Friday, October 8, 2010

Gifted Success or Failure?

There have been several recent newspaper articles in the UK press about gifted adults and whether they achieved the potential they demonstrated as children. They were written as a result of the publication of Professor Joan Freeman’s latest book “Gifted Lives: What Happens When Gifted Children Grow Up”. I haven’t read this book, but I have read her previous one on the same subject. The media take was fairly predictable...the headlines on the articles read “Gifted Children Are Failures” and “From child prodigy to adult despair” (The Sunday Times), “Why gifted children are just as likely to fail in life” (The Mail online), “Why do gifted children fail?” (The Guardian online) and “Child geniuses ‘fail to meet expectations’ “ (The Telegraph online).

So many things about the headlines, the articles and the reporting of Professor Freeman’s research findings made me uncomfortable, but the one that kept surfacing relentlessly was the notion of “failure”. What is failure? My Concise Oxford Dictionary defines failure as “lack of success; unsuccessful person, thing or attempt” while online versions use “lack of success in doing or achieving something, a person or thing that is not successful”. So, if failure is a lack of success, what then, is success? Is the accountant who really wishes she were a farmer a success at being an accountant, or a failure at being a farmer? Is the student who dropped out of his law course to switch to microbiology a failed solicitor? Who judges the level of success of somebody? Themselves or others? When we speak of gifted children is their “potential” the important thing? Or their person? Is giftedness to be something or to become something?

One of the “gifted failures” referenced in the press is a young man called Andrew Halliburton who, after studying A-level maths at the age of 11, now works in McDonald’s. He is 23, and going back to university in September to study computer game technology having dropped out in his late teens. How is this young man a failure? He is 23 years old! He has his whole life ahead of him, with plenty of time to reach the goals he sets for himself. Why do the media set expectations for those for whom they have no right to set expectations? Why do parents, teachers or even psychology professors do so? We have seen it again and again when giftedness is covered by the media. Gifted children are set up to “fail”. Their “potential” is discussed as if they are a commodity in the future jobs market. They are spoken of as future doctors, scientists, entrepreneurs, leaders. Then, when they don’t become what journalists, psychologists, teachers or parents imagined they would, they are labelled failures. We need to examine how we view our gifted young people’s futures and be careful about burdening them with our dreams without asking them first what theirs are. We gifted advocates debate endlessly the merits or otherwise of using the label of “gifted”. Do we then accept that the word “failure” is bandied about by psychologists and journalists when these children do not meet some artificial criterion of success that someone else has set for them? As an advocate for gifted learners, I don’t and I won’t.

In the Times article, Professor Freeman is quoted as saying that Jocelyn Lavin who gave up a promising career in music to pursue maths and science “made the wrong decision” because, after a recent career change from teacher to freelance music arranger, Ms Lavin finds herself struggling financially and in danger of losing her home. While most people would agree that not having a certain financial security in your forties is an uncomfortable place to be, who is to judge whether Ms. Lavin made the right career decision as a teenager except herself? Her decision to follow her love of science and mathematics rather than a career in music performance may or may not have led her to financial difficulties today. To many “what if's?” obscure the real reasons behind people's life decisions. Gifted children and adults are no different in this regard, and no more immune from making mistakes than anyone else. They should not be held to a different standard based on a measurement of their academic potential as a child.

The Concise Oxford definition of success is; “accomplishment of what was aimed at, attainment of wealth or fame or position” and online versions go with “the fact that you have achieved something that you want and have been trying to do or get; the fact of becoming rich or famous or of getting a high social position”. It cannot be just me who thinks that this definition is shallow and ill-suited to describe the many ways that people, gifted or not, can contribute as full and active citizens?


  1. Excellent and thought-provoking post, ladies. My husband and I both achieved that supposed "outward" success as professionals (lawyers), yet neither of us truly found happiness in that career. I wish for my gifted children to follow their dreams and passions, regardless of how "successful" that makes them appear to others. Life is too short not to!

    Lisa in Ontario

  2. How refreshing! I couldn't agree more. I have read several of the reviews you cited in your post, and I have real concerns about the conclusions drawn by Dr. Freeman.
    I define my success by my personal 'happiness factor'. What's the point of being seen as a success by other people, and never being happy? Early American colonists sought ... life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I'd say those were well thought out aspirations that still ring true today.

  3. It really begs the question of 'what is success' doesn't it?

    Financial stability is awesome, let me not argue that we all don't like some cash...but if that was what I was looking for in terms of making me happy/successful I would feel awfully hollow inside.

  4. I am delighted with your post. Discussing the broad range of possibilities that both success and giftedness can imply is one way to encourage able kids to consider the range of contributions that they and others might make in life, and to value all of these appropriately. Furthermore, looking at setbacks as creators of resilience, empathy, and a renewed sense of direction is important for these children. Examples of such setbacks in the lives of inarguably gifted role models can be found with an ease which may well surprise those reporting on Dr Freeman's work. The untroubled life is far more unusual than intellectual aptitude, whatever anyone may wish to think.

    On a slightly different note, originality is currently valued as an aspect of giftedness. People with a high level of originality are likely to have original goals. Is it reasonable to evaluate such goals with stereotypical measures of success? I think there is some place for objectivity, but I don't think it can tell the whole picture.

  5. Absolutely agree. We are so wrapped in the outward look of 'success' that we never stop to think of what makes someone successful and whether that should or should not be 'success'. sad.

  6. Thank you for this observation. I've posted several comments about Freeman's work as it has popped up on various medial outlets. Your observations here highlight just one of the many concerns I have about her "findings." I think the only thing that smacks of any sense of validity is the duration of her study. Unfortunately, attaching "35 years" to anything in this day & age of immediacy & sound bites, tends to add a false sense of authority to what might ordinarily have been written off as nothing more than anecdotal.

  7. Love it. How can you judge whether gifted kids are succeeding and failing unless you know what success and failure mean? Plus, do even all Americans agree on what constitutes success? Even at my economically homogeneous university, people have very different views.

    There's an unexamined belief that comes out in these media articles that when a person has special talent, that talent belongs to the society and not to the person. You see it in arguments supporting gifted education as well as in articles like this. It places a huge burden on a talented child because if they make the "wrong" choice they don't just let themselves down, or their families, but their whole society. And we wonder why so many gifted kids are "afraid to fail!"

  8. I was accelerated in my early years and most definitely have always had a very original "take" on things. My secondary school was useless, so that by age 12 I was immersing myself in creative pursuits because they were nice to do. I couldn't get a job after my arts degree and ended up as a cashier . An old teacher from my school walked in one day and said "oh is this where you've ended up". I felt like saying "excuseme, dear, but you don't "end up" anywhere until you're dead" . Looking back, perhaps that is exactly what I ought to have done.
    My mother taught me to read at 18 months and I simply cannot see what the point was of doing that. She took me to an educator who had writtena set of children's books when I was 2 and he said "this is the brightest child I've ever seen, I hope you'll put her into a special school". My parents said "oh we don't want to put her into a special school we want her to go to a normal school". The educator shook his head and said "you will always have problems".

  9. ...Carrying on from last comment...everyone in the teaching profession thought it was odd that I was sent to a "normal" school. Even today, my parents would rather I worked in a supermarket than at anything creative. It has always seemed that I am allowed to be "good"(so long as it suits their purpose) but "not too good". My mother has not worked for 50 years and it almost seems that she is willing me to be below her level. She created me as a "project" which would reflect well on her, but who I was as a person was irrelevant. Now she holds my cousin, who is a doctor and knee deep in thousands more debt than I have ever been, up as an example. I have had these vibes from others too. I have had lifelong job problems, though I have worked hard at my creative pursuits. I have also had lifelong depression due to maladjustment. The one thing I can comfort myself with is that those who were supposedly "better adjusted" haven't produced one thing that is noteworthy or original.
    People have begun to notice that I have been repeatedly passed over and got the short end of the straw. Nobody can understand why I am not doing better despite my abilities. Perhaps, however, a clue can be found in a comment by one of my competitors in the field I work in. He said: "people hate talented people" and it's true. Whenever I have come out with my work, people have gone quiet. I have not had any help from anyone for a really long time. I have to move back home as I cannot service my debts. People only ever offer me unpaid work and I simply can't afford to do it. This is what happens when someone is fast tracked (not having asked for it) - therefore creating something that no one knows what to do with.
    Added to that my parents' fraught relationship and outright abuse - but that's another story altogether. I feel like no one in life has ever cared about my feelings.
    The other "prodigy" in my class at school was a girl who was made to play the violin. At 19 she ran off and married a 53 year old driving instructor. She is now an estate agent and, as far as I know, there's not a violin in sight. She was quite clearly messed up too. When will parents stop seeing their children as objects?