Coolabilities: A Revolution in How We Think about Human Value

Shannon Mullen O'Keefe
8 min readFeb 23, 2023

Our opportunity to acknowledge what’s been obvious for a long time: we’re all above average– (just not at the same thing)

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

By Cyndi Coon & Shannon Mullen O’Keefe

“This is the time,” The Chief Elder began, looking directly at them, “when we acknowledge your differences……….Today we honor your differences.”¹ “They have determined your futures.”

In the book, The Giver by Lois Lowry, the Chief Elder speaks to the group of children known as the Elevens during their day of transition from childhood to adulthood in their twelfth year. She describes the group and its variety of personalities, listing skills identified in the children while observed during childhood.

Skills such as caretaking, unusual scientific aptitudes and those for whom physical labor was an obvious pleasure.

The book dips into potential dystopias–the acknowledged differences are taken to an extreme. They result in restricted choice and lack of freedom.

But here’s the thing. As leaders we’re capable of inspiring a future that isn’t dystopian.

It’s up to us to shape our potential and to craft our destiny.

What Lowry suggests in her book, is what we all know to be actually true.

We’re unique beings, each one of us. Just as in her story –we know this when we observe children. This is clear in the earliest days of our human lives. One child is busy, one child is talkative, one child quietly turns the pages of a book, one child builds something…

But it’s not only children. We observe differences in everyone around us–and in ourselves.

This idea that we all have something unique to offer shows up everywhere, all the time.

But Lowry’s book seems out of the ordinary — because in our real life — we don’t seem to lean into our differences and see them as gifts. Rather we compare ourselves.

Consider how Garrison Keillor made light of this for years as he introduced his radio show about the fictitious small town community in central Minnesota by describing “… all the kids are above average.” His statement was funny because he turns what we think to be true upside down –everyone can’t be above average. So it makes the Lake Wobegoners–(those who live in the fictional town created by Garrison Keillor) seem silly.

But maybe that idea isn’t as silly as it seems on the face of it.

If we combine concept ideas from Lake Wobegon and The Giver together — we might find a new way to look at things. A world in which perhaps everyone can actually be above average– even exceptional — –just at their own thing.

Image: AI-generated Prompt: “Old-time radio in the metaverse” by Cyndi Coon

That’s how we’re built! There are no two of us alike.

So, what if we explored thinking about ourselves in a new way, focused on what each of us has to offer?

What if we considered the purpose of work to be the fulfillment of a human life–a way for each human to express their unique gifts — the ‘what each of us is above average at?’

What if that became our puzzle to solve?

What if human development became an outcome we cared about?

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, [you must] build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” — Buckminster Fuller

The concept of Coolabilities presents us with a new way to think about human ability.

To be clear, the coolabilities concept is not about everyone. The concept itself refers to a specific range of human capabilities. But, the idea invites us to open the door to begin to think in a more holistic way about human ability.

It is a reframing that we might learn from as we consider how best to set each person — each human up for success — in work (and life.)

The Coolabilities concept

Let’s explore Coolablities.

“Coolabilities,”² is “a proposed concept for the enhanced abilities in disabling conditions.” The idea looks for what some individuals labeled as ‘disabled,’ can do well–or even better than others–and turns the spotlight on that.

In Lake Wobegon speak — it looks for what each person is above average at and where their potential for excellence lies.

Vint Cerf, along with Chally Grundwag, David Nordfors and Nurit Yirmiya in their article about the topic, describe it this way “We all know someone with a disability who is extremely talented, right? That’s because disabilities often come with other enhanced abilities. We are giving them a name — “Coolabilities” — and they are a door to a new world of opportunities.”

What is this new world of opportunities that the authors see?

Well, they’d like us to think about reframing the job market to imagine how coolabled people might invite us to look at how we think about jobs differently.

They point to High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder, ASD, as one example. “There are many excellent software engineers among [those with this ‘dis’order.] So, the idea is, in the case of ASD, we reframe how we think about the person, their ability and how they might contribute — looking specifically at what they uniquely bring. Or, Dyslexia, known “coolabilities,” can be things like creativity, perspective and innovative thinking.

Image Credit: Cyndi Coon

The types of Coolabilities

There are three distinct types of Coolabilities. Contextual which is a trait that is disabling in one context becomes non-significant in another. Compensational Coolabilities happen when one or more abilities are strengthened at the loss of another. Finally, Singular Coolabilities are abilities that do not exist in other people. People with such abilities perceive and act in ways unimaginable to others.

So, Coolabilities are not isolated phenomena but principles that may apply to varying degrees across a broader range of conditions.

The US Center for Disease Control estimates that autism prevalence has increased to 1 in every 44 children. Autism is just one example of many neurodivergent diagnoses-which “describes people whose brain differences affect how their brain works [meaning] they have different strengths and challenges from people whose brains don’t have those differences.” So, if in some cases neurodivergency presents with an unimaginable way to think or perceive the world differently from others– a coolability — this can be an inspiring way to think about the potential that person may offer to their work — and moreover contribute to something that our society needs. The idea is already catching hold (See number 13.)

What’s the wider scope of opportunity?

A concept like coolabilities invites us to shift our mindset, with regard to how we think about ability.

As the American rapper Jay-Z reminds us “Every human being has genius-level talent. There are no chosen ones…You just have to find what it is that you are great at and tap into it.

As the American rapper Jay-Z reminds us “Every human being has genius-level talent. There are no chosen ones…You just have to find what it is that you are great at and tap into it.”

The invitation for us all may be to create more space to explore natural pockets of potential.

What if we rethink how we incentivize ourselves (and others?) –to look out for and to invest in such natural aptitudes?

What if we aim for potential realization? Thriving individuals who contribute to our thriving whole?

This might mean that instead of forcing compliance into outdated work requirements — we rather begin to rethink how our incentives encourage the range of unique human potential to blossom.

As a practical example, consider NOEMA Magazine’s top 2022 article The Disappearing Art of Maintenance. It reminds us about our society’s need to maintain and repair things. When people are invited to do this work it becomes the classic ‘win-win,’ –as the author points out. “The nobel but undervalued craft of maintenance could help preserve modernity’s finest achievements, from public transit systems to power grids, and serve as a useful framework for addressing climate change and other pressing planetary constraints.”

Some kids –(and adults) — love to tinker and maintain things. The world needs it. So why not incentivize this?

Make it a great livelihood — celebrate it.

Create paths and visibility so that kids can find their way to it?

We know through social science research* that in the coming decade, a constellation of emerging technologies, e.g. Artificial intelligence, Machine learning, The Internet of things, 5-G and Network Improvement Communities, will enable a radical reevaluation of human capacity, labor and earning potential. Persistent and unaddressed threats, e.g. climate change, civil and political unrest, pandemics, food insecurity and lack of access to learning combined, will require increased participation in a new, radically revisioned global workforce.

Have we identified the coolabilities that will find their best expression alongside this constellation of emerging technologies?


Our aim might be to make the notion of falling below average obsolete as we begin to find and foster, and incentivize each person’s unique potential. This may mean a shift in our values — to a greater and more holistic understanding and appreciation for how we each contribute to the whole–how we collaborate (rather than compete.)

Our aim might be to make the notion of a neurodivergent disability obsolete; as we reimagine how unique human capacities such as coolabilities– can be used in constructive and gratifying ways for the human being, economy and better collective destiny.

This is the time, we might say. Looking directly at each other — in which we acknowledge we each have something to offer. And honor our differences to determine our better future by building our systems to incent and support one another to offer our gifts — to each be above average.

Leadership Reflections:

Are you tuned into your own gifts or to those of your close friends and family?

Have you witnessed unique abilities in action?

What if you allowed yourself to see the unseen super abilities going on around you everyday?

What if we all did?

Might we build a better collective to advance all human abilities and value?

¹ Lois Lowry, The Giver (Houghton Mifflin, 1993), Chapter 7, second page.

² “Cool Abilities”-Enhanced Abilities in Disabling Conditions by Grundwag, Chally, Nordfors, David, Yirmiya, Nurit.

Cyndi Coon is a time traveler and rule-bender, nerding out for good using data and science. She is a storyteller, creative, ecosystem builder, facilitator, author, producer, and futures experience designer for governments, military, higher education, and industry. She is Founder and Producing Director at Applied Futures Lab, Founder at Laboratory5 Inc. and Co-Founder of the Threatcasting Lab. She is on the board of directors of the People Centered Internet where she leads the i4j (global workforce) and Coolabilities projects.

Shannon Mullen O’Keefe is a strategist and writer, dedicated to imagining what we can build and achieve together. She is also curator for The Museum of Ideas a project that invites leaders, thinkers and everyday experts to express the ideas that will shape our better future. She practiced the art of leadership for close to three decades, leading workplace engagement and culture change initiatives. She has served in leadership and executive roles in a global professional services firm and in a nature-based nonprofit organization. Find her leadership thinking on linkedin.



Shannon Mullen O'Keefe

A lover of wisdom, dedicated to imagining what we can build and achieve together. Chief Curator |The Museum of Ideas