Young worker at the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad 40th street shops, 1942.

Thoughts on underemployed high-moders (Adult Underachievers)

Forrest ChristianCareers, Coaching, Underachievers Leave a Comment

Some random thoughts I’ve had over the past couple of years, collected. Randomly. About what I call underemployed or underutilized high-mode individuals. Others call them “ex- gifted child” or “adult underachiever” or “irritating screw ups”. If you don’t know what “mode” means, here’s a quick explanation.

Elliott Jaques and Wilfred Brown discovered that people’s ability to handle complexity was tied to their mind’s time horizon, and that different people grew at different rates. Not only that, but they tended to follow set paths from the time they were in the early twenties: people were on different development arcs.

Think of a chart with your time horizon on the X-axis and your age on the Y-axis. People are on different trajectories on this chart: the growth of their mental time-horizons is different. These trajectory arcs tended towards bands, with people staying in one band as they aged. Maybe with a lot of effort you can change your arc: Jaques and Brown didn’t think so, and most of the research indicates that it is at least not what most of us do.

progression chart
none of these are me

Here’s a chart showing different bands. The vertical rectangles are where certain individuals were when they were evaluated. Let’s take the yellow rectangle at the bottom left. This guy was 25 when I interviewed him. I believed that the evidence supported him currently having a time horizon of more than 1 year (which is represented by his position on the X-axis). My evaluation says that he is likely in the bottom of that range (the stronger yellow), and that he will continue growing in this band all his life.

Why is any of this important? What could it mean for your life?

People are closer in time-horizons when they are younger. (The time on the X-axis is logarithmic: that is, it increases exponentially as we go up it.) So if you are a “high-moder”, in one of the steeper trajectory arcs, you actually grow farther away from people as you age. You become increasingly irritating to the people around you because you keep on trying to talk at your time-horizon.

Look at the red rectangle at age 40. He’s in the 8th mode, according to this evaluation. His time horizon when I interviewed him was around 10 years. He works with people who are three to four trajectories down from him, but his age, with a time-horizon of 1-3 years. Every time he starts talking, he has to be very careful lest he overpower the conversations with time-horizons that are 3x+ longer than his coworkers.

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When they were in college, at 21, he had a time-horizon of about 2 years, compared to their 3 months to 1 year. A big difference, and one that was noticed, but not too bad. Now he’s just a freak.

An illustration: A coworker of mine, 42, had a time-horizon of about 3 years. He was consulting to a massive insurance company. His client contact was 27 and had a time horizon of less than one year. They were called into a meeting with a vice-president, who probably had a time-horizon of 6 years. She was considering whether she should pull the project that they were working on. Which would mean both would get fired.

She kept asking for something from the young kid. He kept thinking he was agreeing with her, when in actuality he was shrinking what she wanted to something he could handle, which is not his fault and something we all do. It was as if the conversation was like this:

“I want you to do this 5 METERS of work.”

“I hear you and agree: this 1.5 METERS of work.”

“No, I want 5 METERS of work.”

“Yes, I hear you. You want 1.5 METERS of work. We’re in total agreement.”

“Listen, you obstinate little twerp: I want 5 METERS of work.”

“I hear you, and I’m agreeing with you: 1.5 METERS of work. What’s your problem?”

At this point my coworker steps in and translates between the two. This placated the vice-president who didn’t pull the project.

But it totally set off the client contact, who walked out saying that if my coworker ever embarrassed him like that again in front of a VP, he would fire him and get rid of the entire consulting firm. The kid had no idea how badly things were going.

It wasn’t his fault, of course. He should never have been in that position. He didn’t have the ability to handle the mental complexity that comes with these longer time horizons.

The red rectangle guy has this problem with everyone. As a result, he has adopted several coping mechanisms that obscure his true mental size, which make him come off as a weirdo to many. But I’ve seen him go full bore. It scared me white. All those weird adaptations (which he needs to survive) fell away and I got the full force of his intellect. It was stunning.

But if he had tried to give that to most of the people he works with, they would have reacted with mental violence of some sort against him. It would have been threatening and hurting them. He would be trying to shove a 10 year time horizon argument into a 3 year time horizon mind. It won’t fit.

Since that has made no sense to anyone yet (I’ll clean this up for my business blog later), here’s some random notes:

  • Extremely high mode individuals (modes 7+) often (almost always?) work for someone who is lower stratum than they are.
  • This principle applies within other social groups, from family to church (or synagogue, temple, or mosque)
  • This threatens the power and authority of the leader.
  • This also threatens the non-leaders at the same level in the hierarchy as the individual. This may sound weird, but underlings have a strong interest in keeping the social hierarchy stable unless it benefits them. Extremely high mode individuals can be working four levels down. They aren’t seen as leadership material.
  • The leaders therefore have to constantly put these folks in their place, knock them down, take them down a few notches — however you want to say it.
  • This can be bewildering to the high moder and distressing, because it means they are threatened with being cast out of the group. There’s a reason why the good book had people being thrown out of the camp: without the social group, we die. Or at least are very likely to die.
  • To prevent this, high moders develop a series of proactive subordinate displays, things which say “I’m not a threat!”, “You’re better than me!”, “I know my place!”, etc.
  • This creates, after some time, permanent psychological problems.
  • Many people see these behaviours and beliefs and call them neuroses. (To clarify: A psychotic thinks that 2 + 2 = 5. A neurotic knows that 2 + 2 = 4, but it makes him nervous.) It’s not neurosis but a clear understanding of what they have to do to survive in the social group.
  • Even if they took on the Alphas and attempted to take power, it is unlikely that people will want them as leaders. Even the president of the US doesn’t need to be higher than a Stratum 6, according to voters. (The only president in recent memory who was higher was Reagan, and only because he transitioned in office.)
  • They develop a lot of what I used to call “obfuscating behaviors” but they’re really subordinate displays, like a puppy rolling over and showing you his neck.
  • Frankly, people who want to be a high mode individual are foolish. I’d say “idiots” but that sounds like I’m becoming Ole Anthony. But you don’t want this. Being Mode 5 is great; being mode 6 is great, too, maybe. Some Mode 7s get by. (Pres. Bush, Jr. is mode 6, according to the coding done by Kathryn Cason’s group; Sen. Kerry coded as mode 7.)

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