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Why Labeling Some People as ‘Gifted’ Actually Hurts Us All

7 minute read
Mary C. Murphy is a professor of psychological and brain sciences and the author of Cultures of Growth.

One of the greatest musical geniuses of our time is Itzhak Perlman—but carrying the weight of that title as a child wasn’t easy. The virtuoso violinist describes his early musical education as the “triangle of hell,” with pressure from (and between) his teacher and his parents. Their motto: do as I say. When Perlman got to Juilliard, he was shocked when he was encouraged by his new teacher to be more expressive and self-reflective. Now, in the program for young musicians that he runs with his wife Toby, he uses a similar style with his own students, encouraging each to become the best version of themselves.

The Perlmans say media outlets often ask to see Itzhak working with his best students. The problem is they don’t have “best” students. They don’t believe “best” students exist. Instead, they encourage everyone to develop at their own pace and to collaborate rather than compete. They strive to foster a creative atmosphere in which there’s room for everyone’s true genius to develop.

On the one hand, it’s easy to dismiss Perlman’s early experience as a misguided mode of the past and to assure ourselves that we don’t put kids through hell with prove-and-perform pressure anymore. That we don’t single out and celebrate the students we see as stars while relegating everyone else to a lower status. Yet, in effect, this is exactly what we do when we label some as “gifted”—a common practice not only in today’s educational system, but also in our family systems and beyond. Whether it happens at school, at home, or elsewhere (and whether it’s about academics, sports, music, or art), research has proven that singling out a chosen few has negative consequences for us all.

Our intentions in labeling kids as gifted are largely positive. After all, if you’re the parent or teacher of one of these children, it’s natural to want to ensure they’ll get access to the resources they need to grow. And yet, don’t we want that for every child? Don’t we want them all to be appropriately challenged and supported so they can fulfill their highest potential?

When we single out those we deem to be exceptional, we create what I call a culture of genius. This is an environment where star performers get the most resources and where the dominant belief is the fixed mindset: some have it, and some don’t. In cultures of genius, the exceptional merit extra attention, the best strategies, and more support. In contrast, in cultures of growth, the core belief is the growth mindset: a belief in universal potential—not necessarily that everyone can reach the top pinnacle of success, but that everyone has the capacity to grow, learn, and contribute from wherever they are. In cultures of growth, everyone receives the necessary resources and instruction to develop. Cultures of genius cater to the select few, while cultures of growth nurture everyone based on their needs, aptitudes, and abilities.

Read More: I Raised Two CEOs and a Doctor. These Are My Secrets to Parenting Successful Children

And let’s not give ourselves too much credit for being able to pick who’s gifted and who’s not. After all, neither Albert Einstein nor Martin Luther King, Jr. would likely have been labeled as exceptional by their grammar-school teachers—they both struggled in school. Billionaire entrepreneur Sara Blakely didn’t score high enough on the LSATs to get into law school. Spotting genius isn’t as easy as it seems. Just because a flower doesn’t bloom immediately doesn’t mean it never will, and just because a child blossoms early doesn’t mean they’ll go on to achieve greatness. In fact, labeling them as gifted may actually decrease their odds of success. Consider how many high school valedictorians—most of whom were probably labeled as gifted—go on to underperform. My research shows us why.

As my team discovered in our work with thousands of students in hundreds of classrooms (and with thousands of adults in their workplaces, too), environments that have strong cultures of genius actually produce fewer geniuses, and are less successful overall when compared to cultures of growth. In these classrooms, everyone is focused on appearing intelligent. This ultimately distracts students from learning and harms their performance—and these impacts are even more severe for girls in STEM classes, racial and ethnic minority kids, kids from lower income backgrounds, and anyone else who belongs to groups negatively stereotyped for their intelligence and abilities. In fact, we found that the racial achievement gaps in classes with strong cultures of genius were twice as large as in classrooms with strong cultures of growth—where everyone performed better.

Once you single out children as exceptional, you put them on a pedestal—one they often become afraid of falling off. If they fail at something, which is inevitable if they’re being challenged and learning, they worry they’ll lose their status and disappoint the adults around them. Therefore, they tend to lower their sights and take on less risk. Rather than stretching themselves to learn or innovate, many of these children take on tasks already well within their abilities. It’s like choosing an easy crossword puzzle because you know you can complete it rather than selecting one that will require you to learn new words.

Additionally, those labeled as gifted tend to see themselves as possessing a narrow set of skills, and as such, are less likely to branch out into new areas. This has consequences for their long-term development. If I’ve been told my strength is math, and that’s where learning has always felt easy, then I’m unlikely to develop the artistic side of myself that may require putting in more effort, experiencing failure, and embracing new strategies. There are many adults who’ve been encouraged to “follow their strengths” and now see how limiting this advice has been. Many now yearn to branch out and try something new but wonder whether it’s “too late” for them to do so. (Spoiler: it’s never too late!) We set up our kids to feel boxed in by their strengths when we label them gifted in a narrow area of life.

And the consequences aren’t just individual. Cultures of genius cause interpersonal issues, as well. In communities including homes, schools, and workplaces, my research shows that uplifting select stars creates a hierarchy. And being at the top isn’t as good as we might think. In these environments, where mistakes are taken as signs that people aren’t smart or can’t cut it, the stars are unable to relax and take on challenges. They’re also constantly watching their backs because a new star is born every day. Meanwhile, the supposedly “ungifted” at the bottom of the hierarchy can feel overlooked and start to doubt their abilities. Additionally, having access to fewer resources and laboring under lower expectations, they’re less likely to perform or develop to their potential. Our work shows that cultures of genius are also more likely to foster unhealthy competition, infighting, and unethical behavior, including cheating.

Without a doubt, some students have more resources and support that help them develop their genius—and some just seem naturally made for certain pursuits. Yet when we build this fixed-mindset belief of genius into our learning environments, we limit these inherent “top performers”—and everyone else. We all have the power to create cultures of growth in our families, schools, and workplaces by upholding the belief that everyone can learn and contribute, and by supporting one another on the path to success. Because we know that it’s in cultures of growth where the real genius lies.

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