Living with intellectual giftedness


Any discussion of intellectual giftedness that makes reference to oneself inevitably risks being seen as impossibly egocentric. In writing on this subject and recounting my personal experiences and perspectives, my aim is not to boast, but rather to reflect that intellectual giftedness, with both the advantages and challenges that it brings, has been and remains the dominant factor influencing my work.

The National Association for Gifted Children in the USA defines giftedness as follows:

Gifted individuals are those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as an exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement in top 10% or rarer) in one or more domains. Domains include any structured area of activity with its own symbol system (e.g., mathematics, music, language) and/or set of sensorimotor skills (e.g., painting, dance, sports). The development of ability or talent is a lifelong process. It can be evident in young children as exceptional performance on tests and/or other measures of ability or as a rapid rate of learning, compared to other students of the same age, or in actual achievement in a domain. As individuals mature through childhood to adolescence, however, achievement and high levels of motivation in the domain become the primary characteristics of their giftedness. Various factors can either enhance or inhibit the development and expression of abilities.”

The profoundly gifted are different from other gifted individuals

Those who possess a moderate to high degree of intellectual giftedness often adapt extremely well to society, particularly when they have similarly gifted parents who are already well-established, and when they are able to fit into elite institutions that nurture their particular abilities and offer them the means to fulfil their potential.

But for those like myself who are above this level, the air becomes increasingly rarified. It would be unrealistic to claim that the profoundly gifted are not different from most people. The distinction between them and others becomes more obvious in their capacity for intellectual and creative effort, their productivity and their interests, and also in the way that they think, express themselves and see life in general. Often, the profoundly gifted are also possessed of a very strong moral compass and a sense of justice that is not easily compromised.

This can lead both to a degree of isolation and to a position where mainstream educational institutions are unlikely to prove a suitable setting.

Studies of the profoundly gifted learners suggest that they differ significantly from highly gifted students as a result of differently wired neurons that allow more complex and efficient neural highways for transmitting information. They seem to have different value structures, which usually allow them to cope with the dissonance they find between their perception of life and that of the average person.” – Barbara Clark, in the article, Helping Parents Understand their Profoundly Gifted Children

Frequently, the profoundly gifted must make their own way rather than take the well-trodden paths. This can work well for those who are drawn to creative endeavour, who often flourish when left to their own devices. In other areas, extreme giftedness can be a very mixed blessing indeed. Grady M. Towers’ paper The Outsiders contains much which I can confirm as true both from first-hand experience and observation. Towers also quotes extensively from Leta S. Hollingworth’s Children above 180 IQ (1924), one of relatively few studies of profoundly gifted children.

A journey through giftedness

It was recognized from an early age that I had an intellectual capacity significantly in advance of my peer group. I was reading at eighteen months old, having taught myself from looking at the labels on the tins of food in our kitchen cupboard, though rumours that my first words were “monosodium glutamate” remain unconfirmed. Early on, I developed a limitless curiosity (which has stayed with me ever since) and a number of interests that were seen as unusual for someone of my age, particularly with respect to history, monarchy and genealogy.

Aged six, with ursine companion. The wall is covered with my genealogical tables of the European Royal Houses.

At the age of seven, my primary school suggested that my boredom with the curriculum might not entirely be due to idleness and inattention, and that I should be assessed by an educational psychologist to determine my intellectual capacity. As well as determining that my literacy was sufficiently high to be off the measurable scale, this included the administration of a proctored IQ test whose result caused some degree of incredulity. I was then required to repeat the testing process several times for verification, which I found extremely tedious. At the end of all this, my IQ was recorded as 185 and the word “genius” started to be bandied about, along with other schoolyard epithets that were less pleasant and which I sought to discourage to little avail. Be that as it may, I had officially joined the ranks of the profoundly gifted.

In retrospect, all this came as something of a relief, because now I had the answer as to why I was in some respects so very unlike members of my family and peer group. It did not always make for an easy life, however, and my predominant memories of that time were of intellectual and emotional isolation. My school made a brief effort to set me more challenging work than the rest of my classmates, but this soon petered out and was replaced with egalitarian dogmatism. Suggestions from my parents that I should be advanced by a year or two were vetoed by the school, which essentially could not be bothered to disrupt its systems for the sake of one awkward customer.

At break-time I sought refuge from what I perceived as an dull and at times oppressive atmosphere by talking to the teacher on duty, for I invariably found the company of adults more interesting than that of my peers. When this strategy failed, I would retire to a corner of the playground and read a dictionary or other reference work. In those years, I consider that I learned more of use from my membership of the public library and my reading of books at home than I did at school. My nickname of “Prof”, which nowadays is what everyone (including my children) calls me, also dates from this time.

Things improved somewhat when I went on to grammar school, where I found myself in a highly competitive setting where some level of giftedness was normative and excellence a standard expectation. While I generally made a success of my academic studies, and remain extremely fond of my old school and grateful for its support, that was not to imply that there were not occasionally problems that were due to my intellectual capacity. At one parents’ evening, my parents were told that had I taken the examination for A level Music on day one of the course, I would have obtained an A grade. My response was to ask why I had instead been made to sit through two years of largely unstimulating classes.

Holding to values and principles

As things moved on and I studied music as an undergraduate and postgraduate student at the Royal College of Music, I came to realize that what was often at issue was the outcome of subjective judgement as to taste and aesthetics where I not only developed and held my own (often strongly traditionalist) opinions but was prepared to defend and support them vigorously in the face of a profession where conformity to increasingly debased and commercialized modernist norms was expected. This meant that what I did was almost always recognized as valid and possessing artistic integrity, but that I was nevertheless destined to remain an unfashionable outsider because of my independent viewpoint. I did value during this time that I was required to attend relatively few classes and lectures and consequently had a great deal of time to develop my other academic interests. These involved various extra-curricular pursuits in reference libraries (notably a detailed study of the history of the British peerage), study for external qualifications, and a great deal of time listening to the RCM’s large catalogue of recorded music.

I displayed then, and also during my time at Cambridge, an unwillingness to compromise principles that others would have given up in order to conform to the aesthetic line set by authority. A gifted friend once told me that most people have compromised their own values by the time they graduate; they learn that this is the price of getting on in the system and willingly pay that price in order to fit in. But I had never fitted in, and while I had every respect for authority that ruled justly and was deserving of support, I had none for authority that exalted the mundane and the meretricious, and too often reeked of corruption. Much though I would have wished otherwise, I could not change this situation, but I determined that neither would I see myself dragged down by it.

Giftedness and polymathy

I have written elsewhere about my polymathy; this manifested at an early stage. Hollingworth talks of the versatility of profoundly gifted children, “So far from being one-sided in ability and interest, they are typically capable of so many different kinds of success that they may have difficulty in confining themselves to a reasonable number of enterprises.” (3, p. 259) I did not find it difficult to confine myself in this way, and have always been able to focus on a given project that occupies my interest, but at the same time I resisted the narrow specialism that has become the norm of our age in favour of an acceptance of my essentially diverse intellect.

As a teacher, I was fortunate to work in schools that offered the opportunity to teach a wide range of subjects, and at various times taught Music, Information Technology, Business Studies, English and History at GCSE and A level, in addition to helping cast complex non-blocked timetables (which I could then recite from memory) and undertaking a wide range of administrative responsibilities. In time, I would choose three specific areas for my professional activities: Music, Education and the Church, and develop highly specialized interests within each. I would also pursue studies in a variety of different subjects through educational programmes overseas, culminating with earning multiple doctoral degrees. As is common with those of my ilk, my avocations are at times as comprehensive as my professional activities.

Nontraditional educational institutions as havens for the highly gifted

I have also found that it is surprisingly common among the highly gifted to seek out educational institutions and experiences that are more directly personalized than the mainstream often allows. Both as a student and as an academic, I have come across many cases of gifted men and women who did not fit in with the culture and rigidity of conventional universities; who had often undertaken significant work of academic merit outside of institutional constraints, and who reinforced my belief that learning accomplishment should be recognized by the academy irrespective of when or where it has occurred.

It has been a particular privilege for me to assist a number of these people to fulfil their educational goals and to help them find a home in the world of nontraditional and individualised programme delivery at free and private universities. When the mainstream discusses alternative universities, which is almost always done in a derogatory fashion since they are competitors for their hallowed turf, it consistently ignores the role of these institutions as havens for the highly gifted. Yet the story of alternative university education, and particularly those institutions that were inspired by the University Without Walls project in California that centred around Melvin Maier Suhd, is one that encompasses a number of outstanding intellects.

IQ testing and its limitations

I regard IQ tests as an extremely limited measure of intelligence. This is partly because my own intellectual interests and abilities are not primarily in mathematics or logic (which are the foundations of most IQ tests), and because I reject the idea that intelligence is something to be evaluated in purely empirical terms. Puzzles and games of whatever kind hold little or no interest for me; rather, what interests me is intellectual challenges that lead to a productive theoretical or practical goal, either spiritually or in the world at large.

My interest is also not so much in intellectual potential as in intellectual achievement. There are some things that I find that I can achieve without great effort, but there are also things (notably professional training as a concert pianist) that cannot be achieved without hard work and years of dedication, however much talent may be present. In my case, I also have a compulsive creative urge that demands the production of outputs, as can be seen from my book and online publications and my world première recordings of piano music of the Romantic era.

In my view, it should be possible for anyone who is familiar with profoundly gifted individuals to establish that I am one by looking at the nature, extent and standard of my work, rather than relying on IQ test scores.

High-IQ societies

I have never been particularly attracted to joining high-IQ societies. I knew some members of Mensa in my twenties and did not feel that I wanted to be part of their club. Many other high-IQ societies have proved short-lived and seem to exist largely as income-generating vehicles for their founders. I also have no time for the flamewars and uncivil behaviour that has been characteristic of some of them. Because my work and interests involve enabling individuals, including the gifted, to realize their potential, and also involve areas of sufficient complexity and obscurity as to self-select gifted individuals for participation, I have on a number of occasions had the benefit of work and friendship with some individuals of truly remarkable intellectual achievement, without needing the framework of a high-IQ society to bring us into contact.

In my view, a society that requires only IQ test scores for entry is not assessing intellectual achievement, but instead intellectual potential. Nevertheless, I was attracted to the International High IQ Society because I liked the ideas of its charismatic founder, Nathan Haselbauer, and believed that IHIQS had the potential to outpace its peers. I was admitted a member in 2004:

IHIQS initially fulfilled its potential, achieving a high level of productive activity and an interesting, diverse membership. Unlike others, it did become a genuine social network on and offline, even if the level of discussion was not always particularly rarified, and I enjoyed contributing to its online forums. It was also striking that it attracted quite a few individuals who, despite or perhaps because of their high intellectual capacity, were clearly experiencing serious problems in their lives, including depression and severe mental distress. However, within a few years, the energy seemed to go out of IHIQS. It changed ownership in 2012,  and founder Nathan Haselbauer sadly took his own life in 2015.

The gifted individual and others

Hollingworth identifies a further problem for the very gifted in learning to suffer fools gladly,

“A lesson which many gifted persons never learn as long as they live is that human beings in general are inherently very different from themselves in thought, in action, in general intention, and in interests…This is one of the most painful and difficult lessons that each gifted child must learn, if personal development is to proceed successfully. It is more necessary that this be learned than that any school subject be mastered. Failure to learn how to tolerate in a reasonable fashion the foolishness of others leads to bitterness, disillusionment, and misanthropy.” (3, p.259)

This is a theme which appears more than once on my school reports, and which took me many years to come to terms with. It is important to say at the outset that I do not regard myself, in any general sense, as “better” than anyone else. Being profoundly gifted does not mean that you are always right, nor that you never do anything foolish, nor that you are good at everything. And there will always be people who are cleverer than you. The older I get, the more conscious I become of how much I don’t know.

But there is no denying that I am very different from most people. One aspect in which this shows itself is that I am a deep and abstract thinker who instinctively “thinks out of the box”, who has the most vivid of imaginations, and who is constantly aware of counterarguments and different perspectives. At times, this can lead to a sort of intellectual paralysis where decision-making is overwhelmed by constantly evolving data and insights. On the other hand, it can also be a significant advantage to think conceptually, to take a wide overview, and to be able to draw strands together that others would see as disparate.

The attitude of others towards the highly gifted can also be a problem. For some reason, even the most objective discussion of high intelligence or IQ test scores can inspire envy or hostility in others. This is an attitude that should be challenged, and which recalls other egalitarian aberrations such as the Law of Jante and tall poppy syndrome. Just as we have learned in recent decades to see people with a learning disability in a more positive light, so we should see the highly intelligent as people first and foremost, with their own characteristics and needs. If the highly intelligent sometimes seem to scare or threaten others simply by displaying merit or ability, that should be a problem for those others rather than for us.

This attitude also seems to explain why we in England no longer have a national institution and mandates to assist the gifted in our schools. In the first decade of this century, there was a national academy for gifted and talented pupils, and a requirement for schools to have a gifted and talented policy. This was perhaps the only innovation of the Blair administration with which I found myself in significant agreement. But these measures were ended in 2010, and nothing much has replaced them. Writing in The Guardian, Denise Yates, chief executive of the ­charity the National ­Association for Gifted Children commented on the closure of the scheme,

If the government was talking about reducing support for children being bullied or underachieving at school, there would be a public outcry. But many people don’t recognise that gifted and talented children need support. It’s an equal opportunities issue.

As a parent of three gifted children, the lack of support from government and the education establishment is depressing, but not surprising. It seems most regard support for the gifted as being elitist and therefore undesirable. Such an attitude supports a dumbed-down culture of mediocrity, and seems to signal the death of meritocracy and social mobility. It should be resisted vigorously.