Steven I. Pfeiffer: Head and Heart

Oct 17, 2015 by


An Interview with Steven I. Pfeiffer: Head and Heart

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Steven, first of all, tell us about who you are and what you do?

I am a Professor at Florida State University, where I serve as director of a unique doctoral program in combined school psychology and counseling psychology. Prior to my tenure at FSU, I was a Professor at Duke University, where I was director of Duke’s gifted Talent Identification program, TIP. I am a psychologist and counsel gifted kids and their parents in my clinical practice. I also am a fairly active researcher and speaker, and enjoy leading workshops for parents, educators and psychologists on the social and emotional needs of high ability children and youth.

2) How long have you worked with gifted kids?

I have worked with gifted and talented kids and adolescents for over 35 years, since I graduated from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Although my training in graduate school was in pediatric/child clinical and school psychology – my plan was to be a full-time clinician, my dissertation was in the area of creativity. I was mentored in my research by Jim Gallagher, considered by many one of the grandfathers of gifted education in the USA. So, when I graduated from UNC, back in 1977, I was poised to focus on the field of children’s mental health, but had also been enamored with the lives of gifted kids.

3) And what are some of the lessons that you have learned?

My two most recent books, Essentials of Gifted Assessment (NJ: Wiley)–published this year, and Serving the Gifted (NY: Routledge)–published in 2013, include about ten-to-twelve lessons that I’ve learned as a researcher, teacher, and administrator, but especially as a therapist, in my work with high ability kids and their parents. Some of my earlier work, dating back 20 and more years, has also included lessons learned from the “messy, real world” of clinical practice. For example, I am a strong advocate of encouraging parents of gifted kids to be comfortable setting clear limits and disciplining their bright kids. This runs counter to what some authorities in the gifted field have long advocated.

My most recent books talk about the important lesson of parents and educators paying attention to what I call “strengths of the heart.” Others have called this idea Emotional Intelligence or character strengths.

This second lesson that I’ve learned is that, as adults, gifted individuals’ happiness, sense of well-being, and feeling of fulfilment, requires heart strengths as well as head strengths. Over the years, I have kept in touch with a great many former gifted and talented clients; I have followed their career paths and also their personal life trajectories. Not all of these gifted kids grow up and become happy and successful adults.

Some dropped out of college, and others were admitted but did not finish medical school, law school, and other career pursuits. Some, as adults, struggle with feelings of loneliness, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and many acknowledge a lack of meaning in their lives. Some have even acknowledged suicidal thoughts. The lesson that I have taken away from this is that not all gifted kids grow up to be successful, well-adjusted, or happy adults. Gifted kids, by definition, all possess impressive intellectual abilities. And many also possess a good deal of creativity – ‘head strengths.’

But what some gifted kids lack in equal measure are what I call, strengths-of-the-heart. Heart strengths are not emphasized in today’s classrooms, where we are laser-focused on head strengths. We’ve all but forgotten about heart strengths, Mike. In our research lab at Florida State, and in my clinical work, we have found that heart strengths are particularly valuable in the lives of gifted kids as they grow up. Heart strengths include humility, compassion, gratitude, enthusiasm, concern for others, civic duty, and kindness.

4) What can you tell us about “late bloomers”?

We do a pretty good job of predicting high IQ in young kids. But many kids who are not recognized as having a particularly high IQ or any special gifts when young become “late bloomers,” and astound us with extraordinary inventions and accomplishments as adults. I love this unanticipated outcome!

For example, the highly respected detective fiction writer, Raymond Chandler – whose work I love! – didn’t write his first short story until he lost his job during the Great Depression, at age 44! The lesson here is that it is not always easy to predict with certainty who will reach their full potential in life! A related lesson, one that I talk a lot about in my 2013 and 2015 books, is that many non-aptitude factors go into the algorithm in determining who, exactly, will end up turning the world on its head and exciting us with their amazing discoveries and ground-breaking accomplishments!

5) In addition to cognitive smarts, it seems people need “heart” smarts or interpersonal smarts or emotional intelligence. Can you speak to this?

I think you really have answered the point in your very question, Mike! For most professions, perhaps not all but most, ultimate success requires both head strengths and heart strengths. I suspect that researchers one day will determine the correct relative weighting or algorithm of head vs. heart strengths for different professions.

For example, neurosurgeons need a ton of head smarts to be highly competent, much less reach a level of expertise or eminence in their very specific field. Heart strengths really don’t seem nearly as important for neurosurgeons – not that many might not be lovely, friendly, caring and empathic people!

My point is that for neurosurgery, I suspect that Emotional Intelligence or heart strengths aren’t of a very high importance. On the other hand, successful psychiatrists, another medical specialty, does require a good deal of Emotional Intelligence or strengths of the heart to be competent, much less recognized as eminent in psychiatry. Although our research lab hasn’t investigated this really interesting question, Mike, I suspect that success in most fields does require a fair amount of what we call well-developed heart strengths. Things like compassion, humility, concern for others, kindness, fairness, good teamwork.

6) Can you speak briefly about the social and emotional needs of the gifted?

I had the very good fortune to serve as co-Editor, along with Maureen Neihart and Tracy Cross, for a very new publication by Prufrock Press, in conjunction with the National Association for Gifted Children. It is the second edition of a very popular book, The Social and Emotional Development of Gifted Chilldren: What Do We Know? The book just came out last week, Mike!

It is a terrific volume with chapters written by the leading authorities in the field on a range of topics related to the social and emotional needs of the gifted, such as gender differences, perfectionism, peer relations, underachievement, and bullying and teasing. I encourage anyone interested in a real good overview on the social and emotional needs of the gifted to check out this edited volume. I learned a ton serving as one of the editors!

7) Can you provide the link to the original article on The Creativity Post?

8) What have I neglected to ask?

Once again, a great interview, Mike. Thank you for asking me to answer these questions!

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