Nauta, N. & Corten, F. (Kumar Jamdagni , trans.)
Bohn Stafleu van Loghum
This article deals with gifted adults and the troubles they face.
Gifted adults (people with a very high intelligence; 2% of the population)
sometimes are not able to function adequately at work. Their high intelligence
can cause them to dysfunction when adapting to the work situation, sometimes
leading to absenteeism and disability. Hardly any scientific research on this
topic has been performed. This article describes some characteristics of gifted
The problems at work are explained using examples from the work floor. Based on
certain characteristics and signals, occupational health physicians and
insurance doctors are able to recognize giftedness and to bring the subject out
into the open. The solution can lie in a change in the job requirements or
working conditions; medical or psychotherapeutic treatment is then rendered
When their motivation is restored, people with very high intelligence are
capable of high-quality work and of solving complex problems. Thus, a gifted
employee who is not functioning as required becomes a valued worker providing a
unique contribution at work.
It is increasingly being realized that gifted individuals have the capacity to
help solve complex problems1. Many are functioning at a high level. But just
like a number of gifted schoolchildren, some gifted employees do not function
adequately and are unhappy as a result2. Some become ill and even permanently
occupationally disabled. What are the characteristics of the problems of the
gifted at work. And what can occupational health physicians and insurance
doctors do with this information?
To illustrate our point, we present two case studies.
CASE STUDY 1
Alice Wismeijer is a 38-year-old woman. She works as a researcher for a
government service and has gained many qualifications through self-study in the
evenings. She functions well in her work. However, a colleague has been bullying
her for years. She tries to ignore this and hardly ever reports sick for work.
One day, it all becomes too much for her. The occupational health physician
diagnoses a burn-out. She becomes long-term sick. She goes in search of therapy,
in the course of which much suffering during her youth is revealed. After a
year, an occupational disability examination assesses that she is able to do
work of a simple nature for 20 hours a week. Alice has the impression that she
is very intelligent and knows that she will not be able to perform simple work
for a lengthy period of time. However, she does not dare to voice her belief
about this. During the surgery hours of the occupational health physician she
bursts into terrible bouts of crying and the occupational health physician
doesn’t know how to help her. The reintegration process fails.
CASE STUDY 2
Joost Bakker is a 42-year-old automation expert. He suffers from neck problems,
as a result of which he regularly stays off work. The occupational health
physician has a lengthy interview with him. Joost is rather anxious and very
preoccupied with his health. Additionally, he appears to be quite lonely, has
little contact with his colleagues. He functions adequately, his manager is
happy with him. The occupational health physician suggests that Joost be
examined by a psychologist specialized in work-related problems at the working
conditions service. After completing a detailed anamnesis, the psychologist
performs a number of tests. The results show that Joost scores very high in
analytical thinking, amongst other areas. Joost tells the psychologist that he
had been tested at high school but that his parents had refused to tell him the
results of the tests. The tests and interview do not reveal any severe problems.
The psychologist advises Joost to request information from Mensa*, a worldwide
association for very intelligent people. He overcomes his initial resistance to
the idea and follows the advice. Based on the results of the tests he had
already undergone, he is accepted as a member. He acknowledges a lot of what is
contained in the documentation that he receives. Within the association, he
establishes several valuable contacts. A year later, the occupational health
physician observes that Joost appears to be relaxed. He still suffers from neck
problems, but he hardly ever reports sick. He has started studying again and is
happy with the advice the psychologist gave him.
A generally accepted definition of “gifted” does not exist3. According to the
definition used by Mensa, this means having an IQ that lies in the uppermost 2%,
scored on an approved IQ test. Depending on the kind of test, this is an IQ
ranging between 140 and 150. There are many kinds of intelligences. Gardner
distinguishes eight: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial,
musical, bodily, naturalistic, emotional and intrapersonal4. The two last-named
intelligences are sometimes referred to by others as emotional intelligence. The
most attention in the literature and in tests is paid to the first three
mentioned intelligences. The usual intelligence tests do not seem to predict
work performance very accurately5. How effectively someone will be able to solve
problems in the real world is determined not only by intelligence, but also by
the knowledge and skills that that individual has acquired 3. The environment
(parents, school, etc) also plays a role in an individual’s development6.
CHARACTERISTICS OF THE GIFTED
Although of course all gifted individuals are unique, they do share certain
characteristics. Some of these are present naturally, others have come into
existence gradually through interaction with the environment. Cause and effect
can therefore not always be distinguished from each other.
Speed of thinking. Gifted individuals think more quickly than others. They make
many mental switches, associate rapidly and give the impression that they jump
from one subject to the next.
High sensitivity. A higher development potential often is accompanied by high
sensitivity7. This high sensitivity manifests itself in different areas:
psychomotoric, sensorial, intellectual, imaginative, emotional,7 and can
Over-stimulation of the senses manifests itself auditively (machines, radios,
smacking lips), visually (light sources) or sense of touch (certain fabrics,
labels in clothing, or touching). Currently, there is a high level of interest
being shown in high sensitivity in general8.
Introversion. The internal world of the gifted is particularly well-developed.
They are quickly and easily hurt, which is why they tend to keep people at a
distance. Some avoid parties and suchlike since the topics of conversation do
not interest them. This can resemble autism9. Introversion can also arise
through having the feeling of being rejected. People with high IQs would seem to
have difficulty meeting like-minded people, which can quickly lead them to
Emotional development. Many gifted individuals feel emotions strongly. But
because cognitive thinking dominates and provides safety, emotional development
remains relatively underdeveloped. They have difficulty in linking feelings and
reason. This can be reinforced when an individual has felt lonely from a young
age. For example, when the environment does not acknowledge or recognize the
child as being gifted. Fortunately, the emotional development of many gifted
individuals has progressed well.
Creativity. The thought processes of the gifted differ from those of average
intelligence: they are more global in nature and with a strong capacity for
imagination. Averagely intelligent people can often not follow their train of
thought. They can identify patterns quickly, so that they can, for example,
predict trends successfully. They can often draw conclusions intuitively11. This
creativity is often frustrated by the regular education system.
Independence. The forming of judgments and opinions often takes place
autonomously. They are non-conformist and therefore display what teachers easily
label as ‘inappropriate behavior’11. This independence accompanies the
creativity mentioned above. They often have an aversion to non-democratic
Perfectionism. Perfectionism is often accompanied by having too high
expectations of others, but also with shame, guilt feelings and feelings of
inferiority through not being able to meet their own high expectations 9,13.
This leads to tension and occasionally ‘paralysis’.
Learning style. The learning style of the gifted is often exploratory. They have
an extreme dislike of learning lists, they find it uninteresting and become
bored12. Often, they do not understand the teacher’s questions or the questions
in the text books, because they are looking for things that aren’t there. This
leads to frustration. Some gifted adults lack basic knowledge but have a lot of
knowledge in areas that they are interested in. They often fail to develop
learning strategies because they never learn from their failures9.
Fear of failure and under-performing. If their intelligence is not stimulated,
children often develop bad working habits14. They sometimes think that they are
stupid, become afraid of failure and start under-performing9. Their motivation
to learn decreases. This can result later in frustrations and disappointments in
THE GIFTED AND PROBLEMS AT WORK
Little research has been done concerning how being gifted manifests itself in
the arena of work and how the gifted individual experiences this. One of the
authors (FC) worked for a lengthy period as P&O advisor in an environment where
many gifted employees worked. He discovered a surprising parallel between the
gifted and artists. Both often find it difficult to develop their own talents
unless certain strange conditions are met. Inspiration and motivation would
appear to be more significant factors than knowledge and ability15.
In addition, we have collected career histories of Mensa members, amongst
others, and from our own practice. Based on all this, we present in table 1 a
number of characteristic statements, from the perspective of both the employee
and the environment. If three or more of these characteristics are present, the
possibility should be considered that being gifted is a reason for an employee
experiencing adaptation problems at work.
Characteristic statements made by gifted employees and
people in their working environment concerning adaptation problems
|What the working environment notices
||What the employee states
||Many conflicts with management and authorities
||I have a great sense of justice
||Cannot listen to what others say
||My ideas are not understood, but I’m usually right
||Difficult to place motives. What’s behind it all?
||Apparently I’m a threat to my colleagues
||Bad timekeeping, for example in meetings
||I’m being held back all the time, it all goes so slowly
||Strongly fluctuating performance, without any clear cause
||I have no idea what I want, I find almost everything interesting
||Not clear where the employee’s optimal work position is; concerns
him/herself with all kinds of things
||I get too little appreciation, people don’t see what I’m capable of
||Lack of perseverance and discipline
||I’m easily distracted
||Is difficult to approach, not social
||I dislike social talk
||Makes all kinds of demands concerning work environment factors
||I can’t understand how other people can work in that noise
The differences between the left- and right-hand columns highlight the
adaptation and communication problems. Gifted individuals who dysfunction are
often not aware of their own intelligence, which results in them interpreting
the lack of knowledge of others as unwillingness16. They become irritated and
often start going too fast. Additionally, there is a tendency to focus on the
content, rather than on issues such as enthusiasm and motivation2. On the other
hand, they try sometimes to adapt too much, which can result in a general
dissatisfaction, and the job profiling is not clear enough to allow them to take
on suitable tasks.
Advisory functions, creative professions and specialist functions in, for
example, the legal, medical, technological, educational science, PR or
journalism sectors are often well-suited, just as setting up an own business17.
The manager or supervisor should focus on goals and results rather than the
method to be followed (the so-called compass approach)1. Given this approach,
the gifted individual can provide a unique contribution to, for example,
strategy, problem-solving, trend watching and product development.
Recognizing one’s own giftedness often is an important step toward improving
one’s functioning. Based on his experiences with coaching and career counseling,
one of the authors (FC) distinguishes here five, often unconscious, strategies,
see table 218. Upon being published, this list provoked twenty responses from
individuals belonging to the target group, all stating that they recognized much
of what was in the list.
Strategies of the gifted with respect to life and career
||Place of giftedness in life and career
||Keeps a low profile, which results in personal development being
restricted. Often not aware of high intelligence: considers him/herself
rather stupid. Functions in simple jobs. Upon becoming aware of their
giftedness, can develop to one of the other types.
||Has established a connection with other people at his/her own level
at an early stage, which acts as a stimulus. Has not had any major
adaptation problems and has gone through a normal personal development.
Works, for example, in a gifted environment (Whiz kids? Specialized
researcher?), as advisor with a unique task within a unique company, or
starts up a business.
||Has discovered through experience that you can’t achieve anything
with intelligence alone. Has actively raised his/her social skills to a
high level. Is therefore able to solve many adaptation problems. Often
functions well in jobs that are intrinsically multidisciplinary in
||Has a checkered career history. From conflict to conflict and
occasionally even from dismissal to dismissal. Tries to survive by
placing the emphasis on the quality of the work. Can progress to
‘Social’ or may find him/herself in ‘Isolation’.
||Operates almost exclusively in a state of isolation. Runs the risk
of losing contact with society.
Development often takes place from one strategy to the other. Occasionally, in
different environments, different strategies are applied alongside each other.
Currently, several psychologists, coaches and career counselors have specialized
in gifted adults. They are able to point out specific characteristics and
indicate points of application for developments. And they will be less inclined
to make an incorrect pathological judgment. Furthermore, they understand that,
despite the fact that the gifted are able to think well and very quickly, this
does not apply to the control over their own development or their own career.
Psychologist Hans de Vries19 gives some practical tips in his book with regard
to coming into better contact with everyday life and thereby with society. One
such tip is ‘Don’t do it’ as the theme for avoiding becoming involved too
quickly and with too many things. Corten emphasizes the importance of
self-management with regard to one’s career5: the gifted show, by nature, a
tendency to reason rationally based on what they are able to do, what needs to
be done, and which specific circumstances this demands. And, subsequently, to be
surprised or disappointed when they discover that this does not automatically
lead to them connecting well with their work environment. Contact with their own
feelings, with that which they really want and whereby they become motivated,
appears often to be a better basis for contact with colleagues and profiling in
the work environment than real qualities.
What can occupational health physicians and insurance doctors do with this
knowledge? If they recognize or suspect the patterns described in a client, they
can first of all discuss this with their client. Preferably with some measure of
discretion, considering the fact that being gifted does not always provoke
positive associations in the Netherlands. Sometimes the client will know already
what he or she needs to do, in which case some light supervision will be
If necessary, they can request a psychological test (with special attention for
the intelligence aspect) or specifically refer the client to a care provider
with experience in this area. As so often is the case, intervention at an early
stage can prevent much suffering, and much can be achieved with relatively
simple resources. Particularly if the employee learns to develop and profile
him/herself more according to motivation and interests, many problems can be
resolved. The result for employer and society can be highly valued and motivated
The most important sources for this article, apart from the literature
mentioned, have been experiences with clients. Experiences and insights gained
within Mensa Nederland and, of course, our own life experiences. We hope that
researchers are interested in following up this line of research. This in order
to make more optimal use of the talents of the gifted. The insights gained,
however, will also benefit others: methods for, for example, self-study, that
work well for the gifted have proven to be just as enriching and fascinating for
We would be very interested in hearing your reactions to this subject based on
your own professional experience.
Ms A.P. Nauta is MD (occupational health) and psychologist (specialized in the
fields of work-related development), PhD. She is a scientific research worker
and freelance advisor. www.noksnauta.nl
F.G.P. Corten studied biology (MSci) and philosophy (BA). He founded the careers
advice bureau ‘Werk en Waarde’ in 2001. He specializes in gifted adults.
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TRANSLATION (FROM DUTCH)
Language Matters, Zwolle, The Netherlands