So, Tuesday I mentioned in passing that I think Talent is a myth, and of course I got the usual answers “no, I met someone very talented at x or y.”
Which brings us to this post and why I hate the “classification” that schools do in “gifted.” And this is not just because in schools gifted normally means “does what I tell her to do, no matter how stupid, promptly and without complaint.” I mean, that is part of the problem. I had the hardest time convincing them that the sons were underperforming because they were bored, not because they weren’t capable. (There is something profoundly insulting to teachers who think that whatever they assign the first grader, even if it’s putting round pegs in round holes, is the most fascinating thing that kid can learn to do. Ditto for third grade teachers who only have picture books in their classroom and who think your child isn’t reading them because he is “learning disabled” not because he reads Roman history in his spare time at home. [Granted in middle school aimed books, because I, personally, preferred not to be responsible for his learning the less savory stuff Romans did. I kept that stuff in the locked bookcase. Yes, of course he read them too, though I only found out his bookcase opening trick years later.] And right now you’re going: see, your kid was “gifted.” Hold on to that thought.)
I hate the classification of “gifted” even when accurate because of the meaning behind it. This is something you were given, something you were born with. You’ll always be gifted, even if you choose to be a total dumb*ss, and they treat it like it’s important and relevant and makes you soooo special. (And for those ready to say this is envy: I was in those classes too. Mostly because normal class teachers wanted me out of their purview ASAP due to a nasty tendency to argue every point into the ground. [And it was nasty. Had I had to teach myself, I’d have hit the little pest in the head with a heavy dictionary first day.])
I don’t object to stratifying classes by ability. In fact, I think the places and times that did it made life easier for both the child and the teacher, provided they have some means of deciding who goes into the pool that isn’t based on “She dresses so nicely and does everything I tell her.”
In my time and place, because it was illegal, (revolution abolished such things) they did it only for extreme cases and in self defense. So in my second year in high school (which starts in seventh grade) I found myself in a form that collected every single best student of their forms the year before, save for those who went into our rival form. (And you know, these many years after, I remember we were N and locked in mortal combat with form M. Grades are posted publically, and it was a horrible humiliation if they had more As than we did.)
Certainly extreme ability should be stratified out, as should extreme disability. There are things that no amount of integration are going to equalize and you can’t teach “genius” and morons at the same time with the same material. If you try you get the mess our schools are today. That said, and see as before, I don’t trust the schools ability to decide who are genius and who are morons. (Younger son is certified genius [certifiable too] and I had to fight more than once to keep him from remedial h*ll, because he had a speech impediment, an odd sense of humor and was bored spitless.)
And now you’re saying “But Sarah, you just admitted there are geniuses.” Drat. Will you wait. All shall be explained.
So, anyway, I hate the word “gifted” to apply to those who are smarter than the average bear, because it implies they were handed this “packet” of genius, and there’s nothing else they need to do to succeed and do well in life. In fact, one teacher, explaining why the school spent so little time and money on the smart kids told me “your kids are gifted, they’re going to do well in life no matter what.”
Oh, boy. I know several high IQ people. Genuine high IQ – say, top 2% of the population – and though many of them have multiple degrees, the “average” job is retail clerk somewhere. The others are in perfectly average jobs. The ones who are in exceptional high-authority/high-pay jobs are probably the same proportion as from normal-smart people.
Intelligence doesn’t equal focus, doesn’t equal aim, doesn’t equal understanding of the world as is, and it almost correlates inversely to the ability to get along with people.
And this is why I hate the term “gifted” and the whole idea of genius.
The idea of genius runs through western civilization, and we’re soaked with it, to the point we don’t think very clearly when the words “genius” or “prodigy” come up.
We think “genius” and we think Leonardo DaVinci. We think polyvalent and able to do everything well. And most of us don’t know enough about his biography to know that it too was pretty much like that of the geniuses I know. He succeeded despite a string of unfinished works and dropped commitments, as a wild hare hit him and he went off to do something else.
His achievements while impressive, are a fraction of what you’d expect from his “genius.” And even with his genius, he was apprenticed and learned his trade.
What I despise about the myth of genius and the myth of talent is the lack of acknowledgement these people are born with the tools to learn (some things) optimally. They are not born with all the tools they need to complete their task. Genius is usually focused and saltational (as to specific abilities, not meaning that geniuses focus well. Trust me, I don’t mean that.) By which I mean that you’ll be a genius in one area: say your verbal processing. And by saltational I mean that often, for whatever reason, even in the area of their greatest ability the geniuses start below normal level (another reason it’s hard for schools to identify) and focus on it until they excel to prodigious amount. It’s just that the process of getting there is weird. It’s like a car who does zero to 60 in 2 minutes, but spends the first minute and a half idling then gets to 60 in half a minute, and then gets to 600 in the next half minute. (I.e., saltational = it jumps.)
Now for some relatively simple tasks, say running you might have the ability and have acquired the skill while doing normal every day things, so the first time you try to run a marathon, you present as a “natural.” This is mostly true for physical skills but not always. Younger son has always been able to do calculations in his head. Well, since he deigned talk to us. I think it’s the visualization talent, plus a natural knack for numbers.
But take a more complex “talent” one of those we associate genius with. “A genius for business”, or “a genius for art” or “a genius for music” or writing…
I’ll focus on writing, because I know the most about that, but I’ll say in passing that I think the myth of genius has destroyed modern art. If you’re a genius your untutored scrawls are gold seems to be the idea. And thus it all becomes about interpretation and spin and, in the end, makes art into a game of “the critic goes naked.”
In writing, where I know the road because I walked it at least twice, barefoot, in snow, both ways, talent might actually stand in your way of making a career out of this. The best natural writers I know, whose first works were perfect and clear and detailed are neither of them professionals.
I tell beginning writers that we each get a talent for free. This is not necessarily true. I’ve met some people wanting to be writers who really don’t seem to have a talent. But maybe it is because their words are so bad I never get to their exquisite plotting. (I’m not being snarky. Some of the best plotters I’ve read make me cringe over their word choices, so it’s possible.)
I got lucky and got two. One was a gift of words. Still have it, though I try to reign it in, because otherwise I send people to the dictionary and that tends to break the spell of the story. The other was a gift for characters. With rare exceptions, my characters show up fully formed, with their own history and their own voices. (This is good and bad. Some of the people I get stuck with! And you should see the ones I outright turn away.)
This is good, right? Well, it’s helping me, particularly in terms of saving time when the writing is going. And now, I’m experienced enough I know how to match the other elements of the story (sort of) to those two.
But when I started out, those gifts could have counted as hinderances. Because I had a word-gift, words were all I saw, and I tended to obsess about them and never finish anything, or else beat the life out of it by polishing every minor word. And once I got over that (if you like my work, bless Dean Wesley Smith, who told me my words were fine, stop obsessing on them and that was an order) my character definition was so much better than my ability to plot which was “early workman” that people tended to tell me my plotting was horrible. It wasn’t, it was normal for beginner pro, (though I had clue zero about foreshadowing until Dave Freer applied a Gibbs Slap) but in comparison with fully formed, actuated characters it looked shoddy and all patches.
In fact, to the extent that my “gifts” did anything, and while I appreciate them now, when they allow me to coast a little, they hindered my becoming a professional, because I had no clue how to acquire the skills I lacked. I mean, I’d never worked to get the ones I had.
(Well, I’d never worked on them consciously. And here, we must get to environment. Yes, there was capacity there, but my dad’s fascination with words and poems, even in another language didn’t hurt, nor did my tendency to read everything that stood still long enough. As for characters, I was as most of us here are somewhat clumsy with people, which is deadly in a village where at any time there are a hundred feuds running through and a wrong word to the wrong person will destroy your reputation or your family’s business. So I had to learn to “read” people and because it was difficult, I devoted a lot of time to it. Also, let’s not forget the inestimable contribution of mom’s and grandma’s favorite hobby: gossip. And not just gossip but gossip with family history. They or their cronies would start on “Bob never can keep a job.” And then go down the list of reasons his grandfather had also been a ne’er do well. Most of these women were sharp (and bored) so while eating breakfast I was likely to overhear three masterful character sketches.)
Which bring us back again to “gifted.” In some old traditions, including medieval court etiquette, if you got a gift, you had to give something back of equal or greater value.
If you have a “gifted” child, treat them that tradition. So they got something for free, yay. But now they have to put in equal work on everything they intend to do, to supplement what they got for free. They have to give back equal or greater value in talent, in concentration and in effort.
The myth of the ‘fully formed’ genius is just that, a myth.
Being “gifted” means your challenges are different, not that there are no challenges.
So, if you were born with gifts, give equal value back.