Powerful Drive to Explore, Master, and Express Themselves
This drive felt like an inner compulsion from which they had no escape; it controlled and dominated them. These were not children pushed to excel by “stage parents.” Rather, it was the parents who had difficulty keeping up with their children. This inner drive appeared to be part of their biological endowment (Greenacre, 1957) and not compensatory for minor defects (Niederland, 1967). It also went well beyond the high level of task commitment described by Renzulli (1978). Their intense hunger for drive satisfaction and stimulus gratification most closely resembled the needs of the “profoundly gifted” described by Webb et al. (2005, p. 2).
For example, Camille Claudel (Rodin’s assistant) had a specific obsession with sculpting. She pursued it in a single-minded way from an early age against tremendous parental opposition (Ayral-Clause, 2002). In the exceptionally gifted adolescents and young adults I worked with, this powerful drive was also apparent from a very early age, but was often expressed in strange ways. Intense preoccupations with the speed of clouds, for example, seemed like an odd obsession but was a precursor to scientific curiosity. The odd body movements and finger snapping rituals of one child seemed like the signs of a neurological illness to his parents. Later, his free body movements evolved into an uncanny gift for orchestral conducting.
These sensitivities seemed strange and hard to explain. Parents often worried about an underlying medical disorder. One child’s internal thermostat seemed abnormal— his tolerance for cold weather was extraordinary. Another child’s sensitivity to certain fabrics frequently led to early morning crises when it came time to dress for school. Yet another child’s sensitivity to sound meant he complained bitterly when the family’s piano was even slightly out of tune. In school, he panicked at the sound of the fire bell.
As these gifted children matured, their seemingly odd sensitivities found exceptional expression in music, dance, art, science, and writing. Were these extreme sensitivities similar to the inner kinesthetic experiences of motion and rhythm that inspired a group of composers interviewed by Nass (1984)?
An Early Strongly Developed Sense of Self: The Need for Autonomy
The need for autonomy developed early and remained an important part of their personality. These exceptional young people wanted control over all aspects of their personal life. They were frequently described as headstrong and oppositional. From the earliest years, they had an intense desire to do things on their own and in their own way, and they balked at interruptions or offers of help. One father recalled that his son was the only one in his grade-school class who refused to start his sentences at the margin. A mother reported an incident from her daughter’s sixth year. When a piece of glass had to be removed from the child’s foot, the girl was more concerned about being restrained and losing her “personal freedom” than about the anticipated pain from the procedure.
Early, Idiosyncratic Aesthetic Sensibilities
At an early age, each of these exceptionally gifted children had a very personal sense of style, form, and beauty. As a grade schooler, one boy had already begun to combine artistic, musical, and literary elements in unusual ways. One of these personal projects was to develop a catalogue of musical notes according to their temperatures and colors. He had no interest in learning the standard rules of harmony and composition. Another young boy liked to collect languages and dialects—he compared and contrasted their sounds rather than their rules of speech or grammar. Combining the words of one language with the musicality of another seemed like sport and could produce hilarious results.
Early Concerns With Ethics, Fairness, and Morality: Preoccupations With the Dilemmas of Human Existence
From an early age, these exceptionally gifted adolescents and young adults were concerned about what was right, wrong, or fair in relationships. They objected when they weren’t treated fairly by their parents or friends. They were upset when their friends didn’t treat each other fairly and they felt guilty when they didn’t treat their friends fairly. They were acutely sensitive to the emotional pain of others. These ethical preoccupations could take on global proportions. One young child became focused on finding equitable solutions to international disputes. Although she felt too young to be thinking about these things, she couldn’t shake off her preoccupation. Another 7-year-old girl’s concern with the essence of life was expressed one summer on a family trip to the national parks. Sitting at the edge of Bryce Canyon, she burst into tears. When she calmed down, her parents learned that she felt regret for all those people who committed suicide. Had they been able to see the beauty and grandeur of this national treasure, she felt certain, they would have been inspired to stay alive.
Defending the personal ownership and authenticity of their gifted endowment was important to each one of these exceptional adolescents and young adults. But, guarding their gifts often degenerated into plain stubbornness and became a liability rather than a strength. When they found themselves struggling beyond whatever their precious abilities could handle, they would often flounder rather than take advice or collaborate with others. This tendency could easily lead to an unproductive waste of time, procrastination, and finally withdrawal.
Perfectionism was a positive attribute when it inspired efforts to be excellent. However, when their imagination outstripped even their precocious abilities, perfectionism often became a vehicle for self-punishment. They experienced mistakes as failures rather than opportunities to learn. Procrastination, avoidance, and withdrawal were often the result. It was not until late adolescence and young adulthood that both perfectionism and oppositionalism could be used more flexibly.
Poor Frustration Tolerance and Self-Discipline
From a very young age, raw talent was all that these exceptional people required for high levels of accomplishment. Because they were used to almost instant gratification, their capacities for frustration tolerance and self-discipline were rarely well developed. In this way, their development was often asynchronous (Silverman, 2002).
Parallels to my clinical observations are present in the gifted literature. For example, the overexcitabilities are described by Dabrowski (1964) and Piechowski (1999). According to O’Connor (2002) “many in the gifted community believe Dabrowski’s overexcitabilities . . . contribute to developmental potential [and] are a measure and indicator of giftedness” (p. 54). My clinical experience validates this belief. Although these traits were, at times, considered liabilities by parents, teachers, and the exceptionally gifted children themselves, these sensitivities or overexcitabilities were important building blocks in exceptional gifted development.