us feel dissatisfaction with ourselves, but you have to face it, not hide from it. One thing I’d like to make clear is that I don’t agree with any elitist application of TPD.

I also think the theory is much more broadly applicable than most people think. It’s certainly not just for the people who get labeled “gifted.” Dabrowski said that some people who have especially strong innate traits leading them toward autonomous development—that is, a strong third factor—will tend to experience positive disintegration.

But he also said that for people with a moderately strong third factor, the environment will determine whether they experience positive disintegration or not. It looks to me like the modern world is tilting more and more people in that direction. That’s why I think we need a term like “positive maladjustment” and a framework for sorting out whether maladjustment is positive or negative. I think it’s especially relevant to the Internet’s impact on human relationships and well-being and culture. I’m already connecting with a lot of Gen Z, iGen young adults who are experiencing these dynamisms. There’s an epidemic of disintegration happening; the question is how much of it will be positive.

Dabrowski said that for those with a moderate amount of this innate autonomous impulse, the environment will determine whether they experience positive disintegration or not. It looks to me like the modern world is tilting more and more people in that direction.

Jessie Mannisto

AO: What have been some of the biggest challenges in turning the theory into a magazine?

JM: Oh, wow, where to begin?

One challenge is just that the project is so big. And let me tell you, you learn a lot about yourself when you take full responsibility for a big project! The project sinks or swims based on what I bring to the table, which really highlights my own weaknesses. Add that to an all-volunteer “staff” that I built mostly by connecting with strangers on the Internet. I need help, but our meager Patreon is nowhere near enough to offer meaningful compensation to people. I’m looking for professionalism, but that’s a big ask when you are not paying people professionally.

Photo by Adomas Aleno on Unsplash

I want to thank you and Ilana explicitly. It’s been so rewarding to work with both of you, to be part of a team that really gets what this is about. With your ability to come in here and seeing what’s missing that I just can’t see, you’ve raised the quality of this project leaps and bounds. (Everyone needs an editor, including professional editors!) And Ilana has helped me see my own weaknesses as a manager and helped me come up with strategies to overcome them. So I have found the right help—and that’s huge.

But then, I was thinking about challenges in general, but you specifically asked about challenges realted to the theory. I touched on one earlier, which is that I know I still slip into jargon. Some people in the TPD community think I’ve gone too far in the opposite direction. As they’re fond of noting, Dabrowski once said that if the theory were put into easier language, it wouldn’t be his theory. As a professional editor, I respectfully disagree. If the ideas are sound, then they should hold up if we explain them in different ways. But I’m still influenced by that view, since many of the people I originally engaged with to learn about the theory hold that belief. So then my actual target audience tells me they still don’t follow and that I’m erring too much toward pleasing people who aren’t our audience at all. (After all, what do I have to teach Dabrowski scholars? I’m not a professor myself.)

One more challenge is that I don’t want to be an echo chamber, but you have to market to your niche. This is a tricky balance beam to walk, especially when your audience is emotionally overexcitable! And I also want to meet the need for intellectual exploration that comes with intellectual OE. So we have to gradually try to win a certain type of perop over. They’re the ones who value engaging with those who see things differently than they do, who don’t want to be in an echo chamber, and who might have big emotions but can handle them skillfully. That means not catering to the people who are emotionally immature to the point that they expect no one ever to say anything that upsets them.

AO: What has been your favorite article to write or publish?

JM: My favorite is the opposite of click-bait, but it’s one that I promote a lot in the hopes of finding kindred spirits who like it. That’s my two-part biography of Robert F. Kennedy. I explain why it matters to me more in the beginning of the article, but basically, I saw TPD unfold in his biography before I’d ever even heard of TPD. And when I did hear of it, I remembered RFK’s story and was like, “Oh! That’s what Bobby Kennedy went through!” If you like TPD but haven’t read it yet, I hope you’ll give it a chance.

But there are lots of runners-up. Really, I always love when people share their own stories. My husband Max’s twoparter is another favorite, but then, he’s my husband so of course I like him and his story! I like biographies in general—Krystyna Laycraft’s twoparter on Marie Curie is another great one that illustrates the theory. Scott Barry Kaufman’s criticism of certain strains of gifteness/OE discourse and labeling, that’s another high point—especially since he expected me to not like what he had to say and instead I was like, “No, you’re exactly right! These are the problems in Dabrowskiland and we need to overcome them!”

And now I have to stop before I mention every single article, because they’re all here because I thought they were worth it.

AO: Which articles have been viewed the most? Why do you think that is?

JM: My first interview with Sue Jackson, on therapy for the highly gifted, was our first big hit. I was thrilled when Sue granted me an interview—she was one of the experts whose work so affected me in Living With Intensity. So I started with the basics. That piece has stayed popular because it fits a need—the mental health concerns of highly intellectually able people, people who are very abstract intense. That was our first piece to go viral.

Then came another article a few months later that hit the same niche from a different angle—The Confusing Life of Being Too Different. Dr. Roland Persson hit on a core reality that was an early anchor for Third Factor: if you’re different, you have to make do with the cards you were dealt. I sandpapered the message slightly in later articles by encouraging people to also ask, are you really as different as you think you are? Sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes it’s no. But when it’s yes, you have to make peace with that, and Roland’s article is about that.

Image by Lor Sk from Pixabay

More recently, we have Katherine Burnham’s article about discovering the theory of positive disintegration through a piece I wrote about gender dysphoria and overexcitability (which is also one of our most viewed articles). After reading my piece, Katherine framed her gender transition and detransition as a positive disintegration, talking about how the theory has helped her and would have helped her even more if she’d found it earlier. What’s striking about that one is that it rocketed into our top-five most viewed articles in less than a month. That one really hit a nerve.

AO: What major Third Factor initiatives are you working toward in the next 1-3 years?

JM: Our readers tell us they want to connect with others over what they find here. So our team—you and Ilana and me, plus some wonderful new community volunteers—are working to develop ways to help them connect meaningfully. And of course, we also want to offer thought-provoking, helpful perspectives and ideas to abstract-intense readers, so we’re always trying to figure out how better to do that.

Our current core projects spring from the intersection between those two goals. We’re going to be doing a lot more with live Zoom connections, in small and large groups—some more structured, some less. Some will be run in a peer-to-peer style, while in other cases, we may develop workshops run by experts. But what excites me the most is creating a place where our community members get to know each other enough to help each other channel their intensities and sort out their values, not as experts or online randos, but the way friends help each other. We need that in an age when people socialize online so much. (Of course, creating offline Third Factor groups would be even better. We’ll do that if and when we can!)

For those readers who are recoiling because I mentioned Zoom, let me reassure those people that Third Factor will always be grounded in the articles. I’ve put aside some deep dive research I’ve been wanting to do while we’ve focused on getting the community up and running. Now that it’s taking off, I’m looking forward to researching and writing articles that, I hope, our readers will find valuable as they sort out their values and live their own third factor-led lives.

Header image by mixetto (iStock)

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