The gifted community is all abuzz about a recent blog post by Seth Godin titled “Actually, it goes the other way,” wherein the best-selling author and marketing guru implies that being gifted is a choice and something that we can create with habits, because "habits become talents."
I'm disappointed by the post but not outraged, and here's why.
First, as a writer and writing teacher, I am always aware of how tricky it is to use words precisely, especially in the pithy world of blogs and tweets. Much has been written about the complexity of the word “gifted," but just as much of a problem is Mr. Godin’s use of the word “talent.”
Talent: A special natural ability or aptitude, usually for something expressed or implied; a natural capacity for success in some department of mental or physical activity. ~ Oxford English Dictionary
Anyone who is a parent knows that we come into the world with natural capacities and aptitudes for certain ways of thinking, moving, creating, and feeling. Those talents may or may not be strengthened and honed to produce fulfillment and success that is hard to come by with habits, practice, and persistence alone.
On the other hand, as work by psychologists such as Carol Dweck have shown us, habits and practice and persistence are more important than we might have thought. It is true that we can be accomplished and find personal fulfillment in areas for which we don’t have natural gifts (or perhaps, in some cases, we awaken the talent by paying attention to it).
In any case, habits can strengthen talents. They can even awaken talents.
But they can’t, by the very definition of talent, become talents.
Imagine if the blog post had read as follows:
Wouldn’t it be great to be greatl? In fact…
It turns out that choices lead to habits.
Habits can become strengths.
Strengths are labeled as gifts.
You are not born successful, you get this way.
I do think that this is what Mr. Godin meant to say, or at least, like blogger Jen Merrill, I choose to give him the benefit of the doubt and hope it’s what he meant to say. We do label strengths as gifts, regardless of how we got them.
Being gifted is something else entirely, a way of absorbing and responding to the world that is neither good nor bad. It just is. Giftedness is a combination of intellectual aptitude with innate traits and capacities. Psychologist Deirdre V. Lovecky, Director of the Gifted Resource Center of New England and author of Different Minds: Gifted Children with AD/HD, Asperger Syndrome, and Other Learning Deficits, lists the traits of giftedness as divergent thinking ability, excitability, sensitivity, perceptiveness and entelechy.
"While the traits appear to be an integral part of giftedness, their behavioral manifestations may vary depending on such psychological and physiological factors as tolerance for ambiguity, age, degree of introversion/extraversion, preference for types and levels of sensory input, locus of control, etc.
Although the traits themselves are neutral, their behavioral manifestations give them social significance, suggesting positive or negative perceptions by others." ("Exploring Social and Emotional Aspects of Giftedness in Children")
The problem is that we all too often, as Mr. Godin's blog post implies, equate giftedness with success and achievement, so that not only do we assume that giftedness leads to eminence, but we also tend to blame parents or the children themselves when they are not publicly or traditionally successful, as if, like Luke Skywalker, they must fulfill some predetermined destiny. But giftedness is more akin to elements of our personality such as humor or introversion or pace of thinking than it is to accomplishments. Some gifted people are accomplished. Others are not. Some accomplished people are gifted. Others are not.
Personally, I think there is value in Carol Dweck’s theory of the growth mindset, especially for the gifted. Gifted children often need help from adults in getting the challenge they need to learn good habits of thought, the routine of practice, and the value of persistence. Without this help, they all too easily can skate by—albeit successfully according to the expectations for their age and grade—and hit the wall hard in college or beyond when they need the study skills and habits they had never had to learn. I see it in my classroom every year, and it’s not pretty.
The talent versus practice debate is divisive, and I don't know why we cannot admit both that innate giftedness is real and that we have more control than we might think over progress toward our own goals. Let's stop pretending that we aren't as diverse on the inside as we are on the outside. Let's also learn what we can about how to help children and adults to engage and to enjoy their potential more fully.
Actually, it really does go both ways.
Image courtesy of FrameAngel, FreeDigitalPhotos.net