There’s a lot of information out there about supporting the needs of gifted children, but not so much about nurturing and supporting the needs of gifted adults.  What DO we need to be happy and fulfilled?  Let’s find out. 

If you’re a gifted adult, then you were also a gifted kid, and when you were growing up, one of two things happened.  If you were lucky, you were identified as gifted, and someone tried to make sure you weren’t bored by offering you accelerated learning opportunities and above-level intellectual challenges.  If you weren’t identified, or you lived in a place where you didn’t have access to gifted programs, you were either extremely bored and checked out, in trouble because you were acting out or being hassled because you were different, or you were squirreled away in your room creating challenges on your own to fill those cognitive and emotional holes in your gifted brain. (and sometimes there’s an AND between all those options)  Even if you were struggling in some areas of your life, there were definitely specific things that made you happy.  

Think back … what KINDS of things really stimulated you, turned on all your dopamine receptors and got you into that state of flow?  Maybe you were building elaborate fantasy worlds with Legos or cardboard boxes, or maybe you were corralling all your cousins to perform a musical that you wrote on the spot, or maybe you were pretending to be a spy and sifting through the neighbor’s trash for clues (and yes, I speak from experience, in all of those cases). The through line running through all of those activities is space for challenge and creativity

Now let’s think about our lives as gifted adults in 2024.  What, if anything, gives us that same feeling?

It’s so easy to get swept up by that current that pushes us into the land of adult responsibility, without even realizing what we left behind.  We graduate college, we find a job, we start to accumulate things that we need to take care of like houses and kids, and we forget to hold space for ourselves and the things that feed our brains.  We forget that we can still grow and learn and get excited, and we forget that in order to be our best selves, we can’t hide or ignore an essential part of us, our giftedness. Our brains actually start to rebel against us if we don’t give them what gifted brains specifically need. 

So what is that?  What do gifted adults need and what makes gifted adults happy?  

In general, it’s recognition, space and acceptance.  Recognition that our brains work differently, space to let them do that work, and acceptance of both that process and the results of that process.  That probably sounds annoyingly vague, so let me break this down into ten very specific things that gifted adults need to be happy.  I’m going to put labels on those nebulous feelings that you’ve been experiencing without realizing that it’s your giftedness that’s driving those longings, and I’d love to hear in the comments which of these hit you in the face when you realized that “Wow, I do need that, and I didn’t realize it’s because of my giftedness.”

So here are the top ten things gifted adults need to be happy:

  1. Challenge

This one seems like it’s obvious, but so often we find ourselves in jobs or on paths that are literally boring us to death, and we don’t realize that the problem is that we’re not being challenged to our limits. The gifted brain requires challenge to keep it running smoothly … just doing things that come easy makes us really, really stale and deflated. It’s like those plants that do better when they don’t get quite enough water, or the farm dogs that start to misbehave when they’re stuck in the house with no work to do.  We need NEED  intellectual stimulation, but often we fall into the trap of thinking that as an adult, a secure job or a coveted job is enough, and maybe for some people it is, but it’s not enough for US.   The gifted brain needs to be provoked and dared and confronted … here’s a problem, bet you can’t solve it.  That’s what really lights us up.  Easy Street leads us right into a coma. 


  1. Speed

Gifted adults have brains that process things faster than other people’s brains, and we need room to move at our natural speed. It’s like a racecar driver in a really powerful, high performance vehicle, who’s cursed to live on a residential street and forced to drive at 25 miles per hour for the rest of his life.  That guy spends his life holding back, knowing he could easily zoom all over the place, but he’ll never be allowed the space to let loose. How would that affect his mental health?  It’s just like that with the gifted brain.  We think faster, absorb information faster, and come to conclusions faster than other people, and when we’re restrained or inhibited from operating at our natural speed, we get not just frustrated but really discouraged, disengaged, de-motivated, and even depressed.  It’s not healthy to be prevented from operating at your full capacity, and gifted adults need the space and sometimes the permission to run at their top speed.  In real life, that means we need to acknowledge that we’re quick and sharp.  We want the chance to work at our own pace.  We don’t need you to repeat yourself when you’re explaining something, and we don’t want you throwing obstacles in our path to slow us down because the speed at which we’re working is scaring you. 


  1. Creative License

The gifted brain thrives on opportunities to create and is actually rejuvenated by the creative process. We need space to be creative regularly – the creative process is like food for our brains.  And creativity isn’t limited just to the arts – it can include things like cooking and decorating and writing D&D quests and putting cool outfits together. And most importantly, we love to solve problems in creative ways. That fits into this category too. If we’re always working within traditional, prescribed limits, we start to atrophy.  But when we have a chance to make something, to build something, to solve something, we’re firing on all cylinders and the serotonin boost we get from admiring our finished product is unparalleled.  It fills our tanks. And at work, we need the space to apply our out-of-the box, creative thinking toward our projects. There are a lot of fields, a lot of corporations and workplaces that are mired in rules and bureaucracy and lists of limitations that have just grown until the workers are just bound with these ropes of regulations and it’s impossible to try a new approach.  That kind of space is like kryptonite to a gifted person. When we’re overtly prevented from being creative, we lose all our spark. 


  1. Complexity

This item is related to challenge – things that are simple aren’t as challenging or as interesting as things that are complex, and gifted adults lose their edge when everything is too easy.  So when I say we need complexity, I mean we want the advanced level challenge. We want to learn about the nuances of a complicated subject, and master a tricky skill in depth, and enjoy the novelty and variety of deep complex conversations or debates. We don’t want to just plan a run-of-the-mill fundraiser that’s just has a DJ and a silent auction, we want to create an immersive themed experience, like a Bridgerton Ball with period costumes and activity stations and ballroom dance lessons and a tea tasting, and a flower arranging craft, and horse and carriage rides.   Some people will look at that list and go “oh my god think of all the work” but we look at that and go “wow that sounds so cool!”  It’s the complexity that stimulates us, and the fun of the final product is worth the work.  Gifted folks need the complexity to keep things interesting. We’re not looking for the easy way out.


  1. Belief and trust

The most frustrating thing about living with a gifted brain is that we know what it can do, and we’re confident in the conclusions that it draws and the solutions that it comes up with, but so many other people are not.  And when those other people start throwing up roadblocks and saying things like, “Well, we’ve never done it that way before,” or “That sounds complicated, I don’t know if that will work,” or “Well, let’s slow down and do some more research on that before we move forward,”  that’s when we get really exasperated.  What gifted adults need is belief in our skills.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve replayed this same scenario at various jobs.  There’s a problem, I develop a solution to the problem, my colleagues or my bosses can’t comprehend my solution to the problem so they grind the process to a halt while they think about it and ask for opinions about it and wander around in the dark, and then months later I hear “ok, we decided how we’ll move forward” and it’s exactly what I suggested in the first place.  Really?  Can you please just trust me?  Look at my track record.  I know what I’m talking about.  Let me do my job.  Gifted folks need trust!  Please stop holding us back!  


  1. Outlets for renaissance talents

Many gifted adults are multipotentialites, meaning that we have deep interests in several fields, or we’ve mastered several areas very well.  In our culture today, we’re expected to pick one … pick one field, study it, get a job, do the job, retire.  But that’s not enough for us.  In fact, that’s extremely boring.  If you want to become a doctor, and also a great pastry chef, and also an author, you should have space and support to do all of those things.  The way our society is structured now, you’d have to work full time as a doctor, sell pastries out of your cottage kitchen after work, and write your novel on the weekends.  And that’s possible, but that means that if you have a partner or a family, they have to be on board with that – they have to understand that when you’re not spending time with them during the traditional “after work” hours, you’re not shunning them, you’re pursuing your passions, and not only does that make you happy, it’s essential for your mental health.  Essential.  When you decline to sit on the couch and watch tv for hours with these hypothetical partners, it’s not because you don’t care about them or you don’t know how to relax, it’s because your brain LOVES working on your passions, and that’s what makes you whole.  If someone cares about you, the best thing they can do for you is give you the space to do what makes you happy, and that often means giving you the permission, with no strings attached, to pursue your passions around the clock.


  1. Understanding

Gifted adults still retain the hallmarks of gifted children, but oftentimes we’ve learned to mask them so they’re not so obvious.   We’re still intense, and we’re still highly sensitive, but someone who’s not looking at us carefully may not realize it.  What that means is we’re still taking these hits from our environment to our system, but no one can see that we’ve been wounded, so we aren’t getting the support we need.  Let me give you an example.  Let’s say I’ve decided not to let anyone know that I’m highly sensitive, because I’m tired of the feedback that I’m getting.  I’m tired of hearing “don’t get so upset, it’s not a big deal, blah blah blah.”  It is a big deal, but I’m tired of hearing you say that.  So I go see a musical, let’s use Hadestown in this example.  No reason.  There’s a gorgeous song called “Wait for Me” that just pulls at my heartstrings and brings up the goosebumps and it’s so beautiful and haunting and melancholy that the tears that always live right here are like “here we come!”  But I’m determined not to cry in public, because I don’t want to hear people tell me “don’t cry,” so I stop listening to this beautiful song and focus all my energy on making sure those tears don’t spill out.  And my nose is running and I’m blinking up a storm, and nobody cares, but I’m missing out on enjoying this stunning, ethereal song, this transformational experience.  And then, when it’s over, I have this emotional hangover, all these feelings bottled up inside me with nowhere to go.  So I’m cranky and unsettled and I’m starting to get reactive and snip at people and no one knows why.  They don’t know what just happened in my head, and now they’re mad at me for being touchy and irritable. 

Now, let’s look at what would have happened if I had felt empowered to be myself, to be the highly sensitive person I actually am.  You may have guessed that this example is rooted in real life.  I did go see Hadestown, and I did waste a lot of energy trying to pretend to be stoic during Wait for Me, but then I looked over and my beautiful middle son, who is very comfortable being himself, had tears pouring down his face.  And he was 20 or 21 years old at the time, the age that you’d think he’d 100% be trying to appear aloof and unmoved, but he turned to me and he smiled through those tears and it was just like a light turned on and I realized that not only was I so happy for him that he felt so comfortable being himself, but I finally realized, I needed that for myself too.  It’s not easy to undo 50 years of conditioning, but I’m working on it. 


  1. Appreciation

Someone who’s not gifted can learn about the traits that define gifted adults, and objectively accept that some of our characteristics can be described as quirky, but the fact that they know we can be a little weird is not the same as them appreciating our weirdness.  In other words, gifted adults want to be appreciated, not tolerated. 

If I have eccentric interests, or I struggle with small talk, or I get hyperfocused, or forget that you’re not as interested in medieval weapons as I am and I’m talking your ear off about the use of the crossbow in anime, I want you smile and to think to yourself, “and that’s what I love about her,” not “ugh, there she goes again, doing that weird gifted thing.”  Giftedness is not a disorder or a pathology, it’s a type of neurodivergence.  Neuro meaning how your brain works, and divergence, meaning that our types of brains all fall on a spectrum, and we all process information and experience the world a little differently.  Gifted adults fall on the intensely perceptive end of that spectrum, which gives us valuable skills.  Sure, they may be different skills than those that non-gifted people have, but they’re not bad skills.  What gifted adults want and need is to be appreciated for who we are, not marginalized and categorized as strange. 


  1. Connection

Gifted folks thrive when we can find our tribe.  It’s hard to be the odd one out, trying to act neurotypical at work or when you’re out.  As much as we’d love to just be ourselves and celebrate our authenticity, there are times when we need to reign it in because other people either don’t understand us, don’t like us, or are threatened by us.  And, sadly, there are other times when we feel like we need to mask up because of the overt negative messages we’re getting.  What gifted adults really need is a way to connect with other gifted folks, to have an accepting space where we can be ourselves and just enjoy being around other people who think fast, understand our humor and our references, like deep conversations or weird debates, and just mirror our inner selves.  That’s when we feel the most confident.  I once heard the personal development coach Brendon Burchard say “surround yourself with people who bring the joy,” and I completely agree.  Gifted adults need to have regularly scheduled time when they are surrounded by people who get them. 


  1. Purpose 

And the last thing that gifted adults need is a meaningful purpose.  We love to solve challenging problems, we know that we’re good at generating creative solutions, and on a gut level, we want to use our superpowers to make a difference in the world.  What is the point of having this “very particular set of skills” if we don’t have an opportunity to use them for good?  We need to feel useful.  Having the opportunity to make a significant contribution to the world is, in my view, the most important key to happiness as a gifted adult.  Obviously, we each need to work within our own personal area of expertise – we won’t all be curing cancer or bringing peace to the Middle East – but every one of us can use our particular skills to make a significant difference somewhere, to someone.  One of my very favorite quotes is from Trent Shelton, who said “There’s someone out there right now who’s waiting for you to step into your gift.”  Someone needs what I can offer, and someone needs what you can offer, and all of our lives will be significantly improved if we can embrace our gifts and unleash our genius. 


And those are the top ten things that gifted adults need to be happy.  I’d love to hear in the comments which of these things resonated with you, and which ones surprised you.