“Highly gifted people often do not fit in at a university”

You wouldn’t expect it, but highly gifted people often feel stupid. A shame, because they have so many excellent ideas, says biologist Frans Corten, author of a book about highly gifted people called 'Uitzonderlijk talent' (Exceptional talent). He has been coaching highly gifted people in their careers for twenty years.

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Corten estimates that perhaps one in ten people working at a university are highly gifted. Some of them have a hard time. Although they study and conduct research on a high level, highly gifted people often feel out of place at a university, Corten says.

You prefer to use the term odd birds. Why?
“I don’t find the word ‘highly gifted’ very interesting. It’s too much about IQ tests, and those are just random indications at a given moment. The term ‘odd bird’ more adequately describes what these people feel: I don’t belong. I was warned that the term might scare people off, but it turned out to appeal to people instead.”

You yourself are an odd bird as well.
“Yes, I struggle with that regularly. Like other odd birds, I am a highly sensitive person, and I think a great deal about what it is I really want. I studied biology but found it boring, so I took up philosophy as well. I rarely got good grades.

During my graduation, I found myself in a laboratory full of odd birds. Some of them had been there for thirteen years and did great things, but they could not get a degree. They were unable to meet the requirements. Fortunately, our supervisor was very patient and I managed to graduate in the end.”

You believe that odd birds do not reach their potential at a university. Why not?
“The fight over budgets is dominant. The rules are too rigid, it’s too much about publication scores. Those who enjoy teaching, research, and gathering knowledge fit in just fine. But it’s different when you are very intelligent and innovative, but need some extra personal attention.

In my book, I use the example of a former student of nuclear science. He found out that the theoretical models the university had been using for years were wrong. People weren’t worried when he presented his findings, but reacted angrily. Universities say they want to gather knowledge and take steps forward, but that is not always how it works in reality. That can be very confusing to odd birds.”

What are some of the problems they face?
“It’s often difficult to categorize them. It starts as early as during elementary school. They feel stupid sometimes because they don’t act as expected. When the teacher asks them what they did during the weekend, they don’t talk about the same things as their classmates. They realize that they are different. They also struggle to make the right choice of study: everything is interesting, but not interesting enough.”

What should odd birds do?
“First, you have to understand that you are different. Then go out and find likeminded people to spar with. It prevents you from making yourself smaller and smaller and becoming depressed. Odd birds need to learn how to follow their intuition, because they tend to go about things intellectually. But choosing a study, job, or partner doesn’t work that way. They tend to lag behind when it comes to these matters.

Also, try do something that others may find unusual. Search for an environment that allows you to pioneer, where everything isn’t fixed, where people don’t quibble over formalities. And try to think of others when you communicate, because otherwise you might scare them to death.”

What do you mean?
“Odd birds need to realize that not everyone is as intelligent as they are. For instance, they might immediately figure out what the key issues are during a meeting, while others have not reached that point that. That is why I sometimes tell my clients: read up on the subject during a meeting so that you aren’t ahead of the others. People look at you strangely when you start to talk too soon.”

So basically, odd birds need to restrain themselves somewhat?
“Yes, although it would be a shame if they were not to make the most of their talent. Odd birds often have excellent ideas. One of my clients - inconspicuous and modest - solved a serious problem with a conveyor belt in a factory. They had already flown in engineers from abroad, but he approached the problem purely intuitively, without reading protocols, and managed something a team of experts could not.”

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