Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Paradox of Potential

"Potential” is one of those words that most often elicits positive feelings. Potential is possibility, and hope, and a sense of looking forward all wrapped up in one happy, smiling package. But what happens when potential becomes nearly overwhelming and transforms in our hearts and minds to paralysis? What happens when we see possibilities so vast that we simply cannot choose among them? And what happens when our focus of sight is impinged upon by so many opportunities cluttering our view that we end up doing nothing in the face of not being able to do everything?

Yeah, I know; sounds like a bit of a lame problem to have, perhaps. But to those who struggle with it, it can become a problem that seems to define life. There are those among us who see shining fragments of potential refracting from the edges of nearly every experience like the rainbow beauty shining from a fine diamond; so much so that it can be blinding and intimidating to walk among the chiseled stones. And sometimes, people hide.

Dabrowsky recognized this when he formulated his theory of positive disintegration. His theory seeks to describe personality formation, but extends to descriptive characteristics of people with high talent and consciousness. He suggested that these folks often see possibility in everything; they are said to possess “overexcitabilities.” These may be of an intellectual nature, sensual nature, emotional nature or even others. These overexcitabilities can sometimes take people to the point of being paralyzed and unable to act upon anything. These are people with great potential! People regarded as smart and capable of contributing to society in unique and meaningful ways. And these are the guys being thwarted by their own abilities! What are we, as a society, missing out on by not nurturing these folks to the point of sustainable action? An even bigger question is what can we do about it?

I’m great at posing questions; not so great at offering answers. But on this topic, I have a few ideas.

When a student in school is first identified as having a learning disability, there is a great flurry of activity. Parents are notified, meetings are held, pamphlets about the disability are given out, counseling referrals are offered, and accommodating class changes are proposed. Parents and caregivers tend to regard the news seriously, and recognize that their student’s success depends in part upon their investment. They know they will have to go a bit further.

In contrast, when a student in school is identified as gifted, the situation is a bit different. Parents are certainly notified and sometimes, accommodating class and educational changes are proposed. But by and large, parents often go home pleased as punch and breathe a proud sigh of relief that gives away a certainty that their student will be successful in school and life. This is where we’re missing the boat.

Students at both ends of the spectrum require special attention. I’m not suggesting that gifted students are disabled. But I am suggesting that they too require a measure of special handling. They have unique perspectives and vulnerabilities that are not currently being widely addressed. Much as learning disabled students have global ramifications stemming from their disabilities, so too do gifted students experience widespread effects from their abilities. It sounds a bit counter-intuitive. I propose this is why we tend to ignore the peripheral byproducts of ability while we focus on nurturing the academic. We simply must teach kids how to cope with the characteristics of being gifted, much like we teach learning disabled children methods to cope with their disabilities. We cannot assume gifted children will flourish simply by virtue of their expanded aptitudes.

If gifted children can be equipped early to anticipate and cope with some of the challenges (yes, I said “challenges”) of being gifted, they become better poised for success; better able to cope with their sensitivities, better able to understand themselves in relation to their peers, better able to focus themselves, and yes, better able to walk among the diamonds of possibility and potential. I believe anticipation, preparation, and understanding can loosen the binds of paralysis that imprison many highly talented individuals.

I happen to be associated with a community of people who describe themselves as “gifted and lazy.” My association with them is more about the lazy than the gifted part, I suspect, but they are kind enough to include me in their little enclave. It’s all tongue in cheek, but I’m struck by how true it is, at some level. Each of them is bright and creative and yet, each of them regularly laments their inability to get as much done as they’d like due to an inability to focus and know where to start. They see wonder and possibility in nearly everything, and find it hard to settle to a task. Imagine if they had been coached early in life on how to appreciate their vision of potential while simultaneously focusing their resources upon something specific.

Now in THAT, I see great possibility and potential for society.