Lessons Learned from Working with Gifted and Creative Kids

Lessons Learned from Working with Gifted and Creative Kids

Lessons Learned from Working with Gifted and Creative Kids

The author, a psychologist with over 35 years experience in the lab, classroom, and clinic, shares two lessons that he has learned in his work with gifted and creative kids. The first lesson is that talent development among gifted kids requires more than high intelligence. The second lesson is that success in adult life requires both head strengths and heart strengths.

I love reading success stories about young prodigies who grow up and become highly accomplished, creative, and successful adults. We all are familiar with the 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 field enthusiastic and pumped-up about our own work supporting intellectually precocious children and youth.

I have worked with high-ability kids for over 35 years. In a variety of capacities. In my clinical practice as a psychologist, I have counseled many very bright and creative kids and their parents. In my academic world at Florida State University, I teach a gifted course, and direct a research lab that conducts research on the social and emotional needs of gifted and creative kids.  And I served as Executive Director of the Duke University gifted program, TIP, which provides fast-paced and highly challenging summer academic programs for the brightest-of-the-bright adolescents.

In my career as a psychologist working with gifted and creative students, two lessons stand out as particularly memorable, even poignant.  The first lesson is that development of talent among highly gifted and highly creative kids requires more than intellectual ability, more than what I call, ‘head strengths.’  The second lesson that I’ve learned over the years is that success in adult life requires both head strengths and heart strengths. Let me very briefly 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 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Svetlana Alexievich, or Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to ever win the most prestigious award in mathematics, The Fields Medal, in 2014. The reality is that a great many students identified as gifted when very young grow up and, as adults, demonstrate no special or extraordinary talent. Not everyone with super intelligence turns out to be a Stephen Hawking or a Steven Spielberg, or a William Campbell, 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine.  

Equally intriguing, many kids who were not recognized as having any special gifts when young are “late bloomers,” and astound us with extraordinary inventions and accomplishments as adults! For example, Giuseppi Verdi sketched his ideas for composing Othello at age 73! And the famous detective fiction writer, Raymond Chandler, didn’t write his first short story until he lost his job during the Great Depression at age 44. The lessons here are that it is not always easy to predict who will reach their full potential in life – including very gifted child prodigies. And that many non-aptitude factors go into the algorithm in determining who, exactly, will end up traveling the greatest distance along ones imaginable success trajectory!    

The full development and actualization of talent at its highest levels requires, in most professions and fields, more than high intellectual ability. Developing gifted and creative children’s talents requires time and hard work, what the Chinese aptly term “chi ku,” meaning “eating bitterness.” The development of our very best and most creative writers, scientists, engineers, surgeons, detectives, teachers, artists, performers, political leaders, and others requires a tremendous amount of practice, considerable patience and stick-with-it-ness, and a healthy dosage of frustration tolerance. To reach the highest levels in any field also requires a passion to excel in that chosen profession, and available adults who serve as mentors and role models. And luck!  

The second lesson that I’ve learned is that, as adults, gifted individuals’ happiness, sense of well-being, and feeling of fulfilment, requires both head strengths and heart strengths.  Over the years, I have kept in touch with a great many former highly gifted and creative students; I have followed with great interest their career paths and also their personal life trajectories.  Not all of these gifted kids grow up and become happy and successful adults!  Some dropped out of college, and others were admitted but did not finish medical school, law school, architecture school, and other career pursuits. Some, as adults, struggle with feelings of loneliness, depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, and a lack of meaning in their lives. Some have even acknowledged thoughts of suicide.  The message that I have taken away from this is that not all gifted and creative kids successfully navigate the turbulent waters of adolescence and find a safe and supportive harbor in adult life. Not all young gifted and creative kids turn out to be successful and well-adjusted adults. Gifted kids, by definition, all possess impressive intellectual abilities. And many also possess a good amount of raw creativity – ‘head strengths.’

What some gifted and creative kids lack in equal measure, however, are what I call, ‘strengths-of-the-heart.’ Heart strengths are not emphasized in today’s classrooms, with our emphasis on academics, learning, and STEM education initiatives. We in the USA and globally are very focused on head strengths. And we’ve all but forgotten about heart strengths. In my clinical work, I have found that heart strengths are particularly valuable in the lives of gifted kids as they grow up. These heart strengths include humility, compassion, gratitude, enthusiasm, concern for others and the larger world that they are part of, kindness.  And even playfulness.  Research in our lab and my own clinical experience strongly suggest that these heart strengths often can make a real difference in whether a gifted or creative kid grows up to be a happy, well-adjusted, and successful adult.   


Steven Pfeiffer is a Professor at Florida State University, where he serves as Director of Clinical Training of FSU’s PhD program in combined counseling psychology and school psychology. Prior to his tenure at Florida State, Steven was a Professor at Duke University, where he served as Executive Director of Duke’s Talent Identification Program for gifted students (TIP) 

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