The Temptation of the Gifted: Achievement

It’s important for people interested in intelligence to know that intelligence testing has its origins in predicting school achievement. It has since evolved into broader theoretical frameworks (especially CHC theory) which are more robust and predictive of a broader array of cognitive conditions. But let’s first talk intelligence, and then talk achievement.

We know that high intelligence has its benefits. Some people may bad-mouth the “geek” or the “nerd” as “crazy” or “out of touch,” but truth be told, high intelligence–on average–correlates with job performance, educational outcomes, personal income, health, and more. Ceteris paribus, high intelligence has benefits, despite a handful downsides for those who have extraordinarily high intelligence.

Because of its historical links to achievement, there’s often the implicit idea that if you’re gifted, things should go just swimmingly in any area of achievement you send your mind to. What this neglects is the idea in statistics of regression to the mean. Suppose general intelligence (as measured by the g factor in intelligence tests) and educational achievement were correlated at 0.75 (I don’t know what the general correlation has been found to be). If you scored two standard deviations above the mean on an intelligence test, which is about the 98th percentile, then all things being equal, this would mean that, on average, you could expect educational achievement at 1.5 standard deviations above the mean, or the 93rd percentile.

Now, the 93rd percentile isn’t bad–far from it!–but this also doesn’t factor in, well, the other factors: you might not do as well if you’re in a bad car accident, or if you suffer a terrible episode of physical or mental illness, or if you lack social capital and the means to it. Sure, you might beat the odds and have educational achievement which is the same (or higher) than your ability. But remember that to do so means you haven’t matched the odds, you’ve beaten them. In some countries, people don’t like to think of the role of luck in how one’s life turns out, and while I don’t discount virtues like perseverance and industriousness, it’s obvious that luck and having an “inside track” help determine whether those virtues can produce actual rewards.

This is a difficult lesson for gifted folks, when so much of that gifted identity is culturally wrapped up in achievement, whether educationally, professionally, or otherwise. “If I don’t achieve, does that mean I wasn’t actually gifted? Or does that mean I was lazy, or inattentive, or had a bad attitude, or…or…or…?” The questions and conclusions are endless! “Maybe that means I wasn’t ever gifted! Maybe that means my giftedness has gone away!”

To this, my answer is simple: No. I’ve said it before to gifted people, and I’ll say it again: cut yourself a break! Being gifted doesn’t mean being perfect, it doesn’t mean you go through life with paper-towel-thick problems! Your experience of giftedness includes an entire lifetime of perspective, often-unique abilities, and differentness. Don’t limit your understanding of giftedness to what others expect from you, but rather start with understanding who you are, and then decide what directions you would like to go in.

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