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How Does Your Giftedness Affect Your Career?

Ten traits of gifted individuals in the workplace.

In my previous post, Career Development for the Gifted , I identified some key issues related to giftedness and career decision-making. Unfortunately, choosing the right career is just the beginning: managing your career path (including your supervisor and workplace) can also be challenging for gifted workers. And managers who supervise gifted workers need to keep their needs in mind: no organization can afford to lose its talented workers.

Let’s start with the basics. Giftedness is no guarantee of career success and it’s not unusual for gifted individuals to struggle in their careers. A famous longitudinal study by Terman started in the 1920’s documented the challenges of gifted individuals in the workplace, finding that extraordinary intellectual ability did not always translate into meaningful or productive work lives. Character traits such as persistence and willpower were more indicative of success among the gifted subjects than a greater IQ. The body of research on emotional intelligence bears this finding out.

A more recent longitudinal study at Vanderbilt University noted a high career success rate overall among its gifted subjects, but found that gifted men and women defined success differently, resulting in different career paths and signals of accomplishment such as salary level. You can read the full paper here . Intellectual or creative giftedness, then, is just one aspect of your overall career success.

The good news is that today’s economy offers more potential for rewarding careers for highly skilled and intelligent workers. But what settings provide the most career satisfaction for gifted workers? And what are the traits of gifted workers that need to be considered to ensure greater career satisfaction?

In a Swedish study surveying 287 Mensa members, Dr. Roland Persson found that while gifted individuals (not surprisingly) often pursued careers related to technology and science, many of those individuals reported only average job satisfaction. (He noted that many science-related careers can get bogged down by office politics or conservative thinking in the science community.) The highest satisfaction was reported by individuals who had leadership or management roles and/or those who developed their own businesses. Workplace characteristics which produced dissatisfaction included poor compensation, limited promotion opportunities, monotonous work, and positions which didn’t use their talents. The study noted: “You need to be allowed to be gifted to excel.” ( p.13 ) Workplace characteristics which allowed gifted workers to excel included challenging situations that drew on their ability to make decisions. Freedom, variety and autonomy are highly valued by gifted workers.

Identifying a key element of creativity and autonomy, blogger James Clear writes, “Smart people should invent things.”

Certain traits of gifted individuals can cause strained relationships with supervisors and colleagues. In their article, " Gifted Adults in Work ” published in the Journal for Occupational and Insurance Physicians and reprinted online by SENG , Noks Nauta and Frans Corten present an interesting chart highlighting the difference between what is observed in the environment and the perception of the gifted employee. For example, according to Nauta and Corten, the working environment notices that the gifted individual has “Many conflicts with management and authorities” while the gifted employee states, “I have a great sense of justice.”

Corten also noted interesting parallels between gifted workers and creative workers stating that the typical “follow the leader” management model is too intrusive and can squelch their creativity.

A work environment which stifles creativity and doesn’t allow for individual style differences can be particularly challenging to the gifted worker. In my own work with gifted adults I find the desire to make better use of their talents and interests is the most common reason for wanting to start their own businesses. They often state that their traditional work environment (whether in business, education, goverment, or nonprofit settings) sets up too many roadblocks to their creativity.

Following is a list of traits I have collected based on my work with adult gifted clients (many with Ph.D.’s or other advanced degrees). If you suspect that your giftedness presents unique workplace challenges for you, see if you identify with anything on this list. ( Please note: this is NOT a test of giftedness; it’s simply a list of self-reported characteristics from gifted individuals. Their giftedness might be intellectually-based or based in unusually strong creative talents.)

Gifted workers…

1. Often feel restless or bored —especially in meetings. They report checking out mentally at meetings and doodling or working on other projects to make better use of their time. (This, unfortunately, can be noticed by colleagues and supervisors and lead to negative reviews.)

2. Are quick learners and trend-spotters who can easily accomplish a large amount of work quickly. (At the same time, many report they dislike external pressure to accomplish work too quickly—they claim their outcome is better when they have time to research and ponder.)

3. Need intriguing challenges and problems to solve to stay interested. They have no time for tedious or repetitive tasks. (One client said, “I like an activity the first time I do it because I’m learning. The second time is OK, too, because I can perfect it. Third time, I’m bored. Give me something new.”)

4. Acquire new talents and skills seemingly without effort. (One client, a social media marketer, said that she would go home and learn a new product—like Canva —in an evening, surprising her co-workers with her ability to incorporate new ideas quickly. Sometimes they were envious; sometimes jealous, she noted—and she wasn’t sure how to deal with that.)

5. May choose to be underemployed , using their nonworking time to explore interests and creative passions, much to the chagrin of their parents or other champions who would like them to be more ambitious. (They report that they prefer jobs which don’t tax their minds or “use up” their creativity, leaving them plenty of mental space to write, compose, or paint later.)

6. May have a perfectionistic style making them susceptible to shame, pressure, stress, etc. (Many of my clients report trouble relaxing or “letting go” of a project at work. They worry that other people won't have the same standards they do. Others suffer with low self-esteem and lack self-compassion.)

7. Often feel like “outliers” who don’t fit in— having different interests, different ideas, and/or different thoughts from colleagues. Sometimes their style can be nonconformist (or even rebellious) leading to challenging office relationships, increasing the likelihood they will not fit in.

8. Have a broad range of interests , and lots of ideas, which can make it difficult to focus on one task or project at a time. Some report that they prefer to move back and forth between multiple projects; that having only one task to do is boring. (Some of my clients secretly wonder if they have ADD, given the quick way their brains move from one thought to the next. In fact, ADD can accompany a gifted diagnosis so this is not all that surprising.)

9. Are more likely to be introverted , and prefer an autonomous workplace where they can work relatively independently. (Many of my clients report they only enjoy working in groups when others are equally talented or knowledgeable and can broaden their understanding of a situation or project-- or when they are in a teaching role and the group is learning from them.)

10. Can annoy colleagues and supervisors with their questioning, and the seeming negativity that is inferred from that questioning. Many gifted clients report that they need to know the context in which they are doing a project as well as the "why", and managers aren't always interested in explaining that. In addition, some gifted individuals are also diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome which can affect their work performance and/or their ability to relate to coworkers.

So did you find yourself on this list? How has your giftedness influenced your level of career satisfaction? Are you happy with the level of creativity, challenge, and connection you feel at work? Or is it time for a course correction? Maybe time to either change jobs, employers, or career field? Do you need to balance your intellectual giftedness with stronger emotional intelligence?

The ideal career match is when an individual’s skills, interests and values all align within a particular field or job. It is imperative that gifted workers focus on career self-management. Just keep in mind that your career is a life-long process, so even if you’re not satisfied today, there is time to fix it. My next blog post will provide 10 tips for greater career satisfaction for gifted individuals.


Lubinski D, Benbow C.P., & Kell H.J. (2014). Life paths and accomplishments of mathematically precocious males and females four decades later. Psychological Science . 25(12), 2217-32.

Nauta, Noks & Corten, Frans. “Gifted Adults in Work” Journal for Occupational and Insurance Physicians . 2002 10 (11) 332-335.

Persson, R. S. (2009). Intellectually gifted individuals’ career choices and work satisfaction: a descriptive study. Gifted and Talented International , 24(1), 11-24.

Photo credit "Ideas " by Hartwig HKD / Flickr Creative Commons.

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