Successful but unhappy academic: what is wrong with you?

I get it: you are smart. You got a PhD. You landed a tenure track position or even tenure — although you suspect that was due to luck more than intellectual merit. Anyway, from the outside your life look perfectly successful. You have a wonderful partner, your children are doing great, and your academic career is well underway towards professorship. How come your life does not feel so fabulous on the inside? Why do you feel so lonely? Why do you feel different and not understood? 

Now you think about it, you have to admit that you are bored. But how can that be, since you are finally doing academic work that you love at the forefront of science and innovation? Your work no longer satisfies you. To be honest, you feel somber and apathetic. Your worry about your own wellbeing increases as you read stories about academics with burnout and depression. What is wrong with you??

At the backside of your questions

Absolutely nothing is wrong with you, really. You are a wonderfully talented person with deep insight and keen observation. Questions such as these are common among gifted people. Even if you have not been identified as gifted as a child you may recognize the experience of “feeling different” throughout your life. The realization that your questions are related to giftedness can solve many of your puzzles. Cover Hoogbegaafde volwassenen

These questions and the latest scientific insights about giftedness are discussed extensively in the recent book Gifted Adults: use your gifts intelligently and positively (Hoogbegaafde Volwassenen: zet je gaven intelligent en positief in, ed. N. Nauta and R. van de Ven, 2017).

Part one is about understanding giftedness, while part two focusses on practical aspects of living well as a gifted person, adressing topics like friendship, choices, conflicts and values at work. Besides scientific insights the authors relate the practical experience of many gifted people in all 13 chapters. This gives you ample of personal context with the theories discussed.

The book aims to show how you can be your gifted self and use your qualities positively for a happy and successful life. In my opinion, these high ambitions reflect aspects of the giftedness of the authors themselves as they raise the bar and aim for perfection. Whether they have succeeded? I do not believe this book holds the final answers to your questions, but one thing is certain: it makes available many scientifically founded signposts to you if you are at the crossroads of finding your own path to living well with your gifts.

But this cannot be me!

I can imagine that you have difficulty facing the possibility that giftedness may be behind the uneasy feelings of emptiness and ineptitude that you are experiencing. It can help to consider the two following points.

  • Your struggles and giftedness are more common than you believe. While there are no scientific studies on the number of gifted people with academic degrees, chances are that it is higher than 16%. This percentage has circulated for decades, but Noks Nauta exposes it as imaginary (p. 18-19). Rianne van de Ven discusses why many people do not talk openly about giftedness — misconceptions and prejudices about giftedness abound. She offers very practical advice on how you can broach the subject (p. 55-57). Personally, I find it amazing how many academics have highly developed side interests in music, sports, or other academic areas unrelated to their specialism. I take multipotentiality as one indicator of giftedness.
  • Secondly, I have found it immensely helpfull to realize that giftedness is not just about having a high IQ score, like a label that you can stick on your forehead. This book proceeds from a better understanding of giftedness: the so-called Delphi model (discussed on p. 27-29 and developed by M. Kooijman-van Thiel, 2008). Rather than defining giftedness as an IQ score, this model describes what it is to be gifted on an existential level: how gifted people think different, how they feel different, how they are different. It allows you to acknowledge the multitude of talents and aspects of your life that it involves.

Do you want to become a truly successful researcher from the inside out? Become aware of your gifts and learn use them in a positive way. Do you want to develop and use your exceptional talents? If you have a racing car, you cannot expect to treat it like a mid-size, family car without any trouble. What are you going to do to stop stumbling and see your liabilities for the talents that they are?

p.s. While the book in this review is available in Dutch only, the Gifted Adults Foundation IHBV, which sponsored this book, also publishes leaflets in English about specific themes in relation to giftedness for adults.


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