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Who was I?

This is a recurring question for gifted adults because the intensity of our childhood experiencing has a direct bearing on our adult gifted success. It also offers valuable clues to understanding those things that don’t work so well for us.

In particular, the question: “What fascinated me when I was three years old?” seems of special significance. This is because the passionate preoccupations of three-year olds so often seem to form the foundation of success in a wide range of gifted adults.

The number of gifted and creative artists who recall their passion from their very early years is legion.

"I danced myself out of the womb.  Is it strange to dance so soon?" Marc Bolan. "Cosmic Dancer".

"I danced myself out of the womb.
Is it strange to dance so soon?"
Marc Bolan. "Cosmic Dancer".

At three or less, musicians pick up violins or start hammering on drums; dancers shake their booties; painters discover negative space without realizing there was ever anything else.

As an example, if you enter: “I started drawing when I was three.” as a single statement on Google you will get nearly 150,000 responses from illustrators, artists and so on. Substituting “playing piano” brings up 3,000. “Writing” only gives rise to 9, but includes one of my favorites: “I started writing when I was three years old, but it wasn’t until I was seven that I was first published.”

If you simply enter: “I started when I was three.” you’re greeted with nearly a million dancers, skiers, stamp-collectors, violinists, riders, soccer players etc. And these are only the people who feel compelled to commit their biographies to the Internet.

Pre-occupation to Occupation

Given that three is an age that has great significance for our future, how can we use the lessons to be learned from it?

Unconsciously building a gifted future.

Unconsciously building a gifted future.

Lucky the child whose obvious interests attracted parental support. S/he would all-unconsciously have started on the path to mastery and clarity.

But what about those of us whose creativity didn’t manifest through a musical instrument or box of crayons? We have to look harder to see where we come from.

The effort involved in this considered examination is highly worthwhile. Through it our uniqueness becomes apparent by revealing our own history and balance of preoccupations.

I hope you’ll take the time to uncover your own. As a process it can reinforce some affectionate self-recognition as well as open the doors to greater self-understanding.

As a guide to what I mean, here are some of my early qualities:

  • I was very clumsy at drawing.
  • I read a great deal.
  • I took every opportunity to go exploring on my own.
  • I built complex houses and towns from building blocks.
  • I focused a great deal of attention on my mother’s welfare, not least because we moved every six months or so, sometimes halfway round the globe.

How does that translate into today?

  • I still read a great deal. And, as reading is practice for writing, I write a great deal.
  • I’m very independent, an explorer in thought and in location.
  • I have always worked with complex systems demanding deconstruction, re-architecture and re-construction. This applies to my work in computing, in writing, and of course in the ongoing task of understanding and re-framing human nature.
  • My “taking care of mom” shows itself in dozens of ways, from a tendency to be over-solicitous in personal relationships to volunteering my time on committees. Many a professional or non-profit organization has reason to be grateful to my mother!
  • I’m still very clumsy at drawing.

Your mind is an iceberg

If your present life is more or less in accord with your three-year old preoccupations then you’re probably reasonably happy.

Out of sight but in the mind. What's concealed can slow you to a crawl.

Out of sight but in the mind. What's concealed can slow you to a crawl.

However, if you’re finding it hard to follow through on your early enthusiasms, it could be due to your unconscious mind. Like the lower part of an iceberg, this is the hidden power that dominates your actions.

Brain research has made it clear that it is the unconscious, not the conscious, that rules our decision-making and thus our lives. (Check out Jonah Lehrer’s book: “How We Decide” for confirmation of this.)

Experts of all kinds have contributed their estimates as to when the development of our unconscious mind is ‘finished’.  Such estimates typically fall in an age range between two and seven.

So where does that leave us?

Where does that leave us? Perhaps shockingly, it leaves us being managed by the assumptions and beliefs of – let’s average it – a five-year old. With our mind like an iceberg, our consciousness is the ten percent above water while the real weight and power lies massively beneath the surface.

This explains so much of what we find challenging. Our conscious mind says: “Let’s go to New York and look at some art,” but our unconscious wants to go surfing. With nine tenths of us pulling one way we are bound to end up in some compromise situation.

In this case, rather than New York it might be a trip to Malibu. There you can spend the days at Surfrider Beach while taking side trips to the Getty Museum.

That kind of compromise might seem harmless enough but supposing your conscious mind is saying: “I need to save for a rainy day,” while your unconscious is saying: “There’s no point saving. Someone will just steal it from you.”?

The inevitable – yes, inevitable – consequence is that you will effect a compromise between these two positions. And it’s unlikely that it will meet all your conscious self’s need to save. So you will fret . . . and fret . . . and fret.

I want to correct any impression that I assume that the childhood unconscious tends to be irresponsible. It often isn’t. There are plenty of people who consciously think: “I ought to have more fun,” while their five-year old unconscious is nudging them to keep working “just in case.”

What to do about it

When our early preoccupations work for us, life is grand. But what happens when they don’t?

Gifted and creative individuals are highly sensitive.  We feel conflict intensely and will take great steps to try to resolve it. The sense of going where we don’t want to – under the control of something hidden –  is thus very painful and discouraging for us.

It’s never going to be easy, but the key to tolerating such apparent conflict and inability to achieve our objectives is first of all to make our five-year old selves real. Picture yourself back in that tiny body, mentally recreate a room in which you spent a lot of time, and allow these questions to pass across your mind:

  • Who were you then? How did you experience yourself?
  • Where were you? What events and family dynamics were determining your life?
  • Where did you go to be yourself and what would you do there?
  • What were the actions of your parents/caretakers showing you about their belief systems?
  • Did they all send the same message? Were  you able to reconcile any conflicting messages and if so, how?
you can call for reinforcements when you know what you need to overcome.

You can call for reinforcements when you know what you need to overcome.

The more clearly you are able to re-experience yourself at that time, the more understandable your current conflicts will become.  And, much more importantly, the more you’ll be able to work with them rather against them.

This is because by revealing your most counter-productive beliefs to yourself you discover where your conscious will needs reinforcement.

You can use this information to help you find the appropriate assistance to tug you in your preferred direction. This assistance might come in the form of a person, a book, or some other form of external energy. You’ll recognize it when you need it.

And now . . .

I’d love to hear how your fascinations as a three-year old reveal themselves today.  Just add your comments below and tell us your story.


14 Responses to “Gifted child pre-occupation = gifted adult occupation”

  1. Nick says:

    Superb article, Chris. The iceberg analogy is especially poignant in illustrating the unconscious and its powerful driving forces. I think many readers will benefit from understanding its influence.

    I look forward to your future articles:)

  2. Donna says:

    I discovered the fun of pattern. I liked to draw and decorate the drawings with detail. I walked around by myself and met old people–we tried to communicate. I liked to be by myself. I liked to explore. I liked to play circus. I had conversations with the tiny people who lived in the pipes. I liked to think. I liked to sing. I pretended to be a teacher. I liked the wind. I liked to roll down the hill in the grass where tiny green bugs flew in little clouds.

  3. Jassy says:

    At three years old, I liked to spend time with my grandfather and ask him why I couldn’t have a warm ice lolly and wait for him to give me a good answer. I danced endlessly and for hours, spinning, twirling and leaping as high as my legs would go. Tea parties with dolls and teddies were an endless joy, with my mother’s plaid blanket spread on the grass and toys arranged in groups with miniature china tea cups and plates. I would look on at them “chatting” with delight. I liked to run through long grass with my hair flying, feeling my legs pumping, overawed by the speed of my body. I loved story books, fairy tales, words of all kinds, and would practice “writing” – reams of scribble that were real stories to me. I liked to run along the country lane, ahead of my mother, picking blackberries off the hedgerows. I made endless daisy chains sitting on the grass and gave them as presents to my brother and mother, decorated my dolls with them and felt sad when my fingers were too clumsy to make a hole to thread another: the broken daisies were put in egg cups and were placed all over the house.

  4. Scott says:

    When I was little, I believed grown ups went into the basement after they made us go to bed. They lived a second life underground while we had to go to sleep.

  5. Tony says:

    My story is somewhat similar to Chris’s ‘building blocks’ example. The earliest toy I can remember, apart from teddy, was my wooden blocks, with their tray on wheels. Certainly by the age of three I was stacking the blocks to see how high they could go, rather than just stacking them to knock them down. And I can remember (I think, so many memories can be invented) being enrapt by how they began to wobble. I was probably older when I sussed out that a slight displacement of the top block would counter the wobble. This led to my being fascinated with mechanisms, and throughout my life I’ve been good with my hands, with tools, and in repairing mechanical objects. Stimulated perhaps by the post-war ethos of make do and mend. I wasn’t and aren’t a creative artist, but I’m skilled in creative solutions to problems.

    Briefly my logical and predictable progression has been has been:

    Wooden blocks (1943)– Shaped coloured building blocks (well before Lego) – Meccano (the core training for all engineers, now sadly ignored) – A proper chemistry set (ie some dangerous stuff, not the mild safe experiments of today) – A home-based Electrical Engineering course, making proper artefacts, like a crystal radio, a variable DC power supply – Science at grammar school – Engineering College, with our own factory, everything from pattern making, sand casting, machining, fabrication to electrical and gas welding (I was particularly good at the later) – Computer Programmer and Analyst at IBM (still ‘cogs’, just electronic ones) – My being the first even IT Manager at Liberty’s Department Store in London in the 70’s and 80’s – Computer tutor in Adult Education – And finally, since 1994 Gestalt Psychotherapist.

    Why do I see being a psychotherapist (actually a simple counsellor) as part of the process, and not an odd-ball outcome? Because delving into my clients psyche, and into my own in personal therapy, was and is much the same as “What does this obscure feature in my word processor do?” r more earlier “If I turn this cog, move this lever, what happens?” Working at Liberty’s was an important part of the journey, I was into the Arts & Crafts Movement and working with artistic creative designers, merchandisers and others has always been a joy. Plus, along the way, esoteric philosophy, courses in Freud, Jung, Gestalt, etc. All ways of finding out what made me, this complex mechanism, tick.

    All from a tray of wooden blocks, that I could pull along on a string!

  6. Donna says:

    I hope more people leave comments, these are all really interesting. Scott, how did you get a picture into your little square?

  7. Suzanne says:

    I don’t remember being three, but I didn’t play with dolls. At four, I enjoyed having other people tell me about their lives, and I was only thinking a couple of days ago about my unfulfilled interest in being a biographer.

    Hmmm … food for thought!!

  8. Mary says:

    Come to think of it I do remember playing my jack-in-the-box with it upside down. That way the the clown wouldn’t jump out unexpectedly and scare me! And I remember being very excited to pick a new crayon from the big box every so often. I loved Burnt Siena and wondered why it was called that. And I remember reading those “see Spot run” books, and not liking “Green Eggs And Ham” because it was so repetetive. I also loved watching ants go in and out of anthills, and dropping crumbs of food for them so they wouldn’t go hungry.
    I guess I do remember some stuff and it is helpful! Thank you!
    I still love Burnt Siena, and I assume the name has to do with the color of the earth around Siena, italy. Must Google it…..

  9. Hmmm…interesting line of thought. It’s difficult for me to go back to those days. Not because I don’t want to, but because my memories have dimmed, probably as a coping strategy to family dysfunction. My mother divorced when I was two, remarried when I was five, so you can imagine it wasn’t a very care-free time for me. I think I have blocked out most of my earliest memories except for a few snippets here and there.

    I did recently write this on my blog when I had insomnia and I was wondering if other people had as much trouble sleeping as I did and what they thought about.
    That night I was thinking about how my childhood led me to a career path:

    * When I was a child of about 10-11, I used to pore over encyclopedias and dictionaries and National Geographics.
    * As a teenager, it was by reading a stack of books from the library every week .
    * As a young adult, it was by taking challenging math and science classes at my university.

    * As a 20-30ish year old, it was by learning all I could at my jobs (microbiology lab tech, forensic DNA scientist, and then medical genetics senior tech/lab supervisor), not only doing the lab-work, but taking on quality assurance roles and becoming an expert on the instruments I used, and giving laboratory tours so that I could share what I knew and loved about what our labs did.
    * As a 39 year old stay at home mother of girls, it is by searching the internet for what interests me – which is usually about learning styles and learning difficulties like dyscalculia, or gifted issues in children or adults, and human development across the lifespan, and math or science related topics and finding out how to challenge the girls with math and science activities at home. I maintain 3 blogs about these issues – one for general education, one for science experiments with kids, and one for my own journal about my life and raising a child with selective mutism.
    * As a mother of a recovering selectively mute child with sensory issues, it was immersing myself in everything I could find out about selective mutism and sensory processing therapies I could do at home, and emotion coaching to help her. I even came up with a Kid’s Problem Solving Binder to help her with her emotional self-regulation and cognitive flexibility.

    Needless to say, there’s LOTS of directions I could move into for my next career path, many I’d like to pursue but probably won’t.

    I was supposed to take the last 5.5 years to really decide where I want to go next, when my children are old enough to not need me so much. But nothing really jumped out at me, though science still is something I’m passionate about. Interestingly enough, I have had mixed feelings about returning to the workforce, even as I am in going to be interviewed for a scientific position in the near future. I do want the challenge, but I am still uncertain about it for many personal reasons.

    I undersold myself at the pre-interview, edited out much of the details of my skills for my resume in an effort to keep it to one page (it was a 2 pager before), didn’t send a thank you letter for the pre-interview, and have been dragging my heels on finding childcare. I am doing everything I can to sabotage myself and I don’t know why. It’s a perfect on ramp back into the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) field, and I’m doing everything possible to undermine myself. I was almost certain I wouldn’t get a call back, and I got the call yesterday to formally interview next week.

    My question is WHY am I ambivalent? I’m perfectly capable, it’s a great location (in the suburbs, not the city which was one difficult factor for me to remain in my old position), and it does have potential if things go the way I want them to. But still…I am not convinced I really know what I want for my future, or at the very least, keep telling myself next year would be better on us as a family when the littlest two are in school all day and would just need an hour or two of after school care. At the same time, it might be a stupid move not to take it if they offer me a position. It’s not easy to get back into the STEM field after an absence and this potential employer is willing take a chance on me.

    I don’t know. Maybe I’m afraid to want it, knowing I am a workaholic, which is part of the reasons why I quit my job when my second child was 9 months old. I couldn’t throw myself into both “jobs” with the intensity they both required. I don’t consider a job well done unless I do it myself, and that has included the job of mothering.

    I’m just in conflict right now. I know I’ve been able to do whatever I wanted to, but now I have others to think about as well. It’s not just about what I want. But as it’s been very difficult to find ways of challenging myself as a stay at home mom, I do need to make some decisions.

  10. Charles says:

    So I’m late to the party, but at that age I was wondering why I was in this body and not in someone else’s. My parents separated not long after I was born and finally divorced when I was two, and much of my time was trying to figure out what was going on between them. Since then i’ve had a huge interest in philosophy and trying to understand the various dynamic systems in the world.

  11. Faith Morgan says:

    I am a 52 year old woman, just discovering that I’m gifted. It still sounds weird to say. I’m grateful to have found your blog, and am certain to be pouring over things, finally saying, “I’m not a mystery, anymore”. I was not luck in the parent department. I was “too much” everything, and my Mother was certain I was slightly evil. Unfortunately, I developed a form of ptsd over my childhood, and made it worse in adulthood. I remember very little of my childhood. But, I survived, and I’m now armed with the information I need. What I do remember, is that I adored to be in nature, and could see myself living in the forests of the Olympic Peninsula, or somewhere as gorgeous. I thrive on nature, and after much physical an mental hardship, I located myself in the very place of my childhood joy….. well, in Port Townsend, Wa.. While I have to drive a few miles to be in the “real” forest, there is beach on three sides of my tiny outcropping of only five miles across. The views of the Cascades and Olympics, the beaches, forest trails…….. it was where I came to lick my wounds. Two years later, things are looking up, and I happened upon a wonderful team of providers, who are helping me discover who I am.

  12. Hello Faith, thank you for this and your other comments. I’m very pleased that my experience resonates with you. And I remember looking at pictures of the Olympic Peninsula for hours myself and wondering if it would be possible to make a living there. It really is beautiful.

  13. Xanthe says:

    Interesting article.
    My younger son experienced a vivid feeling of wanting to be a pilot and operate the aircraft machinery when a child. This is exactly what he is doing now – and so very clever at it. Yes, he is gifted and carries all the characteristics.
    Like others I had a narrowing of my options when I really wanted to go into something to do with words which I was good at – including languages at school. I never had to learn my spelling words I just knew them ! But family dramas, PTSD from that, a working class attitude to “not getting above oneself” meant I did boring clerical work till I had children – which was hard but creative work to learn about that responsibility ! Later in life I have graduated with majors in sociology and writing on my 60th birthday. Since then I have been fascinated by existential philosophy, who we are, what is this thing called life and am now fully absorbed in being an independent student or autodidact on following my curiosity. It works for me and currently my path is on this giftedness which has been a revelation.

  14. Nate says:

    I was always fascinated by piano music along with making up songs to whatever piano music I played on the child sized keyboard I had before I started kindergarten. As far as I know, I’ve always known I was extremely different from my peers but didn’t discover my giftedness until age 23. For many years I found myself involved in rhythm with my hands, feet, and mouth. Long story short, I am getting deeper and better at playing the drums, wrote my first official song with an accordion (I’m almost done transposing it to the piano). You already know the wide range of abilities gifted people have so I won’t go through them all but it feels better to actually talk about it instead of hiding myself like I’ve done for most of my life.

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