The focus on productivity is important for certain tasks at certain times, but it’s only one part of a holistic expression of our potential. If we conflate productivity with potential, we lose out on many rich aspects of our full selves, such as joy, rest, play, unstructured exploration and purposeless creativity. Trauma, culture and internalized ideologies can prime us toward a dysfunctional relationship with productivity, and thus with our understanding of our true potential. Jennifer explores these themes and shares resources for change in this article.
A version of this article addressed specifically to gifted adults was originally published on the InterGifted blog
POTENTIAL FOR THRIVING
The focus on productivity is important for certain tasks at certain times, but it’s only one part of a holistic expression of our potential. Many of the clients I’ve supported over the years have tended toward an overfocus on productivity as the main measure, or sometimes the only measure, of their potential. The measure of their productivity has often extended to external achievements: the hope and belief that the more they achieve, the more they know they’ve been productive, and the more they can feel they’re fulfilling their potential.
But this is rarely how it works out in real life. For those of us who have found ourselves at one time or another conflating our potential with our level of productivity or achievement, we know what it’s like to become disconnected from the many rich aspects of our selves that cannot be measured by productivity or external achievements — delighting in slow, sensual awareness, creating something just because we can, physical or mental play just for the fun of it, and so on. We also know what it’s like to feel we’re not living up to our potential, because no matter how much we produce and accomplish, there’s always more to be done.
Potential through the lens of productivity looks very different from potential through the lens of thriving. When we measure our potential only by what we produce, the non-productive parts of our lives lose meaning and value to us. When this mindset is taken to the extreme, the aspects of ourselves and our lives not directly related to productivity are viewed as “obstacles” to fulfilling our potential. I’ve witnessed many people over the years trying to “overcome” their need for rest, play and creativity, in order to fulfill their potential (as measured exclusively through a productivity lens). This hyperfocus on one aspect of expression to the exclusion of the others frequently leads to burnout, along with its accompanying challenges: existential depression, exhaustion, toxic emotions including anger at oneself and shame or guilt for not doing enough, and even physical illness or serious mental health issues.
Compare this to looking at potential through the lens of thriving. Every person thrives in different ways, according to each one’s particular strengths, values, challenges, resources and needs (on all the levels: mental, physical, emotional, relational and so on). Needs include both productivity and rest, as well as all the other non-productive aspects that allow us to adequately nourish our minds, bodies and full selves (rest, sleep, daydreaming, creating, playing and so on). If we think of the productive and non-productive elements of life as elements of nutrition, as vitamins to the body, productivity is Vitamin C (essential) and non-productivity is found in Vitamins A, B, and D (also essential). Your potential should be defined by your potential for holistic thriving (all vitamins needed), since after all, you are a whole person.
Of course, one could argue that proper rest and play (and all the other activities I’ve labeled here as “non-productive”) are actually productive because they increase our capacity for productivity. Technically this is correct, as both support each other for a balanced system, and ultimately a balanced system allows for more sustainable productivity (for example, a creative insight during unstructured play may increase our productivity efficiency at work ten-fold, and that’s to be celebrated). However, labeling open-ended creativity and unstructured play as “productive activities” runs the risk of them being hijacked by productivity-first personal or cultural scripts — in other words, turning them into quantifiable goals that we pursue exclusively for the optimization for greater productivity. I’ve seen it happen countless times, so I keep the distinctive labels separate for the sake of clarity.
Most of us don’t live in chronic, extreme opposition to our non-productivity, but many of us have moments or areas in our lives in which we struggle to see our potential through the lens of thriving. What causes this?
Sometimes it’s because of personal traumas we have been through. For example, I worked with a gifted man in coaching who I’ll call Jake.
Jake’s family taught him a strict “work first” mentality. When he was growing up, his mom was often ill and unable to care for him and his younger brothers, so many of the family responsibilities fell to him. His dad, a military officer by profession, expected unquestioning obedience and soldier-like precision from him. When Jake wanted to just be a kid and play around, his dad mocked him for being lazy and punished him with extra house tasks. Even when his dad wasn’t home, he felt guilty when he engaged in non-productive pursuits because his mom needed him to be strong and his brothers needed him to take care of them. Being “just a kid” in his case meant failing his family, not being good enough, and even incurring punishment.
He came to coaching after having completed two PhD’s and winning several prestigious awards for his work in research. Still, according to him, he was far from fulfilling his potential and he knew if he just worked harder and optimized his productivity further, things would improve. That’s why he was seeking out my support.
I asked him how he defined a good life. His answer was very telling: “working and accomplishing”. I asked him what life would be like for him if he didn’t work or accomplish anything, or worked half the time and accomplished only half of what he was used to accomplishing. He got visibly uncomfortable and answered resolutely, “I would be a total failure”.
Jake’s expression of his potential had been conditioned toward a productivity-first, and really a productivity-only, mindset. I grieved for the little Jake who had been in such a bind, having to view the non-productive parts of his humanness as problems to be eliminated in service of productivity. And having to use his energies to inflate his productivity to such an extreme just so that he could prove to others, and eventually even to himself, that he and his life had value. That was the beginning of our work together.
After several years of coaching (and a fair amount of therapy), Jake was able to see that the parts of himself he had left behind as a child to survive his family situation were just as valuable as the parts of himself he had had to inflate to stay strong and safe. With time, patience and support, he was able to reintegrate these lost fragments, and to find joy and meaning in play, rest, aimless creativity, daydreaming and finally, sometimes, “just being a kid”. He continued his research work, but learned to make time for himself and his family, and to consciously work toward fulfilling his holistic potential for thriving. He learned to use his energies for both accomplishing and for simply feeling and appreciating the complexity and wonder of being alive.
In a wider societal context, collective traumas become embedded in cultural ideologies, religions, and educational and family structures and practices. The operating systems of countries (or religions) whose cultures value work over play, productivity over rest, or even “masculine” work over “feminine” work, can also have a big impact on how we value our holistic self and mind, and whether we see the non-productive aspects of ourselves as essential elements of a fulfilling life.
I’ve often worked with clients from certain Asian countries, for example, who have struggled to legitimize aspects of their experience and expression which were not directly related to productivity. They tell me their parents and teachers emphasized learning and performance from a competitive stance, and discouraged or even punished non-productive play and creativity. Clients from America often labor under an ideology of meritocracy, which says that if they just work hard enough, they will be rewarded for their efforts and they can reach the top. They can achieve the proverbial American dream, no matter how few resources or connections, or how little concrete support or luck they have. From a meritocratic point of view, highly capable people with grit should all be “at the top”, but in reality we see that this is in no way the case. “The top” requires money, opportunity, connections, freedom from systemic oppression, good luck, and in some cases, a willingness to act in unethical ways. Still, I meet with countless Americans who, in spite of lacking the realistic support and opportunities, are expecting themselves to be determined enough to get there, and are burning out trying.
For those who grew up in capitalistic cultures, we might struggle to some degree with “internalized capitalism”: the idea that we are first and foremost producers and consumers, and that our value comes from producing rather than from existing. Capitalism as a system places value on endless growth and infinite productivity. Those of us who have internalized this ideology tend to extend it to our minds: they are valuable for producing (doing), but not for existing (being).
We see some of the effects of these cultural influences in educational systems and corporate cultures. The high level of competition, greed, and focus on the infinite accumulation of achievements and wealth, leaves little room for the parts of ourselves not oriented toward 24/7 productivity and achievement.
All of these influences intertwine, overlap and affect each other. If we have personal trauma related to productivity and potential, and/or we grew up in a culture that has a dysfunctional relationship with productivity and potential, and/or we were schooled in an educational system that has a dysfunctional relationship with productivity and potential, and/or we work in an environment where these cultural dysfunctions dominate, there are a lot of forces priming and pushing us toward a dysfunctional relationship with our own productivity and potential.
DECOLONIZING OUR MINDS
It is as if our minds have been “colonized” by ideologies that would turn us into productivity-machines, at the expense of our holistic well-being. And this shouldn’t surprise us, given that our existence emerges from and is still deeply embedded in a long line of colonial and neocolonial ideologies and practices. This personal or cultural ideological indoctrination around productivity and achievement is sometimes described as a colonization of the mind. Some of us experience it as a real trauma. Ideological trauma happens when destructive ideologies replace the healthy development of our desires, worldview, hopes and existential meaning with scripts we (consciously or unconsciously) feel forced to act out, even to our own detriment and the detriment of the world that sustains us. This isn’t to overdramatize the situation, but rather to call it what it is, to contextualize how we got where we are, and to see clearly what steps we can take to reclaim healthy development of our own minds.
When I’ve supported clients in this mind-decolonizing process, it often includes a period of slowing down significantly so that they can get some distance from their daily life to see what standards they’ve been holding themselves to and where those standards originated. They need this time and space to seriously evaluate whether they have a healthy and balanced view on productivity and non-productivity, and whether their efforts have been leading to the realization of their own values and goals or to the values and goals of an external ideological script.
This usually requires a period of adjustment and relearning, where clients examine the culture they were born into, their country’s history and current ideological frameworks, their family’s beliefs and values, and their educational experiences and work cultures, all as it relates to views on productivity and/or achievement, as well as equality and justice. We look at which parts of themselves and their minds were invited to exist fully in the world, which parts of themselves and their minds were discouraged or even prohibited from existing fully, and which parts of their natural expression may have been minimized or inflated to survive hardship. And we inquire into how all of their parts want to exist fully and in balance in the present and future, in an imperfect world.
This work often requires learning or relearning skills such as healthy energy management, play, relational skills, self-compassion and sensual self care. For clients whose productivity-as-worth issues arose from personally traumatic backgrounds, therapy or other individualized support in trauma healing is often necessary for recovering a sense of safety when accessing the parts of themselves that were ignored or punished, or when healing the parts of themselves that had to be inflated to survive.
Essentially, decolonizing our gifted minds takes us through a positive disintegration, where we see what we’ve been carrying, what it’s time to let go of, and where we want to go based on a better understanding of who we are and what our real potential for thriving is in the real world. It also often calls us toward making our own contributions to systemic change, doing what we can to make the world a fairer, more inclusive place, free from the oppression of inhumane ideologies.
For my 25th birthday, my good friend gave me a book called The Art of Doing Nothing: Simple Ways to Make Time for Yourself. I admit, I couldn’t relate to the book at all. The idea of doing nothing was simply incomprehensible to me. My days began at 6.30a.m. and sometimes I stayed up until 1:30a.m. the next morning writing reports for work. I ran an entrepreneurial business in addition to my full-time job and free-lance coaching work. Weekends and evenings were often full of family and social commitments, and I volunteered for charities in my spare time.
To me, this was normal. My dad’s role as a church youth minister made our family’s life fast and full. I had school, church services, church events, church meetings, piano lessons, kids’ choir practice, softball practice…and so on. I didn’t have a bedtime, and we almost always had visitors at our house. This lifestyle was considered my duty to the church and a reflection of my willingness to serve God. And even though I had left religion by my 20’s, lived on my own, and had already accomplished so much, I still felt guilty and feared punishment if I slowed down.
One day, seemingly out of the blue, I had a panic attack. My doctor assured me I was healthy, but the panic attacks continued. I was ashamed of my “weakness” and pressed on with my busy life, hiding in the bathroom when the anxiety became too strong. It was psychologist Reid Wilson’s book Don’t Panic: Taking Control of Anxiety Attacks that woke me up to the fact that I wasn’t weak and didn’t have to keep pushing myself so hard: I was suffering a reasonable burnout from an unsustainable lifestyle that I had always considered “normal”. With this awareness, the panic attacks started to slow down.
I began a regular meditation practice to get some space for change, and hired a business coach to help me work more efficiently and with better boundaries. Both were incredibly helpful, but neither could stop the increasingly unsustainable demands of the corporate culture I worked in. After a while, it became obvious I needed to quit.
Since I was in a comfortable financial position, I spent some time in Italy. There, the culture was so different from what I was used to, that the ideological mindset I had been raised in was no longer just water to a fish. I could see it for what it was, and the ways it had conditioned and harmed me. I found that, away from American expectations of productivity, I could experience parts of myself I had never experienced before. I saw the irony in the Italian phrase il dolce farniente (the “sweet doing-nothing”), since that’s exactly what my friend had been suggesting I learn to do when she gave me The Art of Doing Nothing just a couple years earlier. I was finally able to understand why it mattered.
My life changed drastically after this realization. I took four years or rather unproductive (in capitalistic terms) time, working as much as I needed to cover basic expenses, focusing mostly on learning how to live a balanced and sustainable life, free from oppressive ideologies. Eventually, when I did feel called back toward a more externally productive life, it was a healthy calling which emerged from understanding my potential from the lens thriving.
Practically, this has meant moving country, earning less money than I could, having a slower schedule than most, having ample unstructured and “unproductive” time for exploration and experimentation, allowing myself long breaks for rest and rejuvenation – enjoying them to the full (no guilt or fear), and not pressuring myself to be more than I can be. It has meant taking on tasks and missions because I cared about them (for example, starting InterGifted), rather than because they were going to make me lots of money or prove my worth to the world. It has meant keeping space for play and wonder, sensual delights, and learning. It has meant honoring and working within my real limits, even when the outside world tries to tell me otherwise. It has also meant using my voice to advocate for a more just world, where everyone (not just the most privileged of us) can adequately rest and have access to the resources, space and places required for these essential non-productive aspects of life.
According to a productivity = potential mindset, I’m not living up to my potential because I could (at least in theory) do so much more. According to myself, I’m happy, I have more than enough, I do so much already, my mind has the space and support it needs to holistically thrive, and I am able to share that abundance to support others to thrive in turn.
This is what I wish for every person.
STEPS AHEAD & LEADING OTHERS
If some of what you’ve read in this article rings true for your experience, here are some starting points to de-colonizing and de-scripting your mind.
Slow down & make space
First off, if you’re able to, slow down and make some room for reflection. Take some time off of work or find another way to get some space. Without the space and distance to reflect, it’s hard to make change. If you’re a gifted woman, you may find our Gifted Mindfulness Collective to be a particularly helpful support in creating the necessary space and safety for reflection.
What did your family & culture teach you about potential & productivity?
Reflect on your societal, cultural, educational, family, social, religious (if any) and workplace influences. Where do those ideologies originate? What have they taught you about productivity? What have they taught you about your life and its holistic worth (productivity and non-productivity included)? What do you want to change in your own view, knowing what you know now?
If you are a gifted adult, learn about the full experience & expression of holistic giftedness
Gifted people can experience a heightened version of this pressure to fulfill their “unusually high potential”. For them, it is essential to re-establish the holistic worth of their giftedness, and to know about their gifted mind in its holistic, multi-layered functioning. Giftedness isn’t just about being good at maths or coding or making money. It’s about a way of being in the world that is rich and full of energy — energy which can be used consciously for activities, tasks and relationships we care about. Read my article What is Giftedness? to start exploring giftedness further. If you want to go even deeper into your profile with personalized support, consider having a qualitative giftedness assessment with me or one of the assessors I have trained.
Get clear on your highest values
To reconnect with your own inner compass, it is important to look at your highest values and to see in which ways they guide you toward your holistic potential for thriving. When productivity emerges from your deeply held values and convictions, it looks and feels qualitatively different than ideology-driven productivity. Our values help us to redefine what we feel called to do in life and how we feel uniquely called to use (rather than abuse) our gifts, and then our productivity is matched to our inner compass. Read my article Discovering Our Highest Values to start exploring values further.
Learn the skills of holistic thriving (your “non-productive” potential)
Then it’s important that we (re)learn the skills of rest, play, healthy energy management, and courage to go against the grain. Here are some places to start:
- Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination & Invigorates the Soul, by Stuart Brown & Christopher Vaughan
- Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
- Energy Patterns: The Cornerstone of Self-Care and Potential Realization for Gifted People, by Jennifer Harvey Sallin
Examine capitalism and colonialism/neo-colonialism & its harms
- I recommend the work of economic anthropologist Jason Hickel, especially his books Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World and The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality & Its Solutions
- To look specifically at how these ideologies have played out in the arena of high intelligence, I recommend Angela Saini’s book Superior: The Return of Race Science
- You may find inspiration in my talk with Jan Provoost, for my I Heart Earth project, on Less is More: Slowing Down as a Form of Activism
- I recommend the book Status Anxiety, by philosopher Alain de Botton
- This more technical research paper shows that combining mindfulness, sufficiency & flow increases sustainable well-being and frees us from capitalistic pressures which prime us toward materialistic values: The Problematic Role of Materialistic Values in the Pursuit of Sustainable Well-Being
Seek out support & connection
As my work is primarily dedicated to the gifted adult population, my recommended resources for support and connection are geared toward this community. If you are not a gifted adult, there are many therapists, coaches, and other support professionals and communities dedicated to the themes addressed in this article. For the gifted adults reading, here are some gifted-specific recommendations:
- If you find you’d like or you need support in this process, you may want to explore gifted therapy with Esther Goldinger or gifted coaching with one of InterGifted’s coaches.
- If you’d like to do this work in gifted community, you will find plenty of like-minded peers who are working on similar themes in my online gifted community.
- The Gifted Mindfulness Collective is an excellent resource for gifted women exploring these themes and reconnecting with and reclaiming the gifted feminine.
- If you’re a gifted adult in a leadership role, and you are working through these themes, you may find my Gifted Leadership Course to be a supportive group setting for your explorations.
- If you’re a leader, therapist or coach working in the gifted services field, and you are exploring these themes, I offer a limited number of individualized support sessions, which you can explore with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And then it’s up to us to lead through our values and our creativity: showing what it’s like to live out our potential beyond what dysfunctional cultural scripts present us as our only option. Obviously that doesn’t look the same for everyone, and each of our voices, examples and leadership contribute to the mosaic of changing how the world views potential and productivity. This, in turn, opens the path for our fellow humans to see their full sense of worth and live out their real potential, free from guilt and shame, and full of aliveness, joy and meaning. Together, we culturally define what “potential” means, so let’s make our voices count!