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Why Being Really High Potential Is Bad For Your Life

Forrest Christian Underachievers 7 Comments

Back in 2008, I wrote an “anonymized” story about meeting up with a very high potential and our conversation. Although I wrote it a long time ago, it recently had two interesting comments from Alex and Ken Shepard. Alex I don’t know but Ken is the leader of the GO Society and has been a long-time proponent in my life. It’s always great when people of his caliber and prestige read my stuff. They both wrote with some advice for this guy, but years too late. I wrote in 2009 about the death of this high-mode individual, being a bit more honest than I had been.

I thought that I would address some of their points.

I believe that intelligence above a certain point is not only not helpful to you, it’s maladaptive. “Tim’s” experience is illustrative of what I have learned about high mode individuals, people who have an excessive capacity for work.Like most of the high-mode / high-potential individuals in his birth cohort, Tim was not blessed with being singled out and tapped as the next best thing. The testing center had his IQ around 178 as a student, which was sufficient for him to be mainstreamed in the classroom at a school system that was losing funding as older voters decided that paying for education did not benefit them. He graduated from college in the big downturn of the early 1990s, the effects of which was almost entirely born by his birth cohort. He scrambled to find whatever work he could, like most of them. Because these jobs were not the best, he was viewed as suspect, that something most be wrong with him.

We see similar dynamics at play today. If you are unemployed, you are likely to stay that way because U.S. employers see unemployment during a recession with real unemployment rates higher than those of the Great Depression as being a sign that something is wrong with the applicant. If you start working in a recession and get a lousy job, you will earn less than people who came out in a boom even ten years later. The research is pretty good here.

Being Stratum 7 in his early 40s, he had Stratum 4 capacity when he started working after university. He didn’t have Stratum 4 capability, just capacity: his bucket was a Stratum 4 size but he only had Stratum 2 amount of water in it, so to speak. He just didn’t have the experience that a 50 year old stratum 4 worker would have.

He started working for Stratum 2 bosses who were in their 40s, so estimate Mode 2 or Mode 3. Tim’s capacity for work at 23 was higher than these managers’ would ever be. He was already two stratum bigger than his bosses. And due to having a regular personality (not a charmer) and having been told that he was boring most of his life (“too academic” is what they would say later) he didn’t have the requisite skills to navigate a boss who cannot even see the value that he brings to work.

A boss who finds this high-moder’s very existence threatening. He doesn’t have to do anything.

So Tim got kicked in the teeth a lot, and bounced from one job to another. He was good in a crisis and went from overachieving at one job and another, all to get shoved out or fired.

Because, as Douglas Adams has taught us, “what they really didn’t like was a smartass.”

It turns out that unless you have a very peculiar set of personality traits, when you suffer underemployment in Western societies for several years, you do not somehow exercise your full capacity after you get off. When you are working 2-5 stratum below your capacity, you start to go mad.

Nor does your community want what you have to offer. In white America, you are judged by the jobs you hold, even in spiritual communities. (African-American communities may have a different dynamic because of the US history of persistent racism, but I’m not sure.) They here him and roll their eyes. They bring him out when it is useful to them but see everything that he does as a threat. He has to constantly walk on eggshells to avoid being shunned. And even then, he is never considered as someone who should be invited to the party.

The high-moder’s development is also wildly different than normals, or even normally gifted people. The extraordinarily high potential came to understand things in life much too early, way before he could process them emotionally. He has no real peers as he grew up, for he is too old mentally for his age peers and too young emotionally for his mental peers. He is a 8 year old reading at a 15-year old’s level but he doesn’t have the hormones to understand the sexual tensions of 15 year old’s books. He sees problems that he cannot change. Worse, he sees problems and threats that he knows

People who identify with Requisite Organization (as opposed to it’s early moniker, Stratified Systems Theory) seem to believe strongly that people who do not fully utilize their capacity at work put it to use in the community. I have rarely seen this for people above mode 6.Yes, I’ve seen it, but it’s rare. It’s why I spent time trying to provide something in The Secret Rules.

Elliott Jaques agrees that under-employment wreaks havoc. In A General Theory of Bureaucracy, he wrote:

Long periods of under-employment — or indeed a career of under-employment — can lead to a chronic semi-depressed resignation in people and a lack of awareness of their true capacity. Somewhere inside something tells the individual that he is capable of greater things, but he hardly believes it.

[Elliott Jaques, A General Theory of Bureaucracy, pp. 184]

Jaques understood that many people spend their entire lives without having right fitting work or being recognized for who they are and what they are capable of. And that you get lost, unmoored from the reality of yourself. You lose even the ability to remember who you were and what you are capable of. You listen to the others and their evaluations. You keep trying to do the work at Levels 1 & 2, because if you were really high-potential then doing “simple” work would be easy! You should be succeeding!

Absolute bullshit, that.

So you go through your adulthood getting farther and farther away from any path that would work for you. Even when I tell you the truth, you can’t believe it.

Because working so far below your capacity for work is not just boring: “this type of bonus earning [in roles too small] is soul-destroying.” [Jaques]

What’s really disappointing to me is that the RO consultants who spend so much of their time griping about how they can’t find Mode 7s to fill the leadership pipeline in their client companies and who have a genuine way of measuring what we mean by “intelligence”, refuse to accept that these people exist. Every time I have told them about that I have all these Mode 7+ under-employed, hidden high potentials that I have in my network and, hey, they could solve this leadership pipeline hole you have, they tell me point blank: “No, you don’t.”

Except that “Yes, I do.” I learned how to do these evaluations from Glenn Mehltretter and Michelle Carter and every time I coded one they had already done, I was within 1/3 of a stratum of their evaluation. My problems was never over-evaluating but under-evaluating. I tend to be conservative, because I know that getting a Mode 7 evaluation is damnatio ad metalla.

“You know what we do with these people? We kill ’em!” That’s what Mehltretter said about these super-high moders. Meaning, normals are so threatened by their very existence, or their very existence threatens the power structures of the world so much that we have to kill them.

People who study extremely high IQ individuals have bad news, too. (Tim’s IQ as a child was in the “profoundly gifted” range.) Profoundly gifted kids have more anxiety and agonies than normals. And much more than normally gifted kids, who are actually happier than normals.

Super-high IQ kids hate school, are so wildly bored that they don’t do anything and get barely passing grades. Yes, some do great, but even that is a coping mechanism because they aren’t really learning. For the most part, school kills their souls. And if the schoolwork doesn’t get the job done, the teachers and the other kids will ensure that the stake gets in there nice and deep.

Look, I’m not sure what IQ measures, but the thinking of those above 170 is fundamentally different from “fast normals”. They are different.


This is a maladaptation.

Because as the RO pipeline people taught me, no one wants them. Not even the people for whom they are the solution to a pressing problem.

They spend their lives trying to find a place at the table, but unless they are psychopaths and take things by force (Mao comes to mind) they will be beaten down, to lie with the dogs waiting for the scraps to fall. They spend their lives being told how wrong they are, in a basic sense. They are told they are “so smart” or “ever so clever” but then never allowed to live free with that. They don’t just rarely get opportunities to contribute to the world but are actively beaten down from doing so.

Nor do they get mentors in life. It has to do with the rarity of high-moders in life. GenX seems littered with them, but in the other generations they seem very rare. Jaques and Lord Wilfred Brown thought that they were so rare that they would always have employment because it was impossible to find them. So super high-moders have few if any people who are in their mode, their developmental trajectory. If they do find one, it is rare that the personalities match up well.

But frankly it’s so rare that they find someone that they never get seen. I call it modal recognition and I’m not going to talk about it more here. Kathryn Cason got me thinking in this way, and it’s accurate.

Poor bastards.

Far from being the great thing, being extraordinarily gifted or extremely high-mode or extraordinarily high potential is horrible. Once you have been given it you can never be normal, because even if you deaden your brain – which is a very popular coping mechanism, historically – you still had a wildly different developmental history than normals. “Fast normals”, those normally gifted people, are golden because their developmental path looks like normals, just earlier.

Poor, poor bastards.

If you are one of these folks, you have my pity. I’m truly, deeply sorry that you were given this curse. Maybe it has worked out well for you. I’m glad. Really. For most of you it hasn’t. And I wish that that wasn’t true.

RIP, Tim.

Comments 7

  1. Forrest,

    I am curious to know what are some possible solutions to the problems of unrealized potential and personal challenges face by high mode individuals. I wonder if coaches and therapists who work with “gifted” adults might have something to vale high mode individuals. For example, in his book “Enjoying the Gift of Being Uncommon”, Willem Kuipers discusses many of the potential challenges of being highly intelligent and how to ensure this trait is a blessing rather than a curse. As an aside he also has a very interesting criteria to assess giftedness or “Xi” (extra intelligence/intensity) as he calls it. He believes that gifted individuals can self-identify themselves as such if they possess 3 or more of these characteristics:

    1) Intellectually able
    2) Incurably inquisitive
    3) Needs autonomy
    4) Excessive zeal in pursuit of interests
    5) Contrast between emotional and intellectual self-confidence

    I have been assessed as being “mid-mode” and I have found that even being mid-mode brings along with it a lot of difficulties in relating to peers, recognizing my difference from others as a positive difference, etc. When I first learnt about RO I started looking for solutions to these problems within the RO literature but I found the disciplline was not equipped to help with these issues. I think you are addressing issues that would fall in the Upper Left quadrant of Wilber’s AQAL model while RO is designed to address issues in the Upper Right and/or Lower Right quadrants. I think that exploring the literature on giftedness could be immensely helpful in working with high mode individuals.

  2. Along those same lines Forrest, I would be interested to know if you have read Daniel Kahneman’s new book, Thinking: Fast and Slow. It is quite a fascinating read to say the least. As your work has helped to identify and name a few things I had no “language” for, so has Kahneman’s work. My circumstance has not changed much. But how I am learning to view myself, as I interact with others, surely has.

    And most importantly. As an image bearer of my Creator I am no mere actor in my own tragedy, but have a role to participate in that is uniquely mine. Whether this plays out good or not so good has a lot to do with perspective. And perception.

    As always, thank you so much for your work!

  3. Post

    Thanks for the kind words, gregory. I’ve not yet read Kahneman’s new book but I’ve read about a fifth of his scholarly work. He’s really got some impossibly good insights from simple testing. I’ll add this book to my Amazon list.

    Have you read Ferenc Visky’s little book? He was a co-prisoner with Richard Wurmbrand, if you know that name. You can get a taste of what he is like from a brief exceprt from a talk he gave: “Snakes and Scorpions” (In that blog, he is “FV”.)

  4. Post

    Akash, I’ve dealt with some of the solutions and will be addressing them in a new way, at least for GenX’s severe underemployeds.Psychologist George Reilly (near Ottawa, but does phone consultation) has had a great deal of success working with hide-mode / Hidden High Potentials. I routinely recommend his services for my clients.

    Most RO consultants are really ill-equipped to work with high-mode individuals except as vendors to them. The Requisite Organization formulation is ill-equipped, too. It wasn’t intended to work with individuals but with organizations, although Jaques was a psychoanalyst as were many of his co-workers in the project (or psychologists). He does touch on some of these issues in “Death and the Midlife Crisis”, which you can find partially in Google Books.

    However, I’ve found that RO/SST is very useful for understanding and framing the issues because it provides differentiaters between different levels of potential or capacity. Jaques’s and Cason’s defining of the levels of thinking (off earlier work by John Isaac, if I recall right) supplies many of the missing points I’ve found in the “gifted” literature, as does Jaques & Co.’s work at Glacier creating progression charts, work levels and curves. It gave us what seems to be a superior way of thinking about this issue.

    Still, there is much in the gifted literature that is solid and useful. “Solid” meaning that it can be replicated and tested.

    Also, thanks for mentioning Kuiper. I’ve not heard of him and that got me looking at my Dutch again. (Although some of his slang passes me by.) gave me some great ideas for what I’m preparing for the new year.

  5. Forrest,

    You definitely bring up a good point. Many of my friends growing up were bored in school, and grades suffered as such. They started new industries and had very successful corporate exits when they started companies. Many of those same people were fabulously gifted at work, yet they were seen as threats to the B and C level leaders (or maybe that’s just a moniker for low mode). Yes, there is a problem, but there are a few potential solutions.

    First, good communication skills trump most skills in life. If a “profoundly gifted” individual learns how to communicate well, he or she can then fit in better and get their ideas across in a way that fits their environments. On the flip side, without good communication skills, the most brilliant ideas will be passed over. It is, after all, the responsibility of the communicator to assure the point is received, not the listener. Taught how to present ideas, for example, one could learn the strategy and art of positing an idea and allowing someone else to feel it was theirs – all for contributing and benefiting the organization rather than the person. Studying communication, persuasion, and some politics (unfortunately) may be necessary to move ahead in normal organizations.

    Another way to help these “profoundly gifted” people is to be intentional about hiring them when found, even if a role isn’t already available. What they can do for an organization will quickly outweigh their cost – if a competent and capable manager is working with them. The key there is that the manager has to be highly gifted as well (and preferably one step above). This is a great place for a skunk works, where innovation is required and playing with ideas is allowed, but normal bureaucracy is dismissed.

    Does MENSA have a way of getting people together to form companies? (and does MENSA membership equate to high mode?) Are there other networks of Mode VII and VIII individuals that can choose to dominate a market through shear capability and out-thinking competitors? As Jim Collins said, great companies are often formed by getting great people on the bus, and THEN figuring out where to take the bus.

    As I have worked with Glenn, Michelle, and others at http://PeopleFit.com, I have been amazed at their insight and hope to not make the mistakes of undervaluing people with higher capability than myself just because they could be threats. Heck, let ’em run the company if they can do it better than me, and I’ll watch as my company’s value skyrockets.

    Thanks for thinking out loud.

  6. Post

    Thanks for the comment, Craig.

    MENSA is usually the “merely” gifted. The “profoundly gifted” would far exceed MENSA’s standards. So they tend to be very different groups, with very different feels to them.

    Of the many “profoundly gifted” (IQ > 170 or so) kids I’ve known, I can’t recall any who went on to be successful in any endeavor. The various folks I know who made their millions were more normally “gifted”.

    The problem with really high mode people (to use the Jaquesian nomenclature) is that there really isn’t anyone who can manage them. They open their mouths and start talking about things that the manager simply does not see because they lie so far outside his own personal time horizon. If you are working at Str2 and start trying to explain why the group needs to manage strategic uncertainty, you’te not going to go anywhere. That leaves limited real employment opportunities. And frankly, a manager would be crazy to hire someone whose time horizon so much longer than his own. You’d be even crazier to hire someone whose time horizon exceeds that necessary to run the business. Most communities, especially in America, can’t handle them either.

    Were they just normally gifted, you’d be entirely correct. Companies would be well off to just hire them and figure out what to do with them later.

    On communication: It of course means different things to different people. Per Dr. Kinston:

    “Communication is crucial: but

    it is about persuading and handling people for a pragmatist;
    it is a formalized process through team briefings for a structuralist;
    it is sounding out and consulting for a dialecticist;
    it means explaining, listening and ensuring mutual understanding for a rationalist;
    it is about using a common language for the systemicist;
    it is a matter of sharing and exchanging data for the empiricist;
    it is about empathy and sensitivity for the imaginist.”

    Perhaps “persuade” and “influence” are better words here. The high moder can’t communicate his ideas because he’s trying to shove a two meter board into a half meter box. In the end, the recipients’ time horizon limitations will prevent them from fully seeing the high moder’s meaning. However, if they start from there, that no one is going to understand them at work, they can use language and communications to manipulate and influence.

    I find that this takes a particular set of personality traits to pull off. Most high moders I work with are pretty good communicators — they have had to be in order to survive at all. They figure out ways to communicate their high stratum thinking to people. The problem is one of The Prophets: you are telling people something that they don’t want to hear.

    So they kill you. Or drive you from out of their midst and into the wilderness.

    It is hard to look at someone like Jeremiah and not see him as an extraordinary communicator. It’s just that no one wants to hear it. Billy Olsen was a very clear communicator, too. He was just someone who thought that military brass should be doing their jobs. Which got him stripped of rank.

    I usually advise high moders to learn manipulation and influence techniques, and to dispense with communication attempts. They aren’t going to understand you anyway, so why try and just tick them off? Better to manipulate your boss into giving you things. This is a traditional engineer’s approach, too, so it’s got some legs.

  7. Mensa is open to people who score at the 98th percentile or higher on standardised IQ tests. In other words 2 % of the population are eligible for membership. Mensa attracts a mere fraction of that.

    There is only a correlation of about 30% between IQ and capability (in RO terms). So there will be a number of people who are highly intelligent but are not as able to cope with complexity and uncertainty. The few members of Mensa that I have met belong to this category.

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