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Book Forum: Creativity   |    
Gifted Grownups: The Mixed Blessings of Extraordinary Potential
ALISSA J. HIRSHFELD-FLORES, M.A., M.F.C.C.
Am J Psychiatry 2000;157:1902-1903. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.157.11.1902
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By Marylou Kelly Streznewski. New York, John Wiley & Sons, 1999, 292 pp., $24.95.

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This is a unique and comprehensive book, directed at a wide audience, describing the experiences of the adults gifted children grow up to be, in the context of family, school, interpersonal relationships, workplace, and society. Streznewski, a specialist in gifted education, conducted 100 interviews over the course of 10 years with adults identified as gifted by herself or by other professionals in the field of education. She divides them into three categories: strivers (high-testing teacher pleasers), superstars (people who are taller, healthier, handsomer, wealthier, happier, and nicer than most people, as well as more accomplished), and independents (creative intellectuals who follow the beat of their own drummers, regardless of the consequences). Streznewski gives voice to the internal experiences and struggles of gifted people, as few books have done previously. Further, she makes social policy recommendations regarding the importance of recognizing, nurturing, and providing opportunities for the gifted—whose talents, she argues, are often underused—for the good of us all.

The book progresses in an orderly fashion, chapter by chapter, covering the functioning of a gifted brain; the family dynamics that can influence gifted children; the frustrations at school, where the gifted are often understimulated; the difficulties finding friends who are on one’s wavelength, much less marriageable soul-mates; the challenges at worksites, where originality is often scoffed at; and ultimately the special needs of the gifted elderly, whose minds continue to seek new avenues of stimulation. There is also a chapter devoted to the particular experience of gifted women: the pressures to hide one’s intelligence, the difficulty of juggling one’s many talents with familial obligations, and the ways in which the contribution one makes in parenting gifted children is undervalued. The book concludes with an appendix of recommended readings on giftedness—the subject of each one summarized after the title—and a list of informational and advocacy organizations for the gifted.

Readers will no doubt find themselves nodding in self-recognition as they turn the pages of this highly readable volume, having various feelings and life experiences validated, and recognizing the characteristics of other gifted adults and children among their family and friends. Streznewski gives a balanced picture of the mixed blessings of being very intelligent. She speaks frequently of the conflicts that arise from being out of sync with the norm, including a protective hiding of one’s authentic self, extreme depths of loneliness and a belief that one can never be fully understood, and the frustration that comes from not having the opportunity to fully employ one’s talents. The emotional problems resulting from high intelligence and creativity are not necessarily neurotic, she posits, but can lead to great pain and even self-destructive behavior nonetheless. Streznewski argues persuasively that gifted children and young adults, in particular, need to be seen for who they are and encouraged to blossom.

Her chapter titled "The Dark Side" shows what might happen otherwise. Here she describes her interviews with gifted individuals who ended up in prison (she reports that 20% of the prison population is gifted) because they were not adequately stimulated in school or because no one was there in a mentor role to help them direct their enormous energy appropriately. Although Streznewski simplifies the complexity of sociopathy, her points are well taken: to some, drug use and risk-taking behaviors are ways to offset what is often a mind-numbing educational experience.

Streznewski relies a great deal on direct quotes and miniature case studies to present her ideas. At times, I wished she had summarized her anecdotal findings and given more space to expand on her insights. I felt this particularly in the family chapter, in which she hints at some of the complicated family dynamics that can arise when a nongifted person has a gifted child, or vice versa, or when one sibling is particularly gifted and others are not. I wished for a more developed discussion of how these different scenarios might affect the gifted individual and lead to potential conflicts. I also wished for a more sophisticated discussion of the psychopathology to which the gifted are prone.

However, Streznewski is an educator, not a psychologist, and her strength lies in her empathy for the experience of the gifted in school settings. She has wonderful recommendations for how teachers can recognize and support gifted students as well as how parents can advocate on behalf of their gifted children. While reading her explanation of the gifted brain’s need for a certain level of stimulation lest it shut down, destroying motivation and resulting in restlessness, I was struck that the current trend of diagnosing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in schoolchildren (and medicating them) could be a lazy way out of providing more challenging curriculum for bright children who are simply bored in school. She is also quite empathic to the experience of gifted college-aged students and young adults, who may have a rockier path than others in trying to find how best to make use of their many talents.

Ultimately, Streznewski’s book is a siren call to make use of the human resources with which we as a society are blessed. She reasons that encouraging the gifted among us is not elitist thinking. Acknowledging that people are different does not lead to the conclusion that some are better than others. It merely means that we take advantage of those talented intellectually in the same way we do those talented as athletes. A child who is acting out at school, for example, may become the researcher who will discover a cure for AIDS. The bottom line—whether in corporations, factories, or universities—would be improved by creating a humane and creative atmosphere in which workers have the opportunity for greater flexibility, variety, and challenge on the job. Streznewski enjoins us, "If you are a gifted person, think of yourself as a catalyst, one with valuable special properties for the creation of the future."

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