Coaching “very smart” people

The more I do consulting and coaching, the more obvious it is that action trumps insight: helping someone actually move forward means there’s no escaping the need to do something rather than to continue doing (or not doing) whatever’s going on right now. Highly intelligent, underachievers may well be different in important ways, but they’re also just like their fellow mortals in most ways – something they’re not always thrilled to recognize.

Underachievers have trouble connecting their idiosyncratic cognitive style to the need to blend (at least minimally) their interactions with other people, the workplace, their own emotions, and the way the real world works.

Again and again it keeps being true that it’s the “just like the rest of us” part that is precisely where the rubber hits the road – not the highly intelligent (therefore different) part. The need for an identity, a place in the world, validation, meaningful work, colleagues, friends, and income is true for just about all of us, and even those who, from the outside, seem to be very different turn out to be essentially wired like the rest of us. We’re highly emotional creatures – first and foremost – looking to find a comfortable, credible way to be human in the world.

It’s extremely sad when someone’s way-above-average cognitive functioning turns out to be a source of alienation, avoidance, drifting, and isolation. Being highly intelligent ought to be someone’s fantastic good fortune, an asset for living well – and an absolute blast.  That’s why my work with “very smart” people usually begins by focusing on strengths.

My approach usually is to go right toward the obvious paradox that the smarter you truly are, the more emotionally honest you can afford to be, and therefore the more readily you recognize how much you don’t know. It’s the well worn distinction between embracing humility (good) as opposed to fearing and avoiding humiliation (not good.) Having a high IQ may mean someone can inhale information faster than most, or be more effortlessly creative.  Still, by now we’ve all learned from sad experience how “not-that-smart,” even “dumb” we can be – especially in the realm of “things human.”

Far from being negative, that’s the positive and liberating upside to moving toward emotional honesty. If you’re truly smart, then understanding what you don’t yet understand, being authentically curious, trying to get it right, (whatever it is), and not worrying about needing to be seen by others to be right, is the way to go.

Plus – frankly – boredom is boring.  Boredom is posturing. Highly intelligent people should be impatient with themselves if they allow hurt and resentment masked as boredom to fool them. They should remember to learn everything they can, entertain themselves through their powerful curiosity.

Managing one’s feelings is any person’s major task – from “highly intelligent” to mentally “challenged” – and is the key to doing life well.

Being useful at helping smart people become more productive and relaxed, combines two major motivations for me.

One is that under-achieving, smart people, even the anti-social, edgy ones, can be terribly anguished (whether or not they let themselves know it) – and need help like anyone else.

Plus, to state the obvious, the world needs all the help it can get these days – especially from those who, when running on all cylinders, just might help us generate creative, highly-intelligent solutions. 

Shaun’s note:  This is a continuation of this post which is my most commented-upon piece.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }


Dear Shaun,
I am a mother of four children. The first three boy, girl, boy)were achievers, in terms of getting good grades for getting to, and through, college. My fourth kid was born when my kids were sic, eight and ten years old.
There has always been some kind of sadness in my son, that I have not been able to clearly define. Since my son was a pre-schooler, he was often frustrated when he was not allowed to do whatever the older siblings were involved in. When he was in kindergarten, he would run from the school playground after a problem, and at home, for a few years, he had been hiding “as a game” whenever someone would arrive at the house (especially noticeable when either my husband, or I, would get home). About first or second grade he would claim that everybody would be happier if he were to die.
I have a professional background in elementary and high school education, and so I know that discipline needs to be constructive, not destructive. We hold moral, reasonable standards for behavior, but I have realistic expectations for grades–I differ from my husband. We have gladly paid for years of counseling and psychotherapy. We sent him on a summertime, three-week long, reasonable version of a “tough love” camp when our son was in middle school. By that time-year after year-teachers, my husband and I did what we could to offset the cruel isolation that always developed for our very intelligent, good-looking child. In early elementary, he had temper tantrums and frightening stares, for peers and adults, when he could not deal with the embarrassment of a mistake or if someone misunderstood his motives and thought him to have ill intent. It was worse at home, but he finally learned to control himself reasonably well by the fourth grade. Kids could not even understand what my son would be talking about, since he used a more academic vocabulary and he had mature insights. Unfortunately, my son would also try to boast about himself. He was in a vicious cycle that resulted in a continual lack of friendships and a lowering of self-value.
My son is now seventeen years old, and is a junior in an excellent public high school. He has a kind spirituality and believes firmly in God. He sits separated from us during church services-he is with the other youths seated high up in the balcony, and they respectfully participate. We have a continually tense household, as my husband is in the medical sciences and the economy is scary. He is strongly loyal to his family, and is quick to comfort us with hugs and with compassionate words-especially “I love you”. He had excellent report cards for his academic work, through middle school. He was prepared for high school with a quick brain and with good study skills.
During the latter semester of his sophomore year, something happened. Unable to “catch up” with all of his schoolwork, after a two-week illness, my son began to hide the truth about his falling grades. We all struggled together, to encourage and to motivate him. He was okay in his grades, but his AP English course resulted in a “D”. To make sure that he was up to par in his writing skills, he went to community college for a summer English course. He enjoyed it.
Against my better judgement, my son signed up for three AP courses and Pre-Calculus, for this year. It has been so hard. To make this brief, he was in depression by Christmas time (I wondered about depression during earlier years), his grades were barely “passing”, he preferred being on the internet over doing his homework, he was getting rebellious, and he procrastinated, and was almost suicidal Since then he is more productive and he studied a little for finals, RAISING his grades to “C’s” and “B’s”, thanks to help, a little medication, Christmas vacation and to grandparents who accept him.
His behavior is so much better when he is on medication, but overall, his academics and his habits are still bad. I don’t want to forget to mention that he has not slept well for several years now.
Would you be so kind as to give to me a few wise words?


Right away, in addition to how touched I was by your story, I want to say that I appreciate that you requested “wise words” rather than a bulleted list of “tips” or action steps. It means you understand that it’s the personal orientation – our way of seeing and “being” – that really makes the difference, especially with loved ones.

So, if you don’t mind, I’ll just jump into some thoughts that occur to me as I read what you’ve written, and then, ideally, your response to my comments will help me bring better focus to whatever help I can provide

You and your husband have already done an exemplary job with your son. I’m not just saying that out of kindness. Despite your son’s troubles he’s been well enculturated -he has values and conscience. Obviously, your anguish for your son’s sadness and social isolation is prominent and I need to say that all of your efforts have helped (including that “reasonable ‘tough love’ camp”) even when it feels otherwise. They just haven’t completely borne fruit yet.

Now let me dig in a little. This is where I ask that you allow me to be a little blunt.

By age 17, your ability to shape significantly, intervene dramatically, or actually insulate your son from the real world has pretty much come and gone – and what’s left to do is fairly limited.

So obviously you must make the best of the time that’s left. Your anxiety and heartache for your son shouldn’t stand in the way of your firm resolve to do your parenting job as well as you possibly can. That’s what your son needs from you.

You’re going to have to let go of some things, absolutely insist on some things, and – most of all – be a learner. (Sort of sounds like the Serenity Prayer, doesn’t it?)

Obviously, that’s all helped along tremendously if you and your husband are essentially on the same page. I thought I might be detecting hints of discord in what you wrote, but I have no real idea of what’s true. Parents don’t need to be in lockstep agreement, in fact modeling healthy disagreement can be very helpful, but an undercurrent of resentment or harsh character judgment will be reflected back to both of you in your son’s behavior.

I’ll reiterate what I said in my original post: most problems highly intelligent people have are due to what they share with the rest of humanity, not their high intelligence. True enough, parents see real differences among their children-but what is often seen as a problem of high intelligence is just as often a deficit of social intelligence or emotional intelligence. Sometimes you can help nudge your child to the higher-end of his or her range, but that’s about it.

A simple, tried and true “method” (which many parents use without calling it that) is to “think out loud” or otherwise use an immediate problem or episode as a “learning moment” without making it blatantly obvious. Taking the opportunity to speculate and hold forth generally about what’s inside people emotionally and psychologically can be very useful to people who don’t do well with that kind of thing naturally. The skill lies in not personalizing or being too direct, not saying “you should …” or “this is where you went wrong …” but rather generalizing, as in “sometimes people …..” Even impatient, angry, grandiose adolescents are pretty good at cherry-picking relevant snippets of good advice and help as long as they don’t feel directly under the gun, or that they’re being lectured to. They tend to listen even when they’re pretending not to.

Don’t think of yourself as having the weight of your son’s life on your parental shoulders. Love and caring always matter, but from here forward supporting your son boils down to doing your level-best at giving helpful advice and authentic feedback – while also practicing self-care.

Praise and support are powerful and essential, but at this stage so are concerns, disagreements, objections, honest anger and hurt – all necessary to conveying a moral stance. Too many postmodern parents shrink from that task. They think it’s imposing on their children when, in fact, it’s a actually a form of abandonment when they neglect that aspect. It’s all necessary for optimizing a (yes) loving, nurturing environment that also truly provides real support to real people.

Your son knows – for sure – that he is loved. That’s not his problem. Whatever is different, unique, hard-wired, “smarter than,” etc. about him still has to adapt to the world as it is. Curiosity and honesty help a lot. You’ve done so well, despite your heartache for him.

Please let me know if this helps at all, and I’m happy to elaborate or focus on something else that might be useful to you.

Thanks for commenting.



Dear Mr. Kieran,
My perception is that you basically have a nature that responds to others, out of a sincere heart. In my world, I perceive you to be a person who understands the spiritual rigors and love that Jesus Christ demonstrates for humanity. Whether or not you are a professing Christian is your private matter, for these communications, but sincerity of concern, such as yours, is known to evolve from one’s own experience with pain. I apologize for showing a lack of respect for your efforts for my family. I do have to monitor myself in terms of computer time–my nature leads me to easily get absorbed with the internet, for sessions that can be too lengthy.

Our alcohol- and drug-free home is one of “chronic stress” due to my husband’s “eccentricities” and due to my “afflictions.” My Anglo husband, “S,” is in his mid-fifties, is scientific in character and is perplexed by human nature, is in cardiology, was raised by Depression-Era impacted parents (father was military and dominant, and mother was an enabler), saw our retirement savings decrease by 50%, has painful foot problems, little free time, loves our children, and loves me if I fulfill his expectations. Life is measured by the dollar sign, and rational evidence determines decisions, for the most part. My Mexican parents have minor faults, but they have always shown their love for each other, and I was raised to enjoy social graces and jokes. During college, and my professional years as an educator, I was cheerful and responsible. I was very sure of myself, and happy with people. I made a priority of discouraging bad language and disrespect from our children, even if “S” was not always in step with me. My ADD seems to get worse with age, despite four medications and treatment for depression, and I am increasingly undependable with appointments and am reluctant about social obligations. For years, I have kept boxes of mementos, toys and papers that had anything to do with my children. The relics impose on our space and freedom, but I am gradually sifting and releasing, to earn more family and inner peace. My spirituality and the good parts of my life are priceless.

I have deliberately constructed the descriptions above, with the worst of the worst. However, I always know where “S” is (our community is just the right size). “S” goes to work very early, calls about groceries early in the evening, spends an hour and a half at the gym every other day, and brings the food home. He never denies us what is needed or reasonable. He strives for our children’s affection. His good qualities and his responsive soul make him a worthy family man. Late in adulthood, I was taught that the one thing that every human most wants, is not love, but to be loved. That plain, simple truth directs me to relate with my spouse with better insight and with more kindness.

Along with the mistakes that my husband and I have made, what I see that has affected my son greatly has been the fact that he has largely grown alone, without his three older siblings. He was twelve years old, when finally, brother, sister and brother were gone for college.


My erratic viewing of my mail is, at the most, three times a month. When I saw your e-mails this evening, I went back to your website/blog, and this is what I got from you:

1. hope for my son’s future happiness, from the right things that we have done in the past
(thank you for pointing out that his future can also be promising);

2. be brave and stand firm with good parenting skills
(keep learning to do the right things with our son, and do not waver);

3. I can require civility, and be lax about the haircut
(when he spoke hatefully to me, I told him that I would not burden him more than necessary,
with my undesirable presence–that he could ride the bus to school and back, instead of
getting a convenient ride with me–which meant him having to wake up much earlier;
a contract allowed him the right to choose his rides,
if he said “Good morning” to me, cheerfully and sincerely, and was kind to me the whole
time before school started, and a similar contract for the afternoon rides–WOW!
–plus, he likes to shower, shampoo and shave-and that is good enough for me);

4. My husband and I need to renew our efforts to behave well
(this requires making time for honest soul-searching -about ourselves- together) ;

5. BINGO! My son’s abilities are not the problem–focus on the serious inabilities;

6. “think out loud” technique
(YESSSSS! I needed a description like yours, to help teach my husband!);

7. Even if we flinch at first, my husband and I need to use the “bad” moments well;
(minor and major confrontations can be skillfully used for progress–)

8. Our son needs to learn to adapt in a healthy fashion
(He has to remember that in reality, he values good social behavior from himself).

In the meantime:

–Our son has been taking medication (75 mg. sertraline, since start of December) greatly relieving depression,
and helps him hear our ” training ;” three days without meds takes him back to being scary.

–He takes melatonin to help him sleep, but it does not seem to really help, so far.

–He is taking additional vitamin D.

–Shrewd contracts and calmness can really help.

–He is doing much more homework. He seems to need a lot of “breaks” and the homework
many times does not show much thought, BUT remembering and completing the assignments
are of some value for him, now. My husband tries to insist on quality and monitor the work,
but behind our son’s back, I show my husband the “cut” gesture across my neck!

–I am trying, little by little, to increase opportunities with peers.

–I heard recently that feelings come from ideas, or thoughts. Maybe that is why your approach makes sense–
to think out loud is a thought process –>which reaches a conclusion (a “belief”) –>which sparks a reaction (an “emotion”).
The intelligent person does not know or understand certain social skills –>so the person thinks ill of himself or of others –>and consequently frustration, embarrassment, shame or anger is felt.

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Until next time,


Hi, hope you read this.
(sorry if my english isn’t so good)

I’m in a relationship for more than 3 years now. I’m 21 and he is 24.
I fell in love with his mind.. i never met a guy smarter than him.
He helped me tranform, i have a personality and a future thanks to him.

I decided i will always be by his side, no matter what… cause something inside me, told me this man will be one who will change the world for good. It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t do it in the end… i want him to be happy and have the opportunity to use his full potential if he wants it so.

So we are actually living together, i work, he organizes everything and helps me improve. and we both study the same career.

Enough of intro. The problem is that most of the time i’m useless and spoil things. He reacts very badly to that… He can be agressive sometimes, but i know (because he told me), that he acts like that because of the pain and frustration.
I could continue this message forever describing him.

But i don’t know what to do… i cant help spoil everything we constructed. He explains to me why i did so, and it makes perfect sense…
but… inside, i know there is something wrong with him… that i can’t handle.

This time, we were happy about the things we had achieved (living together alone, studying, with our dog… in a department with big windows and a nice sight) but then, something happens.. and his mood is reverted… i suffer from depression, so i really can’t cheer him up… and if i did so.. it would be worse… cause he would say i don’t care, or to just stop being hypocrite.
But the worse thing is… all the activities he planned to do together, and all the things he wanted to do and learn.. he quits. He becomes completely demotivated and leave them hanging.

And if i don’t do something, like finishing some homework.. or if i try and fail badly… there would be huge fight.

The fight and suffering is proportional to the cheerfulness we had previously.

don’t know how to help him not to suffer so much. and i don’t know what to do with myself.
I need him and he needs me… i’m his present while he’s my future… is this part of our trouble?

i really really want to stay with him and solve our problems…
i hate when the only thing people tell me is to leave him…
people like my boyfriend… are still people! why always leave them alone?

i’m just so frustrated.

there must be a way we can be happy, without me or anybody spoiling it.

i want to go to sleep… but there are so much things i must do. i just can’t start. it worries me that my “motivation” to do stuff is that he would be less mad at me… and not because i want to do them.

He is so exigent… and i’m so slow.

don’t know if you really have an answer to all of this… but just a few words saying whatever you like would be nice.


Darrell G Wolfe (@DarrellWolfe)

Shaun, this one hit the nail on the head Too! I’ve often wondered why I wasn’t “Getting It”. This post helped. Have you considered writing a book on this subject? Maybe you have, I didn’t look around your site yet. Thanks again! DarrellWolfe.Com

Shaun Kieran

No book is planned, but I appreciate the comment. You also have a very nice website. Best wishes.

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