"He... buried his face in the hot pillow",

A Hidden High Potential’s Story: A Tragedy of Potential Denied

Forrest Christian Underachievers Leave a Comment

I have written before about a high-moder I have talked with off and on. His story is perhaps interesting, so I will retell it here. He’s not a client, nor has he been — we just talked as associates from time to time. He was never trying to hide his story, except from his employers, and we’ve talked about him here or on another site before. He’s recently dead and I wanted to review his life a bit.

“Tim” was an interesting fellow. He always felt like a high-moder (in that way that you can feel people’s mode just by being around them) but I could never get a solid bead on it. I did a test CIP interview with him but it had the problems that some folks’ do and wasn’t code-able. That may be a problem with my technique but I think he also saw the world in a different way.

He was certainly intelligent, as far as those measures go. His IQ fell between 170 and 180 (IQ is an estimate rather than a set number over time) which is high but nothing amazing, as many people told him over his adult years. I’m not sure what IQ actually measures, and many people argue that it’s useless. It may be, but it seems to me that there is probably a difference in thinking between someone who has been professionally scored in Tim’s range over many years versus someone who scores consistently around average. Which is 120? I can’t remember. I think “genius” is something like 165, so Tim was a few points ahead of Mensa membership.

My point there is that this probably showed that Tim had a different way of thinking. I think that this point is relevant to my discussion of him, as we will see.

Tim had done some amazing things in his life, although he didn’t see them as achievements because they never led anywhere. This is something that many hidden high-potentials suffer from. Because they have so much excess capacity, they can quickly learn how to do things. They can also step in and quickly accomplish what would normally take someone with a great deal of training.

Tim says that he was able to do these amazing things because he was too stupid to know that it couldn’t be done. If he had been an expert, he wouldn’t have bothered. I hear this from many high-moders. It’s an interesting way of understanding how they view problems.

He also tended to downplay these accomplishments because he felt that anyone could have done them. Doing these things wasn’t hard: “It wasn’t rocket science.” Since it wasn’t something that he struggled with, it wasn’t much of an accomplishment: anyone could have done this if they had simply freed themselves from preconceptions or not been beholden to their interests, etc. Again, many high moders do this. They have a set of abilities that makes certain things extremely easy. Somehow, they shortcut processes and get to solutions very quickly. There is a way in which if they can do something, then it can’t be hard to do. I’m not sure why this develops in them. It doesn’t develop in other people. Perhaps it is the suddenness of accomplishing something that experts fear attempting. I think that this deserves research.

Of course, it probably didn’t help that so many people thought that he was lying about what he had done. Because it was something that they thought was hard to do, and that they would have great difficulty accomplishing, they assumed that no one could do it. I’ve checked several of Tim’s accomplishments and he actually did do what he said. In fact, most of the time he accomplished more than he took credit for. He learned over time to downplay these serial successes because people thought that he was dishonest.

I wonder if all high-moders who aren’t “tapped” to be the Savior of the World in their twenties develop this. It certainly seems prevalent.

Most of these were projects of course, because hidden high potentials tend to cycle through careers every 2-4 years, and Tim tended to cycle even faster than that. This lack of career path made him look like a big risk: either he had personality problems and couldn’t learn to get along or he was serially incapable and fired. He was not seen as a good risk for a hire.

Nor was he a good risk to help. Tim had a rather humorous history of asking for help from people, who would tell him that it was good that he was asking for help, that asking for help was good, that someone should help him, before having the door permanently shut on him. It changed over the years to “you aren’t worth taking a risk to help”, normally followed by comments about Tim’s apparent personality problems. I found it interesting that people would shut him down like this so bluntly rather than simply helping him find the door and shutting him out. These people apparently found him threatening and requiring severe sanctions rather than normal face-saving maneuvers.

It’s interesting that these same people would still attempt to get things from Tim. I’m not sure what to make of this. The range of people over his life is so large that it’s hard to say that every one of them was an X or a Y. It seems to point back to Tim.

One funny story involved some work that Tim did as a volunteer for a professional society he was associated with for awhile. (He has been a member of several; this deserves some more comment at some point.) He created something for the association that essentially advertised one of the successful members. It showed how the values of the association were useful, encouraging people to participate. The member wanted to use it for his own marketing, and demanded several changes. Tim balked because he believed that they didn’t serve the purposes of the association. The member took the piece, made the changes and used it for his own marketing without ever compensating Tim. He also badmouthed Tim’s work and personality to the other members (including upon the announcement of Tim’s death.)

As someone who has been a professional writer, I can appreciate Tim’s feelings on this. It’s hard to volunteer to do something that should cost the member several thousand dollars and then have this person complain. Been there, done that, and had the slander, as many of you know.

But it’s interesting how many people comment that Tim has personality problems. It’s interesting because he had been professionally evaluated several times. Tim heard this comment so many times that he took it to heart. He also knew that what he did in his life was due to his own self, not the blame of others. Because he continued to fail while working hard and trying to fit in, he consulted with professionals to try and understand the deep personality problems so that he might attempt to fix them. The interesting part is that other than a somewhat high IQ, he didn’t have any serious personality problems. At least, he didn’t have any that would have been serious on anyone else. This is interesting.

I always found Tim interesting to talk with, even though we were spatially separated by many miles and only saw each other rarely over the two years I’ve known him. I find most people who think that they are smart to be arrogant and frankly boring. Tim was neither. He could engage on a variety of subjects and it always surprised me that he had read some of the core literature on something. I mean, how many fields can you be competent in? He was modest about his accomplishments and if he had a fault (to my idiot eyes) it was that he tried too hard to not be seen as intelligent.

Which may have been caused by one of his most long-term and pressing problems: feeling that he did not fit in. Here’s where we can return to the ideas of differentials in whatever measure of thinking. If most people are 140 or so, and Tim was ~175, then it may be that the way that he thought was very different from the way other people thought. He also had the tendency to know a lot about things that others were expert on and didn’t understand that you don’t reveal knowledge to experts, but allow them to pontificate. I’m pretty sure that the way that Tim organized the world was affected by his higher IQ, whatever that really measures. This made people feel that he was different.

There’s also the fact that, from a work levels perspective, the biggest person in the room buys the coffee. If my intuition of Tim’s mode is correct, then it was unlikely given his life situation that he would ever be something other than the biggest person in the room. People wanted him to provide outside authority to their decisions but not actually involve him in their lives socially. If you are always the biggest person, you are always a threat and never a friend.

Tim was a church-goer and had an interesting series of encounters. The problems he encountered were always blamed on his shortcomings, even though his insights would later play out as insightful, and changes would be made to the culture, only after others had told stories of being shunned and hurt.

Shunning and hurting Tim was expected, it seems, throughout his life. I’ve known human scratching posts in my life and Tim didn’t fit the profile.

The only thing I can see that made him different was the way that he thought, and this seems to be tied to mode (which is loosely correlated to intelligence).

The problems he had in society certainly took their toll. His relationship with his wife deteriorated as he found work increasingly hard to get. Work problems are common for hidden high potentials: once you hit Str5, it becomes increasingly harder to do jobs at Str2 or even high Str1. You are left with only base Str1 jobs and most people will not hire you to do them (unless you are also an immigrant). As he lost income, his wife understandably became irritated with him and increasingly let him know that his shortcomings were preventing him from having work when others did.

I think that these things started to actually affect his personality in the last year. I don’t know if the damage was permanent or not, but he seemed less able to get out of the hole that was dug for him. Everyone else agrees that he dug it for himself, but I am less certain. Before, he could come out and engage more freely than later.

I suppose I am recording this because he was interesting and there is a dearth of interesting people in this world. It’s a pity — in my opinion — that no one seemed able to see him clearly. Being larger in capacity does that, of course. It’s not that they rejected him or treated him poorly (although that does seem to be the case): it’s that they rejected a fake person that they created in order to fit Tim into their understanding.

Anyway, he’s dead so it doesn’t really matter.

Image Credit: “He… buried his face in the hot pillow” by Walter Appleton Clark. Illustration for “Left Behind” by Arthur Ruhl, Scribner’s, September 1905. Via Library of Congress Collection.


Fred Wiersma { 03.02.09 at 10:35 }

“Anyway, he’s dead so it doesn’t really matter.”

That really got to me… For Tim, it won’t matter, sure, but for the people who have known him? I do hope they read your article and get something out of that.

It’s tragic really, being a big fish between little fish who don’t appreciate you, can’t appreciate you, are afraid of you.

Thanks for writing this!

Matthew Kalman { 03.03.09 at 08:35 }

Hi Forrest,

If Tim – or the average high-moder – is a Stratum 5, what are the most common reasons that they don’t end up in a Stratum 5 job, but possibly in a Stratum 1 job instead?

Where are they going wrong? Is there some EQ skill they’re missing…?!

I’m sure you’ve explained all this before, but if you have a moment for a quick recap…. :-)

As an RO neophyte, I don’t feel competent to make guesses about a person’s stratum or mode etc – but I do feel just about competent enough to say that I feel that my own line manager feels a lot like an ‘Expert’ (in the Cook-Greuter/Torbert model of levels) and my line manager’s line-manager seems like an ‘Achiever’.

This is – in fact – a pretty likely scenario, given what research has told us about the most common levels of managers.

I shouldn’t be specific in this public place – except to say that working under an ‘Expert’ can be very difficult indeed, with any innovation or strategic thinking (which is clearly required!) being seen as somehow threatening or inappropriate, and routinely blocked.

Like your high-moder (at times), I work in a professional membership body – that’s a whole other story…

(Shame I almost certainly don’t share your high-moder’s stupendous IQ, or maybe it’s a relief).



PS Have you removed the ‘Latest comments’ box from your blog? It *really* helps to have it there, if you want conversations to keep going, or so I suspect…

Forrest wrote:
“Work problems are common for hidden high potentials: once you hit Str5, it becomes increasingly harder to do jobs at Str2 or even high Str1. You are left with only base Str1 jobs and most people will not hire you to do them”

Forrest Christian { 03.03.09 at 13:24 }

The problem is that complexity isn’t linear: it’s a power curve, which is why EJ got timespans that look like powers of 2. (Kinston says that timespans after 4 are all bunk, so take that as you may.) It’s not even area: it’s VOLUME.

Imagine two spheres, one with diameter of 2m and the other 3m. Both contain the same gas at the same pressure. Therefore, the 3m diameter sphere has more molecules (more gas) than the 2m diameter sphere. If you try to shove all the gas from the 3m sphere into the 2m sphere, you don’t see pressure double but triple. If it had been a 4m diameter sphere, it would have been 8 times the pressure.

That’s part of the problem. Pressure builds up, which stresses all parts of the system.

And this is all assuming the easiest scenario, where the gases are the same and, let’s face it, they’re both gases. Imagine if they were two different viscous fluids instead.

There’s also a problem of the way you talk. Even if you just use EJ & KC’s formulation from Human Capability, it still means that you don’t verbalizse things properly. And if you use Warren’s stuff, it means that you are often not speaking the right language and constantly translating in your head.

If you are not seen as someone who can do higher level work, you won’t get it. Most management is dominated by monkey politics (lizard brain) and Monkey-See-Monkey-Do politics, whereby the way to get ahead is only through the ways that everyone else has.

If you aren’t tapped early on, it’s hard to get ahead. If you speak a different language of achievement, you’re going to get fired — especially if you are also on a higher trajectory path. once you hit St5, you are totally screwed for reasons I’ll cover in the webinars.

Quick thoughts there.

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