Casting Stones at Cacti. Our Intolerance of Gifted People


Standing out like stately rarities in the middle of a vast, congruous desert are impressive and curiously-shaped Saguaro cacti.  These unique cacti, towering over the other desert plants, offer gloriously beautiful flowers and prized fruit. These cacti, appearing as an anomaly in the plant world, offer many untold, but extraordinary qualities which seem overlooked and overshadowed by the infamy of its multitude of thorns. These cacti seemingly struggle to survive alone amidst the hypocrisy of its life: beautiful, but painful; wonderful, but unusual; curiously interesting, but too many painful thorns.

This metaphoric depiction is much what life is like for a gifted person; this journey of giftedness where one’s human qualities are overshadowed by negative fallacies. Where there is often hurdles, and there are no presents waiting to be unwrapped. There is good, there is very good, but often even the very good is drowned out by the bad. My family’s journey through giftedness is much like the metaphorical cacti in the desert.

After recently reading a compelling article by Ariane Benefit titled “Intensity – What makes intensely creative, emotional and gifted adults like Steve Jobs prone to troubling relationship issues?”, my family had a gifted epiphany of sorts. Benefit’s article describes and talks about the biases and the intolerance society has for emotionally intense, creatively gifted people; and Steve Jobs was one such example of a creatively gifted person who was misunderstood and thus unfairly criticized for his intense behavior. Here is a quote from this article that our family strongly related to: “To me, this is an example of the kind of socially accepted intolerance, bias, and disparaging name-calling that creative, emotionally intense and gifted adults (and children) frequently experience their entire lives”.

Our emotionally-intense and creatively gifted fellow human beings are much like the metaphorical cacti standing out amongst the desert of humanity. As a society, we seem to fear, feel threatened by, be suspicious of, or jealous of others who stand out among us. Whether their differences be superior intelligence, physical or mental challenges, sexual orientation, religious differences, political differences, or cultural differences, we seem to want to just spurn anything that does not fit inside our common desert, our own little box of normal. One such group whose differences we often have biases against are the highly-creative, emotionally-intense gifted individuals. We seem to distrust their unique abilities, and we also often, out of jealousy, cast stones at these individuals who seem to stand taller, seem wiser, are more creative, or rise above our own intellect, skills and capabilities. We also know this phenomena as the tall poppy syndrome

My oldest son is a gifted artist who started drawing with a passion when he was two years old.  In second grade, he entered the yearly poster contest hosted by our local public library during National Library Week. He submitted his poster to his school who in turn sent it on to the public library for judging. A few days later, the school called to let me know that they had received a call from the library questioning whether or not my son had actually drawn his poster by himself. The school confirmed that in fact he had, having seen his work many times before, but the school called me just to verify that it was his original work. Understandable, but an example of the common human reaction to something that stands out from the ordinary. Did every child who submitted a poster get a call to authenticate their art? I understand totally their need to confirm that my son’s poster was his original work, but it was the initial doubt, the suspicion that the poster was not the work of my son, and I needed to verify that my son had indeed drawn the poster himself.

My husband was in 7th grade when a similar incident happened to him, and I will just quote his telling of the story he sent me in an email:

“There was one time in 7th grade that I had written a French (my husband’s native tongue is French) exam and one of the questions was to write a short essay on something, anything. I felt very inspired at that moment and wrote something that turned out to be exceptional to the point that I got a zero.  The teacher claimed that I had copied it from a novel or whatever other book, and that there was no way that I would be capable to write something like that.  I argued my point and he finally returned my paper with a 50% and a note saying “benefit of the doubt”.  I don’t remember much of anything else of this teacher and 7th grade, but this left a lifelong scar that I will never forget.  In my mind’s eyes, I can still see where I was standing in the classroom discussing this with him.  As clearly as people remember where they were on 9-11….   It was probably my first teaching that being me wasn’t cool.  But I had no idea what I was dealing with then….”

My youngest gifted son has had so many of these experiences, many of which are scattered throughout my writing. Envy, intolerance and resentment are the usual reactions to my youngest son’s gifted behaviors. Among his peers, the reactions to his seemingly wiser-than-his-years behavior are bullying, teasing and name-calling. Even some of his teachers reacted to his gifted behaviors by bullying him or placing unfair expectations on him. It often seems to be the first common human reaction to judge people negatively when their behavior is significantly different or better from the norm–they are not exhibiting bad, negative or hurtful behavior– just significantly different or better than most.

In the adult world, society’s intolerance of these differences often results in envy of or feeling threatened by the creative, highly-intelligent, and emotionally intense gifted adults, and these feelings play out most often in the workplace. It is termed workplace bullying. This phenomena has become so commonplace in recent years that states are passing laws to protect the victims of workplace bullying from the devastating effects on the worker and his family such as depression, demotion, job loss and suicide. Our emotionally-intense and highly-creative gifted adults are the game-changers, the visionaries, the problem-solvers and the innovators who can make dramatic, positive changes at work. But, most often these gifted adults are seen as arrogant, or the loose canons, and co-workers, most often superiors, feel their job-security threatened by the gifted employee’s visions, ideas, potential and success.

We love our geniuses when they make headlines, when their work benefits us or entertains us, or when it is so far and above the rest of our own capabilities, we are no longer threatened or envious. Think Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Einstein. We love and seek out the genius surgeon when we need his services, we are grateful for the discoveries of gifted research scientists, and we idolize and revere our favorite gifted musicians. And then we are intolerant and even resentful when the geniuses among us who are in the next cubicle at work, who live next door to us, or sit in the school desk by us produce superior results, but not necessarily the results that would bring them immense public attention or fame. It is these gifted individuals among us that we may become suspicious of, feel threatened by or just outwardly envy.

In the end, Steve Jobs was one of those gifted people who many were unwilling to tolerate, and eventually he was ousted from Apple. Thankfully for the world, he had the strength of character to persevere past the envy, the intolerance and the retaliation; he persevered and returned to Apple, the visionary who brought us iPods, iPhones, iPads and Mac computers. Sadly, many of our gifted children and adults are unable to move past the intolerance, the resentment, the biases, and the bullying. Their discoveries, ideas and visions have been marginalized, stolen or refuted. Or worse, the creatively gifted children who have been misunderstood and mistreated because of society’s intolerance of their differences,  fail to grow and thrive, and as a society, we lose out on their potential to create, to envision and bring us innovative solutions, discoveries and ideas.


And let’s face it, shouldn’t we all be accepting of everyone’s differences despite what those differences may be? Shouldn’t we be looking for the good and the potential in others instead of being intolerant of their differences which we quickly judge as something unacceptable? Shouldn’t we appreciate the gifts, potential and talents of others, and not feel the need to marginalize or destroy these gifts, potential and talents? Shouldn’t we stop casting stones at the cacti?



Intensity – What makes intensely creative, emotional and gifted adults like Steve Jobs prone to troubling relationship issues? by Ariane Benefit

The Workplace Mobbing of Highly Gifted Adults: An Unremarked Barbarism by Reuven Kotleras

Brains on Fire: The Multinodality of Gifted Thinkers by Brock Eide and Fernette Eide

Gifted and Tormented By Sandra G. Boodman

29 Comments on “Casting Stones at Cacti. Our Intolerance of Gifted People

  1. Here’s another way of looking at the problem of people not believing that the work you’ve done is your own because it seems just too good to be true:

    Take it as a compliment and don’t get upset. The greater the disbelief, the greater your genius. 🙂

  2. Goodness. I can completely relate to this. This is the irony of our two-faced hypocritical society.
    “It often seems to be the first common human reaction to judge people negatively when their behavior is significantly different or better from the norm–they are not exhibiting bad, negative or hurtful behavior– just significantly different or better than most.”

    I have been bullied- as a child too, but perhaps even more devastatingly, as an adult in the workplace, who did nothing but do her job.

    • Mona,

      I have heard from SO many gifted adults who have stated that they were the victim of workplace bullying, and many were a victim on more than one occasion. It stands to reason, when someone is determined to climb the corporate or workplace ladder, the ones standing in their way are those who are performing at a higher level than they are. “Cutting down the tall poppies” in the workplace becomes a hurtful strategy to gain promotions.

      And yes, our society is two-faced. One is expected to do well and succeed, but not so well that one makes others look bad and cause them to undermine those of us who are successful.

      Thanks for leaving a comment. I’m sorry you have had to experience workplace bullying. It is a workplace trauma that I wish could get more public attention, and hopefully one day, which companies and businesses refuse to tolerate.

  3. Sometimes I wonder if Pol Pot already came to America wrapped in the flag.

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  5. Thank you for writing this. For years I’ve felt it necessary to hide my intense feelings and abilities; it’s great that there are lots of people speaking up about this now. I still get people questioning how I’ve managed to achieve what I have and, because they can’t understand it, wondering if I’ve cheated somehow. To answer them honestly sounds like boasting, so I just keep quiet. Gifted people have to keep their lights hidden.

    • Amy,

      I know and I understand about having to hide giftedness.

      “Gifted people have to keep their lights hidden.” This is the reason I write and advocate so passionately. No human being should feel the need to hide their giftedness. It is heartbreaking to have to hide an inherent part of one’s self.

      Thank you, Amy, for sharing your thoughts and your experience!

  6. When I was in second grade, we had an upcoming parent conference around Halloween. So the teacher ordered the class to make some art to decorate the room. The orders were, “Draw a man with two orange heads.” Everyone else drew a man with a head on each shoulder (orange, some jack-o-lanterns, some not). I drew a regular man. In each of his hands was a jack-o-lantern. I thought it was a man, with two orange heads.

    The teacher sent me to the principal’s office. The principal told me that I was in trouble for not following instructions. I was paddled.

    Yes, I was paddled for drawing a man with two orange heads, when ordered to draw a man with two orange heads.

    The same teacher later in the year, would lock me in the closet over lunch.

    Not my only bad memories of school, but some of the early ones that stick out.

    Ended up doing quite well in gifted classes and such in high school and college.

    J. J. Pershing Elementary, DISD. c.a. 1980.

    • Locked you in the closet? Paddled for drawing your own interpretation of a man with two orange heads? What was that teacher thinking? Those types of punishments should have been illegal. They were definitely unprofessional and unethical.

      I’m so sorry this happened to you, but so happy to see you went on to do well once in a gifted program. Yet, I am still in shock that this happened although I know these things do happen to gifted children because they are so misunderstood.

      My youngest gifted son had an English teacher who had him stand out in the hall many days during class, called him Mr. Zero in front of the class and assigned him to the “failing” (her name for the low group) group in her class. The principal supported this teacher claiming she still had her “combat boots” on from her previous school. This was in 2013 in Alabama.

      Marc, thank you for sharing your story.

  7. Here’ something I never understood: Why is it that so many anti-gifted types resent that a gifted person would or could achieve high grades in school, while putting in less actual total effort than others?
    I have had that experience; one of my recent tormentors resented that i was an “A-” student (while in a post-baccalaureate diploma program), while spending an average of 6 hours a week for studying (3 courses x 2 hours each) while he had to study 3-4 hours PER DAY to maintain a B minus average (the minimum needed for the University’s Commerce degree program).
    He insisted that HE was the better student, because he worked so much more than I did. Oh, yes, by the way, he also thought he was superior to me even though I took 6 graduate-school courses (and got two A+’s, three A’s, and one A-minus). What gives? He actually BOASTED to his friends that because I was in education (actually educational psychology + counselling psychology), which is considered “easy” by some, that my A-minus average was actually WORSE than his, because (a) education studies is “easy” and (b) I studied many fewer hours than he did. I just don’t ‘get’ how he could BOAST of that.

    • I don’t get it either, John.

      I had a close friend in high school who always made A’s and did little to no homework while I did little to no homework and got much lower grades. She went on to medical school and became an emergency room physician. I was just in awe of her and I never felt envy or resentment–I just knew, understood and accepted that school was easier for some. I did ask her how she did so well without doing a lot of studying at home and she said she really listened well in class. I tried that and it didn’t work for me, but still I was okay with it all. Why is it so difficult for some to accept that, yes, there are some people who are more intelligent than others? I’m just thankful we do have these highly-intelligent people in our world to make the world a better place! Gratitude is more appropriate here than resentment and envy, I think.

  8. I’m not sure if it’s a blessing I never had one of these experiences or actually something horrifying instead. I learned quite early (around kindergarten) that I was not acceptable the way I was, so I started going underground. The only thing that remained was my intensity, and even that got buried by about grade 3. After that, I made sure to only do the minimum amount of work, to not stick out, to make sure I was as much like everyone else as I could be. I still saw a lot of bullying, but it wasn’t “for” anything, so much as because there was something “off” or “different” about me that we all inherently recognized.

    I’m coming back into myself these last few years. I’ve kind of missed me. XD

    • I’m so happy to hear “you” are coming back because no one in the world is better for you to be than “you”! And your family needs “you”, too! <3

      Thanks, Care!

  9. I can understand grade school aged classmates saying things that are unkind (they are only kids) and my son is loud and different. It is the parents that marginalize a then 7/8 year old to make themselves feel better that make me sick to my stomach.

    One of my son’s friends came to his birthday party (this child says everything that comes to mind, when it comes to mind – bless his little heart) and told us that so and so’s parents were talking bad about A and he told them to stop because they were only jealous because A was so smart. It is sad when a 9 year old has to put an adult in their place, especially because he overheard them gossiping, with other adults, about a friend.

    An adult jealous of an 8 year old who only wants to know everything there is to know about chemistry because he wants to develop medicines to cure disease? Really, this is the kid you are jealous of? This kid who is only working a year or two ahead in math and reading, so he is not that far off of the curve, but who is already working on memorizing the periodic table? Who is reading college level cliff notes on microbiology (he isn’t quite ready for an actual textbook yet) just so he can find out new things because the kid books don’t have this stuff? This kid who runs towards the non-fiction section of every bookstore and library, but is judged because he does not read the fiction books that others expect a gifted child to want to read. This kid, if properly encouraged, who might reach his goals and find the medicine(s) to treat or cure a disease you or a loved one might have one day? Not just because he is smart, that is only a small part of it, but simply because he is driven to do so by an internal motor over which he has no control. He simply saw a science book one day, read through it, and fell in love. As simple as that. This is the kid you “hate?”

    • Exactly, Christy, exactly! It’s like cutting off their nose to spite their face. Cutting down the tall poppy only to find out you really needed what that tall poppy had to offer.

      Thank you for sharing your story and your experience. It validates all of us who have been through this very situation. <3

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  11. I had a grade 6 teacher who failed me on a project on black holes because I had no “scrap notes”, no first or second draft (hand-written, as this was the early 70’s) — only a type-written final draft. My father tried to convince the teacher that I had written the essay, by dictating it to my Dad after having read a bunch of books on the topic. We finally had to get the principal to intervene, and after FOUR TIMES (F, C-, C+, B- A-) I finally got an A- on the paper, and although the principal and both vice-principals agreed that the paper deserved an A+, the teacher refused, because he refused to believe a 10-year-old could possibly have written such a paper. I have quite a few other stories both from school, to now, as an adult IT consultant where bosses refused to accept that I had come up with a solution when better-trained and more experienced techs hadn’t, and more often than not have been PUNISHED for doing so. Extremely gifted? More like extremely cursed.

    • John, I can completely understand and sympathize. I just read your comment to my husband–he can relate completely. For many kids and adults, giftedness is a curse because it is so misunderstood. Thank you for sharing your story. Your voice strengthens all of our voices, and maybe one day we can change society’s attitude towards giftedness in schools. In the workplace, envy and experiences such as yours may never change, sadly…

      Thanks for telling us about your experiences!

  12. Great blog as usual! My father sat some form of IQ test many years back when he was in 3rd Grade. He told me he came out of that test upset with himself because the only two others that were sitting it were a few years older and they had both finished before he did. He ended up having to resit the entire test because the powers-that-be didn’t believe he could get such a high score. And that was in an exam situation where presumably they were monitored!

    • Oh wow, Sam! Kinda makes me want to scream! I hope the powers-that-be were convinced the second time around! You just have to wonder what they thought the exact issue was with the first test that would cause his scores to be so high – like you said, it was being monitored. Thanks for sharing your story, Sam!

  13. The idea of a 50% “For the benefit of the doubt” makes absolutely no sense. Halfway makes no sense what so ever. “We don’t know if so-and-so broke the rules, so let’s give him half the punishment he would deserve if he did so.” The insanity of that is going to bother me the rest of the day.

    • I know, Christy, I agree. The long-term effects of actions like the 50% “For the benefit of the doubt” or the 0% my teenage son received on an essay for talking to himself while writing the essay can be devastating. I wish more teachers really understood how their actions can make or break a student!

      • i was recently told that i was “mentally unhealthy” because i am still hurt by being “crushed” by various teachers in my school years. Being shunted to the side because i was “too good” and would “make the others feel bad”.

        It was a professor of education who “diagnosed” me.

        • How horrible! And that professor was very much out of line, and was probably defensive of teachers if he knew your emotional pain was due to teachers bullying you. I’d say a lot more about that professor, but I’ll just bite my tongue 😉

          Sorry you had to experience this.

  14. The examples you shared about your son’s drawing contest and your husbands class were heartbreaking and perfect examples. Doubt? Jealousy? Annoying!! Unfair!!

    You are so right when you say that society loves geniuses for their contributions but at what price?

    • It seems to me, and from what I’ve read, we love our geniuses when they make significant, noteworthy contributions; not so much love when their contributions just outshine others in school or the workplace. And you are right, at what price? The price for these individuals is high when the contributions just cast a shadow over others; when the contribution is noteworthy and brings fame, there may be some redemption of the high price paid. Thanks for your insights!

      • It’s so important that gifted people learn to operate effectively in our society. That same persistence, dedication and passion use towards creating can be re-directed towards the not so cool or positive emotional aspects of co- existing in a society that is not very tolerant, understanding and supportive of giftedness. This can be accomplish by continuously checking upon our self-concept and motivation to stand tall hoping others can enjoy our perspectives and talents as much as we do. Small people who are gifted can most definitely begin to practice a positive self-concept so their confidence level can be solid as adults and hence continue to “create”!

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