Wired to be rebels

For gifted adults and the managers who coach them.

One of the first questions I can remember asking myself as a young child was, “why am I the way I am?” It’s a question I never stopped asking myself, because this nagging feeling of I don’t fit in here chased me through all my moves as a military brat, and all my jobs as an adult.

I became obsessed with personality tests in my 20s. Myers-Briggs* was a revelation to me; as an off-the-charts N (Intuitive, 20% of the population), it explained why I had such a difficult time communicating with Sensors who seemed to think in a more literal, linear way. While my abstract thinking style bounced from A to W to D to M, making intuitive leaps based on absorbing multiple data points simultaneously, my Sensor bosses bashed me for “being unstrategic.” At the time, I assumed this meant I was defective.

Much later in life, I stumbled upon how high-functioning autism shows up in women, and I now consider myself neurodiverse despite a low likelihood of being formally diagnosed. Being exceptionally good with language (I was reading at a fourth-grade level in kindergarten) and a social and identity chameleon, I’d never be picked up on the radar of diagnostic tests designed for boys. I’ve worked hard to adapt to the “normal” world… which means that the autism community is simply one more place where I sort of fit in, but still an outlier.

Gifted adults, or rebels with a cause?

But in the past week, I stumbled onto the literature about gifted adults: those with above-average intelligence and/or an exceptional talent. Ding ding ding!! Now we’re onto something. The below chart takes a more visual view of common gifted characteristics. Or, check out this helpful article on how gifted shows up in the workplace.

In the past few years I’ve come to accept and embrace my quirks that come with being so-called “gifted,” which I’ve defined as a rebel with a cause: breaking rules that don’t make sense, constantly asking why something is the way it is, and obsessing over fairness and justice. I work faster than most. I can consume vast amounts of data, metabolize it and find the patterns. Instead of being broken and dysfunctional, I’ve realized that these are my superpowers I share with other gifted adults. I’ve found my tribe.

But original minds carry some baggage. We can have a fear of failure thanks to high expectations of ourselves… get caught in a perfectionist trap… get overwhelmed by all the possibilities we see… have difficulty focusing on one thing… feel alone and misunderstood. And it’s also hard for us to work in traditional and hierarchical environments where we’re expected to hunker down in our box and color inside the lines.

Gifted is also frequently misdiagnosed as ADHD or high-functioning autism (HFA); the similarities are remarkable. And it’s also common for all these traits to coexist in some people (including me.)

rebel brains are wired differently.

Gifted adults make up anywhere from 2 – 20% of the population depending on whatever arbitrary cut-off point you choose. Meaning we’re minorities, different on the inside, based on how our brains are wired… which is why I advocate for a broader definition of neurodiversity in the workplace. Traditional ways of coaching and supervising aren’t usually effective with us.

We might drive managers crazy with our constant challenging of the status quo, or insistence on doing meaningful work, or emotional or environmental sensitivity, or oblivious disregard for arbitrary departmental or hierarchical boundaries. But put us in the right environment, allowing us the autonomy to solve wicked problems, and we become prized assets. You just need to understand how we’re wired; different can be inconvenient, but it doesn’t mean we’re wrong.

Here are four ways that we’re neurologically unique, along with coaching implications. Our brains take in more information, think laterally through greater connectivity, think at lightning speed, and process more intuitively.

We take in more information

Crazy or creative? Both can be linked to the degree of latent inhibition in the brain: “the capacity of an animal to unconsciously screen out stimuli perceived as irrelevant to its needs.” That means that a mind with low levels of latent inhibition is bombarded with more details than the typical mind. All those details can lead either to madness (think John Forbes Nash in A Beautiful Mind) or simply a greater creative capacity. Or both.

A study among Harvard undergrads found that high lifetime creative achievers had significantly less latent inhibition than low creative achievers. Additionally, creative thinkers within a single domain (think math or music) proved seven times more likely to have low latent inhibition scores than high ones. Higher IQ and working memory seems to protect these minds from the severe psychological downsides of taking in too much information.

But psychological downsides still exist. Gifted kids and adults often are sensitive and easily overwhelmed, either by the sensory environment, emotions, or simply too many ideas rattling around in our brains. It can be helpful to create very quiet working environments (or use noise-canceling headphones). If I’m drinking from an information firehose I find that a 20 minute nap resets my brain from an overwhelm-induced freeze. Lastly, we need different approaches to goal-setting: ways to take options off the table and keep moving in the same direction without stifling our diverse interests or forcing us into a linear mode of working. I’ve created a process called Intent+Improv to solve for this.

Our brains are more connected

Gifted children and adults are known to be exceptional associative thinkers. We’re able to connect the dots across all that stimulus we absorb, likely because we have more connections in our brains.

Connectivity across brain regions is akin to the roads on which you travel to get from place to place. In the brain, these roads are made up of tracts of white matter which serve as higher speed freeways. The gifted brain has more of these tracts,2 allowing for the possibility of more “traffic movement.”

Neuroscience of Giftedness: Greater Connectivity Across Brain Regions

We rebels need to learn how to translate our lateral ideas in a linear context to be understood by most people; we need to show how we arrived at our conclusions, which are usually evident in hindsight. Conversely, linear thinkers need to appreciate that divergent minds are simply taking a different route. Not better or worse, just different.

The other major coaching opportunity for rebels is taking the time to think through other options; intuitive, associative thinkers can easily get married to the patterns that we see so clearly and quickly. A top-down, logical approach is necessary to pressure-test our ideas and identify what’s missing… before our bosses and clients point it out! My favorite coaching question: what’s the third way here?

We think and iterate at lightning speed

Because we’re processing more information using more connections, we think faster. As kids, we may have entertained ourselves in class, bored, waiting for others to catch up.

“When you say someone is quick-thinking, it’s genuinely true. The impulses are going faster and they are just more efficient at processing information, and then making a decision based on it.”

Paul Thomson, PhD, professor of neurology at UCLA School of Medicine

We’re still doing the same thing as adults, only now, we’re not waiting. And we end up leaving behind the very people we need to bring on board to make our visions a reality. Shannon Lucas and Tracey Lovejoy’s new book delves into the nature of catalysts — essentially gifted adults with a drive for action — and how we need to slow down with intentionality to bring others along and avoid burnout.

“What you see and do in a proverbial flash is what entire teams take years to map out. And the only way to remove the blind spots, protect yourself, and value your strengths is to make your movements visible—first to yourself, then to everyone you’re bringing along with you.”

Move Fast. Break Shit. Burn Out. The Catalyst’s Guide to Working Well
We process information more intuitively

While the left/right brain dominance theory has been debunked (replaced by dual-processing theory popularized by Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow), there are two areas of hemispheric specialization that are interesting and relevant to this topic: Intuition likely happens in the right half, but language is processed in the left.

“…a more distributed intuitive network may feed into a predominately right hemispheric insight-based functional neuronal architecture.”

“…The right hemisphere lacks the capacity to generate productive language in over 95% of the population…”

Intuition, insight, and the right hemisphere: Emergence of higher sociocognitive functions

I’ve noticed that the rebels I coach (mostly women) often have difficulty translating what they intuit into words. Because we mostly process abstractly, holistically and visually in the right brain, we need to “port” these ideas into the language center located in the left hemisphere. It’s a challenge shared by those on the autism spectrum as well; as articulated by a member of an Aspie Women Facebook group:

“If my brain takes in and organises so much information at once, is that caused or helped by the fact it seems to bypass my brain’s language centres? It’s incredibly hard work to describe what I know… I always feel at a loss for words to convey the largeness and complexity of my understanding. So much is lost in translation.”

 This can lead to an obsessive need to “talk things out” in order to capture the essence of abstract ideas, or it can lead to “freezing” or introversion. To managers, it looks like a jumble of poorly thought-through ideas, or interpreted as socially challenged behavior. I had a manager override my gut-level intuition because I couldn’t quickly articulate why I felt so strongly about a contradictory solution.

Coaching opportunities exist on both sides here. For the rebel, you’ll need to go through the extra step of translating gut-level insights into logical arguments; since you think and work faster than normal, it’s a matter of slowing down and giving extra time. This will feel excruciating, but worth it to streamline communication and understanding.

Managers: instead of disregarding an employee’s intuition, honor it and use this as a learning opportunity for both of you. Say, “we recognize you have an intuitive thinking style; why don’t you take a day to sort through your thoughts and lay out your argument in a way we can understand.”

When we reframe neurodiversity beyond its narrow disability-oriented definition to encompass the unique wiring of gifted adults — aka rebels with a cause — everyone wins.

Sound familiar?

If you’re a self-identified rebel with a cause, or you’re a manager with a high-potential rebel on your hands, I’d love to talk with you. Book a call here.


*Re: Myers-Briggs, people can’t be put into boxes, labeled and categorized like widgets. I have taken this test many times over the years, getting different scores based on my context at the time. I still find it very helpful as a directional guide for understanding self and others. As a consistent INxx (INTJ, INFP, INTP) my personality and thinking style is a very small percent of the general population. If you’d like a free test, click here.

Coming out of the neurodiversity closet

Celebrating the unsung superpowers of the neurodiverse brain, and why the gender-biased, one-dimensional view of neurodiversity is holding back innovation.

I fumbled my way through life and work for over 40 years before I was informed by my then-girlfriend (a brilliant MD/PhD in biotech) that she was on the autism spectrum… then she gently added, “and I’m pretty sure you are too.” You’ve got to be kidding me, right? We both seemed normal to me.  

Thing is, I knew nothing about autism beyond the stereotypes like poor social skills and repetitive behavior, neither of which fit me. Diagnostic tests are exclusively based on boys; widespread gender bias abounds, like this article from HBR that presents a male-centric, one-dimensional view of autism in the business world.

Yet autism presents quite differently in women (working screeners here and here). Unlike boys, girls are more motivated to fit in and make friends; highly intelligent girls learn social rules through careful observation, trial and error. We develop the skills of masking and camouflage, even from ourselves.  We can be empathetic, read voraciously, have friends and jobs… in other words, we can come across as normal, until those moments when we’re not.

It’s nearly impossible to hide who we are; our differences eventually reveal themselves. No matter how good I think I am at social interaction, like many other HFA women, I’ve lost jobs, friends and relationships without understanding why. I often feel awkward and misunderstood around neurotypicals, like I’m speaking a totally different language.

Learning about how autism presents in women was an incredible revelation – finally, my life makes sense! – but when I shared with my dad, he quickly advised, “don’t tell anyone.” Because that’s what that generation did, right?  Sweep uncomfortable things under the rug. Act like everything is normal.

But what is normal?  We need to start normalizing something that’s an unrecognized and under-valued part of our humanity. So I’ll start writing about my experience in hopes that more people start to understand and appreciate the superpowers that diverse humans – and especially diverse women — bring to the party.  We’re the rebels with a cause, and we have a lot to offer.

The pattern-matching perks of neurodiversity

It’s called a spectrum for a reason – divergent traits can be radically different from person to person, which is why it can be so hard to identify or diagnose. It’s also not black and white; there are many shades of grey. The benefits can also vary by individual: the right side of this list fits the conventional view of autism, but my strengths are on the left:

Lateral thinking
Pattern recognition
Strategic analysis
Processing data quickly.  
Sustained concentration
Error detection
Consistency in tasks once mastered
Grasp of complicated mathematics
Attention to detail.  

Let’s dig into the lesser-known benefits, shall we? A core theory about the neurodivergent (ND) brain is that it’s more connected than that of an average person (aka neurotypical, or NT.) This connectivity helps them “perceive and process more at any point in time than a non-autistic person.” It’s also linked to the bottoms-up thinking style that powers the creative and strategic traits.

Bottoms up!

Bottoms-up thinking is considered a neurodivergent trait. It’s not exclusively autistic, nor exclusively male or female. However, since women mask so many other ND traits, this way of processing information is often a tell-tale sign of a differently wired brain, leading to feelings of not fitting in or misunderstood.

Most people take in the concept before the details; they start with a theory or idea, then find details to support it. But bottoms-up thinkers take in the details before the concept. Our ND brains are constantly taking in information, consciously and subconsciously, and then finding patterns across it all.

  • “Most people have to have a theory first, and then they try to make the data conform to it. My mind works the opposite way. I put lots of little pieces of data together to form a new theory.
  • “I’m good at trawling through the Internet through vast amounts of journal articles and then picking out what are the really important things. I then synthesize all this resource down into one short paragraph… I’m a bottom-up thinker – I take the details and put them together.”

This is, by the way, aligned with “first principles” thinking popularized by Elon Musk. As James Clear writes, “it’s a cycle of breaking a situation down into the core pieces and then putting them all back together in a more effective way. Deconstruct then reconstruct.” But Aspies don’t even need to deconstruct; we live in a deconstructed world, endlessly seeing possibilities for how it can be constructed better.

(UPDATE: Just discovered that this could also be a function of low “latent inhibition,” which I’ll write about in another post.)

The pattern-matching superpower 

In many NDs, this detail-first approach means they’re great at getting down in the weeds to deeply understand the way things work… and we can do that a lot faster than most people. It also means we can get bogged down and easily feel overwhelmed; if I take in too much information too fast, my brain freezes up and I need a nap to “reboot.” I also need a lot of silence and intentional downtime.

But I and others (usually those who also fall in the “gifted adult” camp) have also honed our natural pattern-matching abilities into a superpower. I’m compelled to find the central organizing principle that can create coherence, simplicity and wholeness where an NT would see only chaos.  I’m compelled because it helps quiet my brain, and I love solving an infinite puzzle.

You might say my special interest is coherence – seeing how to orchestrate individual parts into a powerful whole system – whether that system is an individual human, a highly complex global organization, or a large-scale system with “unsatisfactory equilibrium points” resulting in homelessness, deforestation, climate change and other challenges.

As I’ve been exposed to all aspects of organizations through various roles, I’ve made it my mission to find practical tools and approaches that are effective at the intersections, knitting together what’s been artificially separated for no apparent reason I can see.

Think Different

This pattern-matching superpower should theoretically be valued by leadership. I believe it was Steve Jobs’ secret sauce; very likely on the spectrum, Jobs was an absolute master at creating simplicity and coherence across a complex global ecosystem.

Could this be why the most successful companies today are tech companies? Their advantage isn’t the technology; it’s their minds. Many of these leaders literally see the world differently, crafting innovations and coherent business strategies that are radically different from the status quo.

While full-blown Asperger’s Syndrome or autism hold back careers, a smaller dose of associated traits appears critical to hatching innovations that change the world.

“A typical child might just accept, ‘Okay this is just the way it’s done, this is how we do things in our culture or family,” said Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Center in Cambridge. “Someone with autism or Asperger’s, they kind of ask those ‘why’ questions. They want more logical answers. Just saying ‘Well we do this just because everybody else does,’ that doesn’t meet their test of logic.”

Why Shades of Asperger’s are the Secret to Building a Great Tech Company

But these superpowers don’t seem to be valued outside the tech world. And frankly, the way it manifests in women is so unique that I don’t think they’re recognized and valued in tech either. I’ve lost or left jobs precisely because I’m a rebel who thinks different. I’ll tell those stories in later posts, but suffice it to say, it’s taken me a long time to realize that I simply can’t work with companies (as an employee, a consultant or a coach) who won’t even try to see the world through my eyes. This is why I now exclusively work with “rebels with a cause” or those who appreciate us.

A call to be taken seriously

All the women I coach happen to be bottoms-up thinkers, even if they don’t resonate with other spectrum traits. They’re brilliant, intuitive, and can get lost in all the possibilities they see. Traditional, linear goal-setting usually doesn’t work. Different brains need different tools and support… but more than anything, they need to be recognized.

These women aren’t going to fit in according to traditional standards. They aren’t good at working their way up a career ladder. They’re divergent.

Leaders, it’s time to identify, value and nurture the incredible pattern-matching brains that see possibilities that no one else can. Every organization needs Connectors: the people who play at the intersections and see how things could be integrated. And many of these connectors are women: the so-called lost girls who have incredibly intuitive insights, yet  aren’t taken seriously… or their social quirks get them ostracized or fired.  

“They are very often incredibly creative individuals, almost like Renaissance people who are extremely bright… On the other hand, the anxiety can be completely crippling for them, especially when they are misunderstood. People see a verbal, bright woman, and the expectations for that person are way, way high.” says Dania Jekel, Executive Director, Asperger/Autism Network

“Invisible women, lost girls: being female on the autism spectrum”

If you’re a leader or manager who’d like more insight for yourself or your employees, or you’d like an Aspie brain to review your strategy if you’re trapped in complexity, let’s talk.

What questions do you have? I’d love to hear from you.

 “While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” – Steve Jobs

Side note: If you suspect you’re a bottoms-up thinker, it doesn’t mean you’re autistic; this information-processing style is simply one of many traits that diverge from the norm. You might simply be what my dear friend Shannon Lucas calls a catalyst. It’s the number and magnitude of traits that together contribute to a diagnosis.

Photo by Morgan Housel on Unsplash