Public perceptions of giftedness, part 1: Genius

Everyone has a different idea of what giftedness means, from parents to teachers to well-meaning neighbors to advocates for the gifted to gifted people themselves. Ask ten people in the same room what they think giftedness is, and you will probably get eleven opinions. Carol Fertig, a knowledgeable blogger at Prufrock press, writes, "When asked the question, 'What does it mean to be gifted?' my standard answer is, 'I have no idea.'" For better or worse, though, we all have a mental image--however fuzzy--of a gifted person in action. And how we define giftedness, to ourselves and to others, has a huge impact on how we see ourselves (if we're gifted), our children, or our students. And while Carol Fertig can successfully advocate for gifted people without a personal definition of giftedness, most of us--especially gifted teenagers trying to figure out their identities or parents trying to plead their case to skeptical public school administrators--do not have that luxury.

While researchers and experts on giftedness have their own dueling conceptions of giftedness, most of us are more likely to encounter laypeople's ideas about the gifted. Like most widely accepted ideas in the culture, these are fuzzy and mixed together, but one can separate them out into three basic strands: giftedness as genius, giftedness as prodigy, and giftedness as talent. Gifted people as well as those who have never met a gifted person seem to share similar images. In all likelihood, your view of giftedness draws on one or more of the archetypes described below.

This entry will focus on giftedness as genius. The next will examine giftedness as prodigy.

Giftedness as Genius
When advocates for the gifted talk about the need to support our "next Einsteins," they implicitly draw on this conception of giftedness. A genius is someone whose achievements transform some area of the culture in a lasting way. For instance, Shakespeare wrote what are still considered the best plays in the English language, expanding the bounds of both literature and language. Darwin's theory of natural selection laid the foundation for the modern understanding of evolution and transformed our understanding of human nature.

With the possible exception of Mozart or Gauss, no child has ever fit this definition of genius. A genius is something one becomes when one grows up.

Most people who view giftedness as genius also believe that genius is some sort of innate ability. From here they split into two camps. Many people seem to assume that, since genius triumphs over adversity, children need no help to develop it. This attitude may explain some people's hostility toward enrichment programs for gifted children. Gifted advocates, on the other hand, claim that children need emotional support and opportunities to develop their abilities in order to become geniuses. Of course, most children identified as gifted do not grow up to be geniuses. Advocates for the gifted argue that this happens because gifted kids lack the support and opportunities that they need. Since gifted kids clearly are getting very little support, this explanation seems reasonable.

Most people who view giftedness as genius also feel that genius is a quality of the individual and the work he or she produces. Most people don't create anything lasting; surely there must be something special about those who can. We tend to look at geniuses as a class apart, almost superhuman, regarding them with a mixture of awe and envy. We take perverse pleasure in pulling them off the pedestals we ourselves put them on. Why else would there be a small cottage industry of diagnosing long-dead geniuses with mental illness? We love to hear about geniuses' mental or physical disabilities because these disorders seem to "compensate" for the advantages nature gave them. If geniuses can do so much that we can't, then fairness demands that there must also be things we can do that they can't. That's why we always imagine Einstein as an old, wild-haired man sticking his tongue out--his eccentricity makes up for his brilliance.

Many of the myths about gifted people are really just age-old, unexamined myths about geniuses. For example:
  • Gifted people can succeed without help.
  • Gifted people are antisocial. (This one comes from the tendency of geniuses to lock themselves away while doing their creative work, or perhaps from their prickly, anti-authority personalities).
  • Gifted people must have some counterbalancing flaw--eccentricity, mental illness, lack of social skills, lack of athletic ability, odd appearance, etc. If a gifted child is smart and an early reader, he must be a nerdy loner who sits alone on the playground everyday reading because he can't make friends. (Note that this myth can prevent gifted people with a learning disability from being identified. Their weaknesses are viewed not as signs of disability, but as just the flip side of being a genius).
When we identify children as potential geniuses, something of our attitude towards the adult genius often rubs off on them. We communicate that their gifts set them apart, but that they shouldn't get a swelled head. We tell them they should value and develop their gifts, but that their gifts belong not to them but to society. Finally, we communicate that we love them for their gifts, but resent them for the same abilities. When children receive such mixed messages about their talents, is it any wonder that as teenagers and adults, they often deny that they have any special gifts at all?1

Some gifted children have actually been identified as a future Mozart or a modern messiah, often by complete strangers and at a very young age. They may think something like, "I don't feel like a Mozart or a messiah. Maybe I'm not. But I'm supposed to be, so I have to live up to that expectation. I hope no one realizes I'm not what I'm supposed to be." They feel an incredible pressure and at the same time, a suspicion that they are not really as good as everyone says they are. This suspicion may shade into a fear that if people knew who the "genius" really was, they wouldn't like him or her any more--especially if such children believe they are only valued for their gifts. An older person might be able to verbalize these misgivings and prevent strangers' remarks from skewing his or her self-concept, but a small child likely lacks the self-awareness and emotional intelligence to do so. While the same dynamic can be seen most obviously with children hailed as geniuses in the media, it also occurs with precocious children a mere six to ten years above grade level in their strongest area.

If geniuses are somehow a different sort of person than the rest of us, it stands to reason that what they do is natural, and easy, for them. Thus, we expect gifted children to earn top grades and create impressive products with ease. Gifted children often expect never to have to work hard, and never have to, until suddenly in middle school or high school they are expected to show organizational ability as well as brilliance. Then, suddenly, they "hit the wall" and stop turning in impressive work. The child capable of creating her own proofs gets a first B or C in math because of calculation errors. The child who imagines vivid stories of high adventure fails a writing assignment because he cannot transfer his complex ideas to paper. If the gifted child has a learning disability, he or she will hit the wall harder and more painfully, but most gifted children are assumed to hit the wall sooner or later. Is it any wonder that gifted people come to assume that they're imposters, not really as smart and successful as everyone says they are? (More about this in Part Two).

Part of the problem is that we misunderstand genius. It's understandable, but false, to assume that special qualities absent from the rest of us make someone a genius. After all, Van Gogh, unrecognized during his lifetime, is now considered a genius. Did Van Gogh suddenly become more brilliant after he died?

In fact, genius is as much a matter of a culture's needs at any given moment as of the qualities of the individual and his or her work2. The individual and the culture interact to produce a genius. First the culture determines what opportunities are available for children to discover and develop their talents. However well-adapted to science Einstein's neurological profile might have been, he would not have gravitated to theoretical physics had he grown up in Borneo. Next, a culture determines who counts as a genius by selecting whose new ideas to absorb. A culture can only absorb so much new input at a time without falling into total chaos, and there will always be more talented creators than a culture can accomodate. Those who succeed often do so because they were in the right place at the right time, saying or doing the right things.

That is not to say that one needs only luck to be a genius. Mozart may have needed access to an instrument and an audience in order to be recognized as a genius, but that doesn't mean everyone given an instrument and an audience will become Mozart. Talent, imagination, and persistence are ncessary, though not sufficient, qualities. One must not only be in the right place at the right time with the right skills, but recognize that fact and know how to act on it.

As a result, many talented children will not grow up to be geniuses. If genius is located as much in the culture as the individual, giftedness cannot equal future genius, regardless of the educational opportunities promising children receive.

If we (implicitly or explicitly) adopt the view that giftedness is genius, what does that imply for our child? If "gifted" means "future genius," you can take for granted that your child will produce a paradigm-shifting discovery or invention as an adult. However, she will not be able to take credit for it because her achievement is taken for granted. After all, as a gifted person, he's destined to change the culture in some lasting way. But if for some reason your child fails to change the world, even if she achieves more ordinary measures of success, she won't be able to appreciate the accomplishments she does have. Should one appreciate a waste of ability? What would count as success for anyone else looks like a failure for someone who could have been a genius.

Research suggests that to become a genius, your child must find a passion by his teenage years and devote himself to it above all other interests and relationships. She must devote her youth to developing all the skills needed for her masterpiece. The timing couldn't be worse: while still trying to figure out who he is, your child must also find the path to his destiny and start walking it. But how does she know what her destined contribution will be? Not surprisingly, your child may end up obsessing over whether he's developing the right skills and talents, or whether he might somehow, unknowingly, be jeopardizing his future. That's what happens when you carry such a burden of expectations. You bear all the responsibility if you fail, but take none of the credit if you succeed. If your child becomes a genius, he's only doing what he's destined to do. But if she fails, she's jeopardized her own future.

In Part Two, we will discuss the next image of the gifted person in popular culture: the prodigy. Stay tuned!

1 The technical name for this denial of one's talents is "imposter's syndrome." See also The Gifted Adult, by Mary-Elaine Jacobsen, which was written to convince her many gifted psychotherapy clients that they were not hopelessly deficient, but gifted.
2 For a more detailed discussion, see Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.


  1. interesting post. On the nature versus nurture, I wonder if praise plays a role: http://scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily/2007/09/in_1999_melissa_kamins_and.php

  2. Thanks!

    Interesting link, I think you're right. It's very easy for parents to say "wow, you're so smart/imaginative/whatever" when overwhelmed by their precocious kid's behavior. But these kids are good at reading between the lines, so I've seen them draw the obvious conclusion that "if I do something precocious then I must be smart" (after all, that's the assumption the parents are making!). But then they make the not-so-true conclusion that "doing something smart means being smart." Then, as teenagers, I've seen them have an almost arrogant confidence in their own intelligence and ideas, but very little sense that they are worthwile as whole people. And then they have no idea what to do when they don't do as well as they think they should. It's very sad.

  3. Hi, I am citing you in a paper. Are you part of a university and do you have a title/position? Thank you. Sincerely, Rick Glatz,
    G and T Teacher