One Important Lesson Learned Working with Gifted and Creative Kids


The author, a psychologist with over 40 years’ experience in the lab, classroom, and clinic, shares an important lesson that he has learned in his work with gifted and creative kids. The lesson is that talent development among bright and creative kids requires more than high intelligence.

I love reading success stories about young prodigies who grow up and become highly accomplished, creative, and successful adults. We are all familiar with the compelling stories about the Mark Zuckerberg’s, Bill Gates’s, and Lady Gaga’s of the world. These amazing and heart-warming stories keep those of us in the gifted and talented field enthusiastic and pumped-up about our own work in identifying and supporting intellectually precocious children and youth.

I have worked with high-ability and highly creative kids for 40 years. In a variety of settings and capacities. I have counseling many very bright and creative kids and their parents. I have consulted with many teachers and administrators of highly precocious students. In my academic world, I taught a course on the psychology of giftedness, and directed an active research lab that conducted research on the social and emotional needs of, and the unique challenges facing, gifted and creative kids.  I also served as Executive Director of the Duke University gifted program, TIP. TIP provides fast-paced and highly intellectually challenging and rigorous academic programs for some of our brightest-of-the-bright adolescents.

In my career as a psychologist working with gifted and creative students, one lesson stands out as particularly memorable, even poignant. The lesson is this: the development of talent among highly gifted and creative kids requires more than simply a whole-lot-of-smarts. More than what I call in my writings on “strengths of the heart,” “head strengths.” Let me explain what I mean.

With young gifted students, even child prodigies, we can at best only predict the likelihood of later outstanding accomplishment, such as this year’s three winners of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Medicine, William Kaelin, Jr., Peter Ratcliffe, and Gregg Semenza. Who could have predicted, early in their academic lives, that these three scientists, from Harvard, Oxford University, and Johns Hopkins, respectively, would have made the ground-breaking discovery that oxygen sensing is central to a large number of diseases!  The same question can be asked about Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the most prestigious award in mathematics. The Fields Medal.  The truth is that a great many students identified as gifted when very young group up, and as adults, demonstrate no special, unique or extraordinary talent. Not everyone with super intelligence grows up to be a Stephen Hawkins or a Steven Spielberg.

I find equally intriguing the fact that many kids who were not recognized as having any special gifts when young- based on our best identification tests or measures, or teacher report, are late bloomers, and astound us with extraordinary accomplishments, inventions, and performances as adults! Think of Giuseppi Verdi, who sketched his ideas for composing Othello at age 73. And what about the famous detective fiction writer, Raymond Chandler, who didn’t write his first short story until he lost his job during the Great Depression at the age of 44. The lessons here are that it is not always easy to predict who will reach their full potential in life – including the very gifted child prodigies.  And that many non-intellectual factors go into the algorithm in determining who, exactly, will end up traveling the greatest distance and reach the highest heights of their hypothetical successful trajectory!

What I am getting at is this. The full development and actualization of talent at its highest levels requires, in almost all professions and fields, more than high intellectual ability. It requires time and hard work, what the Chinese aptly term “chi ku,” meaning “eating bitterness.” Truth be told, the development of our very best and most accomplished and creative writers, scientists, surgeons, psychotherapists, detectives, teachers, artists, performers, political leaders, and others requires a tremendous amount of practice, considerable patience and persistence, and a healthy dose of frustration tolerance. To reach the highest levels in any field also requires a passion to excel in that chosen field, and adults available to support, and serve as inspiration and role models. And luck! This is one very important lesson that I learned in my 40-year career working with gifted and creative kids!

Note: This is an updated and revised version of an earlier paper that appeared in The Creativity Post.