Home All Another Gift Idea: Ungifted (Book Review)

Another Gift Idea: Ungifted (Book Review)

written by Orin Davis 20 December 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.

As the world careens further into the 21st Century, we need to revisit many of the foundations upon which humanity rests, including freedom, human rights, business/commerce, education, and the interaction between humankind and its environment. To meet the challenges of our age, we need to reconsider what it is to be human and what it means to flourish in the rapidly-evolving context that we call the Knowledge Era.



It is to this challenge that Scott Barry Kaufman rises with his recent book, Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. In it, Kaufman clarifies and redefines many of the catch-all terms that are needed in our discussions of the future, including creativity, talent, intelligence, and greatness. He inspires the reader to take a look around and wonder at all the potential that exists all around.

Scores of great thinkers have contended that every human being has the capability to reach his/her highest potential, but rarely is there anything more than an abstract discussion about what makes this possible. Human intelligence has a direct relationship to talent, capability, and performance. Kaufman begins to put a how-to spin on flourishing by explaining the nature of intelligence, its covariates, and its implications. He weaves together clear writing, a compelling storyline, reports of interesting studies, and a wealth of information.

He Lived It

His own biography gives a firsthand story to kick off each chapter. Kaufman tells of being classified as learning disabled, and his experiences battling the school system to be recognized for who he really is. It is a tale that resonates. Almost everyone has had to deal with assumptions other people make based on labels stuck on to them. The story ends in a triumph that inspires people to explore the depths of their own capabilities (sorry, no spoilers!). The book reminds all of us to be careful of the assumptions we make and to question so-called truths that we may have taken for granted for too long.

Ungifted begins with an overview of where a person’s potential begins and the early attempts to measure it. The discussion then moves on to the impact and use of these measures with respect to the education system. In these initial sections, the reader confronts the questions of what it means to be “learning disabled” and “gifted,” and how people develop their individual fortés. Underneath these inquiries, however, are two deeper questions:

  • How can we respect and nurture the young minds we encounter?
  • How should we conceive of behaviors, aspirations, and personalities that do not fit the neat little boxes to which we are accustomed?

Paying Attention to Nurture

Of course, nature is not under our control, but there is certainly a lot that we can do about nurture. To that end, Kaufman takes on a tour of the many ways in which we can develop our own greatness, providing both the science and examples to help the reader get a clear view of each construct, the latest research on it, and how it contributes to doing and being our best. Anyone wanting a deeper perspective on self-actualization will be a kid in a candy store ogling passion, mindset, self-regulation, deliberate practice, and other constructs.

What Do the Labels Mean?

From there, the book turns to a deeper discussion of what it means to be “intelligent,” “talented,” or “creative.” This is a key section because these are buzzwords that are kicked around the education system and the business world alike. Kaufman’s work can help us all get on the same page (very important!) and enable us to develop both a shared understanding of the three terms and a very healthy skepticism. He concludes by discussing his concerns about the ways that these terms are used today. These uses are obsolete, both in fact and in spirit. To address this, Kaufman provides his own definition of intelligence (OK, one spoiler):

Kaufman’s Theory of Personal Intelligence: “Intelligence is the dynamic interplay of engagement and abilities in pursuit of personal goals.”

Using the Book

One of the best features of Ungifted is that the book is written on a number of levels, which makes it suitable for any reader. Each chapter is broken into multiple sections that clearly indicate whether there will be general ideas or details, such that the more casual reader can take an intellectual stroll while a serious investigator can plumb the deep end. In fact, the text is cross-referenced so effectively that the reader can actually skip around and learn the material piecemeal. Kaufman’s treatment of the material is not only thorough, covering even the nooks and crannies of the field, but also balanced. After all, this is a hotly-debated area, and Kaufman treats all sides of the debate with grace, respect, and poise, conceding points even when they may steer away from his intended conclusion.

Ungifted is an amusement park for the mind, and an intellectual pursuit that will both enlighten and inspire. If you want to be an educator of any sort, at any level, this is a book you need to read. If you aim to recruit the best human capital you can find, Kaufman has some tips. If you need some parenting advice, it’s in there. If you are seeking new ideas on how to do and be your best, get a copy.

Pick any reason you like, but make sure you read Ungifted!


Kaufman, S.B. (2013) Ungifted: Intelligence redefined. New York: Basic Books.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Kid in a candy store courtesy of rhoadeecha
Sculptured head courtesy of Keoni Cabral

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Douglas Eby 22 December 2013 - 9:36 pm

Thanks for this thoughtful review – the book is certainly an “intellectual pursuit that will both enlighten and inspire.” As just one small example, Dr. Kaufman refers to a fascinating and “clever experiment” by researchers who “had college students imagine either that their classes had been canceled for the day or that they were their 7-year-old selves in the same situation. 32 Participants imagining themselves as children came up with more original responses on a test of divergent thinking, and the effect was particularly pronounced among introverted participants.”

– From my article Introverted, Shy or Highly Sensitive in the Arts.

Scott Asalone 31 December 2013 - 6:22 am

Thank you for the thoughtful review. You caught me at Kaufman’s awareness of untapped potential and his exploration of greatness. Yet, my question is how much of his information and research also applies to mature adults? My application is to the untapped potential of all people, but mostly my audience is adults since I am not an educator, but a facilitator/practitioner. Can Kaufman’s how-to applications be applied in the corporate or non-profit world?

Thanks again for the review and all of the good work you do.

Orin Davis 31 December 2013 - 5:07 pm


Many thanks for your comments!

To your question: absolutely! Probably one of the best things about Kaufman’s book is the wide audience that it covers. People want to know how they can grow, improve, and develop, and Kaufman covers a lot of the research on those topics. To wit, Kaufman discusses not just what intelligence is, but how it can combine with other factors (e.g., passion, growth mindset) to lead to greatness. As people are constantly in [hopefully] upward spirals of development, they will need to revisit each of these ideas from time to time. Someone familiar with Kaufman’s work would be in a good position to advise them.




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