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Making Room for Talent

written by Orin Davis 23 May 2013

Orin C. Davis is the first person to earn a doctorate in Positive Psychology. His research focuses on flow, creativity, hypnosis, and mentoring, and it spans both the workplace and daily life. He runs the Quality of Life Laboratory and is a freelance consultant. Orin's Web site. Orin's articles are here.

I believe that one aim of positive psychology is for people to reach their potentials and to achieve what they are capable of achieving. Another aim of the positive psychology world, however, is social justice. While both parts tend to act in concert, there is at least one area in which they may need to be realigned: gifted education.

What’s the State of Things?

In 1996, Benbow and Stanley published an article about how striving for so-called equity in the education system leads to gifted students falling by the wayside. Just a few years later, Ellen Winner, whose research has focused on gifted students, co-published an op-ed in the Boston Globe entitled “Gifted Students Need Help, Too.”

The obvious and tempting counterargument is that those who are gifted and talented can take care of themselves, and will be able to survive sufficiently, while those who have other special needs require more attention and resources just to get up to speed and be productive.

As creativity researchers Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, R. Keith Sawyer, and Dean Keith Simonton have each noted in their respective research, there are many gifted people who simply languish, never recognized for their talents. Their capabilities are not nurtured, and they subsist on whatever jobs they can find.

Yet, it may be that high-talent individuals face more than neglect. As noted in Benbow and Stanley’s paper, a study by Torrance in 1963 put sixth graders measured as high and low creatives in the same group to complete a project, and offered a reward to the whole group if the task was completed successfully. He observed that:

“Techniques of control[ling the creatives] include open aggression and hostility, criticism, rejection and indifference, the use of organizational machinery to limit scope of operations, and exaltation to a position of power involving paperwork and administrative responsibility.”

Ironically, one of the biggest obstacles is that the neglect, and sometimes outright persecution, of the gifted, is contrary to the spirit of fairness in which both are performed. As shown by Benbow, Stanley, and others, the education system is trying to reallocate resources on a national scale, giving more to those with lower levels of measured aptitude in order to promote what is thought of as “equal opportunity.”

Side note: There is absolutely no way to determine talent, intelligence, and capabilities accurately. Yet, there must be some metric upon which public resources are divided and thus, poor as the metrics may be, they can be considered a necessary evil.

Not Just in Schools

This issue is spilling over in to the business world, ultimately resulting in two different so-called wars. On one side is what McKinsey called the “War for Talent,” and on the other side is what Benbow and Stanley (among others) call the “War on Talent” (emphasis added). Companies today are supposedly facing a shortage of people that have high talent while simultaneously trying to cut down the tall poppies in the name of fairness. Whether those people are flowering brightly in the financial, intellectual, material, or other realms, today’s purported sense of fairness is suggesting that their resources should be redistributed and/or that the system should promote those who are limited while stymieing those who have abundance.

What, then, is the fairest way to a solution?

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey refers to a frame of reference he calls the Abundance Mentality, which is “the paradigm that there is plenty out there for everybody.” In contrast, Covey describes the Scarcity Mentality, described thus:

[Those with the Scarcity Mentality] see life as having only so much, as though there were only one pie out there. And if someone were to get a big piece of the pie, it would mean less for everybody else….It’s almost as if something is being taken from them when someone else…has remarkable success…Their sense of worth comes from being compared, and someone else’s success, to some degree, means their failure…only one person can be “number one”… They often want to clone them[selves], and they surround themselves with “yes” people – people who won’t challenge them, people who are weaker than they.

In short, those with the Scarcity Mentality see life as a zero-sum game!

Appreciation of Diversity

The Abundance Mentality, however, celebrates diversity. It assumes that, in the rich panoply of people on this Earth, each person has the capability to make a unique contribution and to be rewarded for it. With each unique contribution comes a unique reward, and thus everyone can offer their best and be rewarded in kind. Throughout history, people have offered the value of their products for the value of the products of others, and the Abundance Mentality recognizes that each person has a value to offer, and thus has the capability to acquire the valuables offered by others.

Abundance Mentality in Schools

It is possible to have an Abundance Mentality in education, too. When Gardner developed the theory of Multiple Intelligences, he made it possible for educators to see a wider range of talents and contributions instead of a sole focus on verbal and analytical skills. In celebrating diversity, we can promote each student’s best capabilities, and recognize that there will be differences in how well each student, nay, each person, achieves.

Those who have stronger abilities should be encouraged to develop them to the fullest, and to be given the resources to do so. In turn, they are likely to be the ones who end up providing solutions of inestimable value that can promote the welfare of humankind. Do we want a cure for cancer? It is likely to be our best and brightest that invent it. Do we want solutions to poverty? Again, our top thinkers are likely to design the system. Do we want to improve the education system? If so, make it worthwhile for those who have achieved academically to apply their capabilities to the problem.

Just as there is a place in the world for the most gifted, there are places for people at every level, however it is measured. What remains is to find the strengths, talents, and capabilities of each person, establish ways of developing and nurturing those capacities, and finding outlets for creating value with them. In the name of fairness and equality, then, let us put our efforts into finding ways to enable all people to do and be their best.



Benbow, C.P., & Stanley, J.C. (1996). Inequity in equity: How “equity” can lead to inequality for high potential students. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 2(2), 249-292.

Covey, S.R. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: HarperCollins.

Gardner, H. (1993). Frames Of Mind: The Theory Of Multiple Intelligences. 10th Edition. Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (2006). Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice, Reprint edition. New York: Basic Books.

Sawyer, R. K. (2006). Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Simonton, D.K. (1994). Greatness: Who Make’s History and Why. New York: Guilford Press.

Winner, E. (1997). Gifted Children: Myths And Realities. New York: Basic Books.

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Carmen Maria Romero-Positive Physical Therapist 25 May 2013 - 8:28 am

It wasn’t until I was tested in elementary school that I realized why I was different. It was a wonderful experience to be supported and stimulated for my creativity as a child by the program and my teachers, but it definitely took a hit in high school, college and with in the working world. “Creatives” appear more accepted in art, dance, theater, advertising, marketing, but in healthcare, it has been rough. My patients love me but in general, management/leadership usually doesn’t know what to do with me. The workplace envy, ridicule or indifference is real, but so is the appreciation, excitement to motivate and deep connections possible by those who get it. I learned to “darle la vuelta”, in spanish means, walk around. Cubans can be Taoist sometimes:) I just finished “Grateful Leadership” by Judith Umlas, and I believe that teachers, leaders, business managers could really facilitate the “gifted” in all of us through this simple grateful way of being and acknowledging.

I also am an activist and grassroots worker for social justice for the disabled in Haiti and Africa. What is most frustrating about learning all this amazing literature on positive psychology, flow, character strengths, resilience, power of habits, personality dynamic approaches via Give and Take by Adam Grant, is that the information trickles slowly or not at all to Persons with Disabilities, and those health care workers, activist, teachers, leaders on the front lines. Not only is equal access and inclusion to global health a social justice/ human rights issue, but alsos with in grants and centers of excellence to reach children and persons with disabilities in this amazing movement
carmen maria romero PT

Bryan Z. Stewart 28 May 2013 - 11:18 am

According to Gardner (1999a), intelligence is much more than IQ because a high IQ in the absence of productivity does not equate to intelligence. In his definition, “Intelligence is a biopsychological potential to process information that can be activated in a cultural setting to solve problems or create products that are of value in a culture” (p.34). Consequently, instead of intelligence being a single entity described psychometrically with an IQ score, Gardner’s definition views it as many things. He endeavored to define intelligence in a much broader way than psychometricians. To achieve this goal Gardner (1983; 1999a) established several criteria for defining intelligence. In identifying capabilities to be considered for one of the “multiple intelligences” the construct under consideration had to meet several criteria rather than resting on the results of a narrow psychometric approach.

Tomas Morrison 19 June 2013 - 7:57 am

We must therefore introduce another hypothesis and speak of degrees of closeness to the basic needs, for we have already pointed out that any conscious desires (partial goals) are more or less important as they are more or less close to the basic needs. The same statement may be made for various behavior acts. An act is psychologically important if it contributes directly to satisfaction of basic needs. The less directly it so contributes, or the weaker this contribution is, the less important this act must be conceived to be from the point of view of dynamic psychology. A similar statement may be made for the various defense or coping mechanisms. Some are very directly related to the protection or attainment of the basic needs, others are only weakly and distantly related. Indeed if we wished, we could speak of more basic and less basic defense mechanisms, and then affirm that danger to the more basic defenses is more threatening than danger to less basic defenses (always remembering that this is so only because of their relationship to the basic needs).

Josue T. Joseph 21 June 2013 - 10:11 pm

This area has to do with nurturing and relating information to one’s natural surroundings. Examples include classifying natural forms such as animal and plant species and rocks and mountain types. This ability was clearly of value in our evolutionary past as hunters, gatherers, and farmers; it continues to be central in such roles as botanist or chef.


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