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Career Development for the Gifted

Five challenges which can hinder a gifted person’s career.

The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away. –Pablo Picasso

The most innocent yet damaging career planning assumption for gifted individuals is: “Oh, they’re smart. They’ll figure it out.” This misguided theory is arguably behind the widespread neglect of the career needs of gifted adolescents and adults. A quick search of the literature in this field reveals a paucity of research on career decision-making and career outcomes of gifted individuals, with virtually every article decrying the lack of research and calling for more attention in this area.

Just because someone is “smart” doesn’t mean that their career decision-making and career development will come automatically and smoothly, and there are issues pertinent to gifted adolescents and adults which should be addressed. It’s not unusual for gifted individuals to experience anxiety and frustration in relation to their career. Career self-management is key when facing some of the issues of giftedness in the workplace.

“Giftedness” comes in various shapes and sizes, from individuals who score two standard deviations above then mean IQ of 100, to individuals who demonstrate unique talents in math, music, art, athletics, technology, etc. Some individuals are particularly gifted in the area of emotional intelligence with highly developed sensitivity towards others or strong leadership skills.

Maybe you were diagnosed as gifted in school, or you enrolled in AP classes in high school. Perhaps you were the star athlete or dancer, or began playing in an adult orchestra before you went to high school. If so, you probably received little helpful career guidance, or may have experienced one of the five characteristics of career challenges:

1. Multiple Talents = Multiple Potential

In her blog post, “Multipotentiality: Too Much of a Good Thing?”,Tamara Fisher defines multipotentiality as “the state of having many exceptional talents, any one or more of which could make for a great career for that person.” Determining which (or how many) talents to focus on and develop can be problematic. Multiple talents can make it difficult to describe what one does “best.”

A common complaint about liberal arts college students—that they lack focus or have too many interests—is more likely a complaint about the challenges of their giftedness rather than their choice of curriculum. Gifted individuals often have a rich “network of possible wanderings” (Dr. Herbert Simon)—places their brains can take them because of all their interests, talents, and life experiences. Creative combinations of those interests can lead to richer and rewarding careers. But how do you access this network?

The broad range of talents and interests found in gifted individuals makes the career decision-making process complex. In my work with gifted students (including gifted/ADD or gifted/LD students), I find that mind-mapping techniques that allow them to consider all their “possible lives” can help with focusing. I do an exercise called “Possible Lives Mapping” where I encourage my clients to randomly write down the various careers they have considered throughout their lives and then analyze them for common threads or themes which characterize those choices. We then examine more closely the career choices which “pop” as they create their maps—which ones energize or interest them the most. By doing this we bring some clarity to the chaos of multiple talents and interests, and we often find interesting new career options by combining several fields. For more information on mapping as a means to gain career clarity, see my book, You Majored in What?.

2. Early Emergence of Talent

Another career challenge of gifted individuals noted in the literature is a tendency for a special talent or gift to emerge at a young age—sometimes as young as three years old. Musical, artistic, technical, mechanical and athletic talents often emerge prior to the beginning of formal schooling; literary talents emerge later as the child learns to read and write. In his blog, The Gifted Way, Christopher Coulson recommends that one way to identify key skills or talents as an adult is to think back to your early years—what you did when you were three, for example—and seek out clues for strengths which have continued to this day. How does what you did at age three still reflect who you are?

If you were lucky, you had parents and others who supported your early dreams and talents while providing you with other experiences to create a well-rounded childhood. One potential downside to early talent emergence is that the individual may become so over-focused in that area as to become a one-trick pony, so to speak. Children who are over-focused in one area might become a prodigy or achieve high recognition at a young age (think Olympic athletes) but when they become adults and need to find a career path, their hyper-focused childhood might lead to the lack of well-rounded skill and personality development and become a hindrance.

3. Career Stereotyping and Pressure to Conform

Individuals who are intellectually gifted are often channeled into stereotypical career fields including medicine, engineering, the law, and higher education. There’s a tacit assumption that if you are gifted you need to move into a prestigious, high-paying field which requires years of education. These fields are great career options, of course, but not when chosen by default or pressure. When I meet a doctor and mention that I’m a career counselor I often ask how s/he got into the medical field. More often than not the response is, “Well I was good in science and everyone said I should become a doctor.” This may have been a great decision, or it could be a default decision that doesn’t meet the needs of the individual.

As part of my work with pre-med students at Wake Forest University, I help them develop their essays for medical school, which presents a great way to confront that concern head-on. Writing an essay helps to clarify what they’re doing and why. Bright students can often create an articulate argument for anything, potentially even fooling themselves in the process. The work we do in essay development allows them to more deeply examine their life trajectory to this point—how it has led toward medical school and, quite frankly, where else it might lead given their multiple talents.

Not unlike the challenge for early emergers—the stereotypical career choices for gifted individuals can place them on a career track at an early age and cut off creative thinking about other career fields and opportunities which might better suit their values and personality.

Here’s an exercise to try if you’re concerned that you might have selected a field for stereotypical reasons: Imagine you now have to “apply” to your career field. Write a short essay or journal entry about your field as if someone might be making a decision to let you enter the field. Explain why you have chosen it, why you think you are or would be particularly suited to the field, and what you hope to accomplish. Cite any accomplishments you have already made, and what your plans are in the field for the next five years or so. See what emerges. Are you struggling to work up your enthusiasm? Is your energy going up or down as you think about the next five years? Pay attention—there’s valuable information here. Maybe you need to "apply" to a new field.

Other options for gifted career decision-making can include finding mentors excelling in careers outside the stereotypical fields, and taking the time to “experiment” with a variety of career fields before making a decision.

4. Poor Career Assessment Options

Complementing the stereotypical career choices for gifted individuals is the challenge of career assessment. Whether the assessments measure interests or aptitudes, most are designed with a general population in mind and may not be accurate for individuals with multiple skills and interests. Once you score two standard deviations above the norm in an IQ test, it is likely that a standard career test will not fully test the range of career options you might have. Tests designed to distinguish career interests or aptitudes assume that a pattern will emerge—and sometimes it does, but more likely, gifted individuals with lots of interests will show that they can do “anything.” It’s not unusual for individuals with many interests to score at a high flat level on interest tests, meaning that their results indicate they would be just as pleased with a career in dance as in the law.

I recall taking a government vocational test battery as a class assignment when I was getting my master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling. Designed to identify aptitude for different areas of employment, it involved all sorts of activities from turning pegs on a pegboard to answering vocabulary questions. At the end, several of us had scored at the top on every subtest. The vocational counselor looked at us, shrugged his shoulders and said, “I guess you can do whatever you want.” That was the end of his career advice. Unfortunately, that is a common experience for many gifted students.

One solution is to focus in the area of values. Since a gifted individual is likely multi-talented and would perform well in a variety of settings, establishing what values they hold or what careers would provide “meaning” might be a better avenue to explore than aptitude or interest. It’s not uncommon for gifted individuals to value autonomy for example—and it’s not uncommon to be stuck in a workplace which doesn’t support that value.

Clearly identifying your values may help you make better decisions about your current and future career paths. Many gifted individuals are pulled toward humanitarian or societal causes where they can effect change, as well as intellectual activities or environments where they can ponder and solve problems. The VIA Test, developed by Dr. Martin Seligman, is a free online test which can help you identify important values.

5. Perfectionism and the Curse of “Potential”

There’s a classic Peanuts cartoon showing Linus exclaiming, “There’s no heavier burden than a great potential.” Many gifted students identify with this. My students and adult clients often report an unfocused general “pressure” always with them. They often wonder if the career field they have selected is good enough—if it really takes advantage of their talents. Throughout their younger years they always felt they needed to be the best. Whether the pressure came from outside or whether they pushed themselves, they almost never let themselves off the hook. Carrying this pressure into one's adult life can lead to burnout and other stress-related illnesses or addictions.

Some clients report that part of the reason they honed their skills in such a focused arena is that they were comfortable with their (easy) success in this area—that if they experimented into other areas they might not excel so quickly or easily and they didn’t want to “fail.” As a result, those early stereotyped career fields presented a path of least resistance where they knew they would receive external support.

There are lots of books and helpful guidance for individuals struggling with perfectionism. Two writers who are especially helpful in dealing with perfectionism are Dr. David Burns and Steven Pressfield.

More to come

There’s a lot more to cover in this area, and in future blog posts I will cover career issues with giftedness in greater depth.

©2015 Katharine S. Brooks. All rights reserved. Find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo credit: Jinterwas "Wisdom is Knowing When to Say I'm Sorry." From flickr/Creative Commons.