The Integration of Drive, Aesthetics, and Intellect
In late latency, preadolescence, and adolescence, powerful internal drives, growing intellectual and aesthetic appreciation, as well as advancing precocious abilities began a slow process of integration. What might have been random, disconnected, or odd interests became recognizable but perhaps unconventional forms of art, music, science, or literature. For example, although one child’s sensitivities to food and fabrics developed into a restricted diet and a limited wardrobe, his parents discovered that he also had perfect pitch. He began to combine the sounds, musicality, and rhythm of one language with the vocabulary and sentence structure of another. Another child’s small sketches became larger and more sophisticated, but he began to introduce images from the surgical textbooks that had obsessed him from an early age.
Passionate and single-minded, they began to put their own stamp on things. Even though they were inconsistent, their startling results were a clear indication that their sensitivities and capacities were well beyond their years.
The Beginning of a Personal Vision and Sense of Destiny
As they approached adolescence, their remarkable achievements became more reliable and consistent. As others began to confirm their successes, these older latency-age children and preadolescents secretly began to believe that they were in fact gifted. By adolescence, what began as an inkling of a gifted identity was becoming a firm belief. As they slowly accepted their giftedness, these adolescents began to develop the elements of a personal vision, and one that included a vague sense of destiny. Random compliments like “You are as good of a painter as Rembrandt” or “You may be the next Simon Rattle” were now quietly taken seriously. They examined and analyzed the pathways of those who arrived at similar destinies, read biographies of the great men and women in their fields, and devoured DVDs and videos of interviews and performances. These larger than life figures became heroes for identification.
Charisma and Grandiosity Are Added to a Personal Vision and Sense of Destiny
The extra energy of normal adolescence moved the integration of drive, sensitivity, and precocious ability at a more rapid pace. Normal adolescent development also allowed self-discipline and frustration tolerance to slowly advance. Now their accomplishments became even more remarkable and their confidence began to soar. The parents of one exceptionally gifted young adolescent recalled his elation one day when he charged out of school announcing that he had had the best day of his life. Apparently he had reached a new level in his study of music theory. He always had an affinity for large orchestral works. The more theory he learned, the more capable he felt of understanding and analyzing these scores. He even began to form his own opinions of them.
Higher levels of accomplishment meant that the early elements of a personal vision could be fulfilled. Adolescent energy infused their sense of confidence. Peers and teachers described them as charismatic and even as potential leaders. For example, one exceptionally gifted pianist dreamed of a career in conducting. Despite the unlikely possibility of success, his vision became more of a reality when, at age 16, he successfully conducted his high school orchestra in the plaza of the city’s arts center.
Corresponding to my clinical experiences, Wolson (1995) described what he called “healthy grandiosity” in several of his very talented patients. He proposed that this healthy grandiosity was a necessary personal characteristic that allowed very talented individuals to endure the inevitable hardships and disappointments on the path to the highest levels of achievement. His patients appeared to have managed their grandiosity with little difficulty. Conversely, Réne Fleming (2004) described the difficulty she had in developing a clear career path because she had no strong well-defined vision early in her professional life.
My own clinical experience with gifted adolescents and young adults revealed that grandiosity developed in a complex and conflictual way. By midadolescence these exceptionally gifted young people began to embrace their giftedness and the possibility of a grand destiny that might await them. Their grandiose fantasies helped keep them focused and propelled them forward despite setbacks and failures. They were more likely to accept and even relish daunting challenges. However, grandiosity also had its negative side. At times they could become arrogant and contemptuous. Sometimes they used their giftedness in manipulative ways. They could be mercilessly critical of all those they deemed incompetent. In addition, in their immature minds grandiosity often meant invincibility, which led them to disregard their basic needs for sleep, food, and personal hygiene.
At first, their teachers and mentors were somewhat indulgent, explaining to worried parents that “big challenges need big egos.” However, when more energy and effort went into criticizing others rather than into their own efforts for mastery, everyone became concerned. Gedo (1979) has pointed out how grandiose self-appraisals that are based on wishful thinking or the megalomania that results from severe childhood trauma can easily develop into pathological narcissism and destructive grandiosity.
Grandiosity in this group of exceptionally gifted adolescents and young adults was not based on childhood abuse, deprivation, or loss, but was grounded in their exceptional abilities and sensitivities. They had in fact accomplished outsized things and clearly had the potential for more. However, their arrogance, feelings of superiority, and invincibility seemed, at times, to go well beyond healthy grandiosity and bordered on the pathological. Why then, with such promise and potential, did these exceptionally gifted children, adolescents, and young adults become underachievers and act self-destructively?