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Psychological Profiles of the Dream Team: The Savant

 

In my previous post, I described the psychological profile of the “Matrix Thinker,” how people with those characteristics tend to function in the workplace and where they fit in your Dream Team lineup. In this post, I’ll discuss a different type of person: the “Savant.”

What Makes Them Tick?

Savants are really good at what they do. Really, really good. They have the ability to become skilled in many, but not all, fields. They may excel in, say, language arts, yet struggle with basic math. Thus, Savants flourish when they find the one thing they’re best at and focus on it intently. They are creative, humorous and often brilliant.

However, Savants are introverted. They may struggle with verbal communication or be uncomfortable in social situations. They tend not to make friends easily, but once they do, they hold on to them. The same goes for the workplace: Savants may job-hop until they find a role they’re truly suited for, but once they do, they’ll be some of your most committed employees.

Savants are creatures of habit: they have a very specific working routine. Commonly, they need to isolate themselves in order to work effectively; outside noise is very distracting, and they are sensitive to environmental factors such as temperature or even the clothes they’re wearing. Once settled, however, they will work with laser-like focus, concentrating intensely on a given project for hours on end.

Highly-functioning Savants can apply their innate ability, intelligence and determination towards the development of exceptional talent in a single field. They tend to be skilled writers, researchers and engineers: the minute specialization characteristic of the engineering field is a perfect match for professionals with refined, specific talents. They have learned to manage their social anxiety, to some extent, and can interact effectively with managers and co-workers.

Poorly-functioning Savants, on the other hand, are crippled by their social discomfort and are unable to have normal interactions with people (the extreme end of this spectrum is Asperger’s Syndrome). Their tendency towards introversion and isolation may manifest itself in depression, neuroses, severe alienation and/or self-damaging behaviors. These Savants may never get a chance to realize and apply their natural talents, failing to live up to their intellectual and creative potential.

Being a Savant is nature, not nurture; this type of ability cannot be learned. Of course, as with all of our psychological profiles, maturity is independent of personality type. Mature Savants can identify and capitalize on their strongest ability; they have learned to develop their people skills and work effectively with others.

What Qualities Do Savants Have?

Here’s a quick breakdown of how Savants tend to rank for certain key qualities and tendencies:

Quality
Rating (out of 5 stars)
Creativity
Independence
Commitment
Problem-solving
Competitiveness
Tenure
Communication
Leadership
Teamwork

Who Are Some Famous Savants?

Here are some famous Savants throughout history:

Sergey Brin

Bobby Fischer

Woody Allen

George Orwell

Charles Darwin

Henry David Thoreau

Categorizing famous Savants by maturity level is more challenging than it is for the famous folk of our other psychological profiles. As Savants are commonly misunderstood, the reception many of them receive varies throughout history, and many exhibit tendencies on both sides of the maturity spectrum. Again, mature Savants can identify and leverage their talent, and have learned to communicate and work with people effectively; immature Savants suffer from isolation and struggle greatly with interpersonal relations.

Brin, as Co-Founder of Google, has certainly identified and capitalized on his strongest ability; however, he has come under fire for his alleged involvement with an employee. Fischer proved his mastery at chess to the world at a young age, but in later life became paranoid and ran into trouble with the law.

Allen is one of the world’s most legendary filmmakers, but also lives in infamy for his relationship choices. Orwell’s books are required reading at countless learning institutions, but speaking his truth to communism endangered his life and delayed publication of his writing.

Darwin’s work is both one of the greatest scientific achievements and one of the biggest points of contention for religious organizations. And while Thoreau is considered one of the top American writers, he spent a great deal of his life in total isolation.

What Makes Them Great?

Savants possess some important characteristics that make them great employees:

  • They’re really good at what they do. When Savants find that one thing that really makes them tick—be it writing, researching or engineering—they pursue it passionately, and they do it really well. They can apply their natural creativity and intelligence towards a specific skill, master that skill and develop it into an expert talent. When fully-realized, their potential is extraordinary.
  • They’re focused and determined. Given the proper environment, a Savant can concentrate intensely on a particular task for hours at a time—and they often won’t stop until that task is done. They are self-motivated when utilizing their talent, and can turn projects around quickly. Savants’ precision focus also lends them an excellent eye for detail.
  • They love to learn. Savants are naturally curious and are voracious consumers of knowledge. They are highly perceptive and observational, and are fast learners who can easily acquire many new skills. They tend to be avid readers, and as long as they’re interested in what they’re learning, they make for excellent students.
  • They’re perfectionists. Upholding high standards for themselves and others, Savants strive to produce a perfect product. They refuse to settle for anything less than the best, and take on a high degree of responsibility for the quality of their work. Savants are highly motivated by this perfectionism, and have a strong desire to achieve in their chosen field.

What Challenges Do They Face?

While Savants have many great characteristics, their personality traits also lend them some unique challenges:

  • Social anxiety. Savants are private people with an intense inner life—which tends to cause them a high degree of social anxiety. They can have trouble communicating effectively with others, and as a result, are commonly misunderstood. Savants are known to “call it as they see it,” which may mean making awkward or inappropriate comments during social interactions. Their social discomfort can lead to an unhealthy degree of self-isolation and alienation from others.
  • Perfectionism. The perfectionism that helps make Savants great can be a double-edged sword. In business, the perfect is often the enemy of the good: an insistence on perfection results in no improvement at all. Savants may extend this tendency to everything they do in life, and they often equate their self-worth with the fruits of their labor. Since it’s impossible to do everything perfectly, this may lead to self-doubt, depression, anxiety or underachievement.
  • Challenging authority. Savants are natural non-conformists; while this can be a good quality, their tendency to question rules and authority can also lead to clashes with management in the workplace. The deep, passionate convictions they hold may manifest themselves in terms of intense anti-establishment sentiment or difficulty answering to a rule-following boss.

How Do Savants Perform in Key Roles?

Here’s a quick look at which roles Savants are most, and least, suited for:

What They’re Good At
What They’re Not So Good At
Research & Analysis
Sales
Engineering
Management
Creative
Customer Service
Writing & Editing
Executive Support
Marketing Support
CEO / COO

Which Roles Are Best for Them?

The characteristics shared by Savants make them well-matched for certain workplace roles, including:

  • Writing and research. Many Savants are natural wordsmiths: they are some of history’s most famous authors. These literary savants excel in reading and writing from a very young age and have extensive vocabularies. Savants are also resourceful, making them excellent researchers: even if they don’t know the answer, they probably know where to find the information they need.
  • Creative roles. Savants tend to be naturally creative and have active, vivid imaginations. Combined with their usual knack for the written word, they can be your best content creators. Many are skilled in visual arts, and can make excellent designers or graphic artists. And highly-functioning Savants can be visionary creative or editorial directors.
  • Engineering. Engineering is a technically creative field, so naturally, Savants thrive in these types of roles. Here, they can apply their natural aptitude for problem-solving and thoughtful analysis. And the seemingly endless number of niche subfields within engineering make it a perfect fit for Savants who want to refine their talent in one very specific area.

Which Roles Should They Avoid?

While Savants are great in specialized roles, they aren’t a good fit for every position. Some of these include:

  • Senior management roles. Savants tend to be lacking in commercial sensibilities, and are uncomfortable making business decisions. They are also deficient in the twinge of narcissism that is necessary to be an effective C-suite executive—and their discomfort in social situations wouldn’t exactly make them great additions to the boardroom.
  • Roles involving customer interaction. Social awkwardness and communication difficulties makes Savants ill-matched for roles involving extensive customer interaction, such as sales or customer service. Not only will they be uncomfortable with such exchanges, they might inadvertently offend or alienate prospects and customers.
  • Roles that don’t utilize their talent. Savants have intelligent, active minds—and they will quickly become bored in a role that doesn’t allow them to apply their specialized talent. In such roles, their work performance may start off strong, but it will quickly plummet, absenteeism will increase and, ultimately, the Savant will either quit or have to be let go.

How Do You Identify a Savant in an Interview?

During the interview process, there are certain approaches you can take to identify whether or not a candidate is a Savant:

  • Make them feel comfortable. The Savant’s characteristic social anxiety, combined with their typical self-deprecation, makes an interview a very uncomfortable situation for them. As with the Giver, try to start an interview with a Savant in a warm and relaxed manner: gradually lead into more challenging questions after attempting to establish a comfortable rapport.
  • Ask specific questions. Savants don’t like to talk about themselves, so typically, they won’t volunteer information about past achievements or accomplishments out of the blue. And, unlike a Champ, a Savant will not take charge of a conversation. Ask specific questions that will directly prompt the information you need to know.
  • Put their talent to the test. There’s one easy way you can identify a Savant when they come in for an interview: test them on the talent the role requires. If you’re trying to hire a writer, for example, give the candidate a writing test. They may not be able to express their skills to you verbally, but one look at the work of a Savant will tell you everything you need to know.
  • Don’t (necessarily) penalize job-hopping. As mentioned, Savants will become quickly bored and exhibit poor performance if they are placed in a position that doesn’t utilize their talents. Don’t be put off by a spotty employment history, if the work was unrelated to the Savant’s talent of choice. Job-hopping is common until they figure out what it is they really want to focus on.

What Should You Do As an Employer?

When you’ve got Savants on your staff, there are a few things that, as an employer, you should do in an effort to keep everyone happy:

  • Don’t over-manage them. Savants are self-motivated and independent. Take a more hands-off management approach with your Savants: they will do better without the rigid structure that other employees may require in order to stay on task. Give them the freedom to follow their routine and isolate themselves in the environment of their choice.
  • Don’t assume they can do everything. As previously mentioned, because Savants are so gifted at one particular thing, don’t assume this means they can do everything. A brilliant chemical engineer, for example, might not make an equally effective software developer. Identify their specialty, then just let them run with it.
  • Acknowledge a job well done. Savants are emotionally sensitive and tend to have particularly intense feelings. They are their own worst critic, and often will be too hard on themselves. While Savants are uncomfortable with too much attention, ensure that their good work doesn’t go entirely unrecognized. They strive for approval and are very appreciative when they receive it.

Savants can be some of your highest-performing employees: given the flexibility to follow their routine in a comfortable environment, they can produce top-quality work at an astounding rate. Of course, as with any personality type, you’ll need to have others on your Dream Team to balance out the Savants.

Holly Regan and Dr. James Maynard contributed to this article.

Image by Holly Regan.

Woody Allen” created by Colin Swan used under CC-BY / cropped and resized.
Charles Darwin” created by Herbert Rose Barraud used under CC-PD-Mark / cropped and resized.
George Orwell press photo” created by anonymous used under public domain-anonymous work / cropped and resized.
Henry David Thoreau” created by Benjamin D. Maxham used under CC-PD-Mark / cropped and resized.
Bobby Fischer 1960 in Leipzig” created by Karpouzi used under Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Germany.
Sergey Surprise on China” created by Steve Jurvetson used under CC-BY / cropped and resized.

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About the Author

Don started Software Advice in 2005 after a ten-year career in the software industry. Previously he held positions as an ERP analyst at an investment firm and as a corporate development executive at a pioneering CRM software company. Don lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Lauren, daughter Hudson, son Stone and Bernese mountain dog Stinson.

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