{Rants & Raves} What Seth Godin Doesn’t Get About “Gifted” (Bless His Heart)

A picture of two little girls seated close together

Wouldn’t it be great to be gifted? In fact…

It turns out that choices lead to habits.

Habits become talents.

Talents are labeled gifts.

You’re not born this way, you get this way.

I count myself as a Seth Godin fan.

In fact, while working on my own book forthcoming from Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Press, I read a couple of his books to fire myself up. I was a little intimidated to tackle a topic (how to work and homeschool) that no one has really tackled before, but Seth lent me confidence through his words.

I’m afraid that Seth has made a mistake in a recent blog post–reproduced in its entirety above. He has made the all-too-common error of  confusing “gifts” with “gifted” and “giftedness.” I’m not even sure it was intentional, as I agree with him on his larger point that persistence, hard work, and passion are bigger predictors for long-term success than perhaps any other variable.

But, when I read his essay, I wanted to shout:

All people have gifts but not all people are gifted.

Alas, it’s a common mistake among people who do not live or work with gifted adults and gifted children to assume that any asserted claim to be “gifted” is a way of saying “I’m better than you” or “I’m superior.”

In fact, many adults–perhaps including Seth himself–struggle with publicly acknowledging their giftedness because they don’t want to appear like they’re saying: “I’m a more worthy human than you are.”

Oh, sure, there are pompous jackasses in the gifted population who like to brag… that’s true of any group of humans.

But most of the time gifted people that I know walk around feeling “different,” “quirky,” and even “uncomfortable”–but not superior or more worthy.

Gifted. It can be an awkward state of being, especially in a world where “normal” is prized. To come out as “gifted” means to embrace the out-of-the-ordinary state of being. Some feel cursed.

That unease is not unfounded. A lot of  us  gifted people get the message from friends, neighbors, teachers and others that we need to “dial back” any discussion of how we feel/process/think differently pretty early on. There’s a term “cutting down the tall poppies” in some countries to signify “a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticized because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers.”

It happens here in the states, too. (We just don’t have an adage for it.)

That’s because most people are uncomfortable with outliers–and gifted people are outliers, especially those with IQs one, two, or more standard deviations from the norm.

But one doesn’t have to know someone’s IQ to sense that they are “gifted.”

I’ve found that you can usually tell just by spending time with them.

They are wired differently. They run differently. They think differently. And not always for the better.

In short, it’s not always “great” to be gifted. For starters, statistically, gifted kids are more apt to suffer the negative effects of being bullied.

However, if we (as a culture) remain willfully ignorant of how they are different–and fail to teach to their differences and nurture their executive skills in appropriate ways (including their capacity for tenacity and persistance) then are we hurting them? Are we hurting ourselves, as a culture?

And what about gifted kids?

Among the best essays that I’ve read on the topic of childhood giftedness is the classic “Is it a Cheetah?” by Stephanie Tolan. The cheetah represents the gifted student. This is among my favorite passages:

Even open and enlightened schools are likely to create an environment that, like the cheetah enclosures in enlightened zoos, allow some moderate running, but no room for the growing cheetah to develop the necessary muscles and stamina to become a 70 mph runner. Children in cages or enclosures, no matter how bright, are unlikely to appear highly gifted; kept from exercising their minds for too long, these children may never be able to reach the level of mental functioning they were designed for.

When we look at the topic of education in America, our gifted kids are currently getting the short end of the proverbial stick. Take for instance the grade level standards. These are typically set for the lower end of the “norm” so as to be passable by the most students. Now imagine being a Kindergarten girl with a 5th grade reading level (because you taught yourself to read at 4–with neither flashcards nor parental pressure to perform) and sitting in a classroom most of the week while the sweet kid next to you struggles with his ABCs. And then there is the high-energy, overexcitable second grade boy who builds brilliant robots and programs his older sister’s computer on the weekends but his inexperienced, overwhelmed teacher–stretched to her limits with an overcrowded classroom–wants to load him up with Ritalin to make him sit still and be quiet because he is distracting the other kids.
Think about that for a minute and you’ll see why there’s been a surge in parents of gifted kids who opt to homeschool.

In a recent CNN blog post, Carolyn Coil busted 10 myths about giftedness in the education world. In the piece, she does a brilliant job of why that phrase “gifted” is slippery. Her article is worth a read, but here’s the takeaway relevant to the mashup of Seth, cheetahs and public education that I’ve created here:

Myth No. 10: All children are gifted.

If all kids are gifted, then there is no need to identify gifted students and no need for any special programs for gifted. I strongly believe that all children have distinctive and unique qualities that make each one valuable. This does not mean, however, that all children are gifted. Being identified as gifted simply means that certain children have needs that are different from most others at their age and grade level. All gifted students need programs and services to ensure their growth rather than the loss of their outstanding abilities.

We really must remove the perception that “giftedness” can be acquired through persistence. And we also have to let loose the notion that “gifted” is just about achievement, too.

Honestly, I think we can have–no, need to have–separate public conversations about gifted v. giftedness and the role of hard work in lifetime achievement. Both merit exploration.

And in his heart I think that was what Seth was driving at with his post. Maybe.

Tell me what you think.

Explore  More:

Gifted Homeschoolers Forum

Hoagie’s Gifted Education Page

Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG)

Supporting Gifted Learners (Facebook)

Image source: The cartoon graphic at the top of this post is sourced from a Scholastic.com article, Understanding the Needs of Gifted Kids.


BONUS: Additional responses to Seth’s post from within the gifted homeschooling blogger community:

From Ireland:
Gifted and Talented Ireland


  1. Thank you so much for this clarification. I was identified gifted as a child and so was my brother. We moved to a school without a GT program mid-way through elementary school and he especially suffered from bullying by students, teachers and coaches. I struggled, but found my confidence through sports. He was not so lucky and committed suicide in college. This issue is no laughing matter and I can only hope that voices like yours continue to help spread the truth. It sucks to be gifted unless you have a gifted community to support you and it is not the same thing as having gifts.

    • Thank you for your note, Erin, and I am so very sorry for your brother’s suffering and the eventual loss of his life. And you’re right–we do need to encourage communities of understanding to support gifted people like you and your late brother as well as the next generation of gifted children and adults. Hopefully, you are familiar with some of the groups to which I linked in the post, most especially SENG.

  2. It would seem, by Seth’s ‘logic’ that choices are gifts. In which case, when I by a bar of chocolate rather than a packet of Jelly Babies, I have a gift. Even those who hold that all children have gifts would not make this error. Hmmm…I made a choice that developed into a habit but I shouldn’t feel too bad about being in the Betty Ford clinic because that’s a talent that is actually a gift.! Poor Seth indeed!

  3. If high-school would have allowed me to take the advanced college placement classes, instead of telling me I was “too young”, I might have actually gone on to college & beyond. Instead, it pissed me off. I decided to test out of HS in my sophomore year and attend the school of hard knocks instead. As of now, I plan to attend college when I retire, but for the love of learning only – not to get a “better job” or what have you. I’m self-taught in high-level IT skills, and that suits me fine.

    • I’ve encountered many young people who were discouraged in school settings. Hopefully, with the rise of technology, they can get the mental stimulation that they crave outside the classroom–assuming they have access to technology, which is a whole other issue.

  4. Erin’s note broke my heart. Being bullied, tormented and suffering because you don’t fit the norm is at a crisis level. We need to assure our children are able to learn at the proper levels of each child’s unique intellectual design. No child left behind is a horrible standard practiced in the Texas public school system. Kids are passed that should be left behind, and programs for children who excel are locked in place at the expense of district ratings.
    Gifted or not, the system is flawed. America’s cookie-cutter, automated system of learning, stamping kids out the revolving door of education is just not enough. It takes a village

  5. I completely DISAGREE with his statement that “Talents are labeled gifts.
    You’re not born this way, you get this way.” – I have THREE gifted children, and I am gifted, as well (started Kindergarten when I was 4, and so did my two youngest children). I believe that you are BORN this way. Yes, you can teach children skills, and there are some that will pick up on them well and perform, but being “gifted” is about IQ. It’s about the difference in the way they think, and the way they see the world, and that starts at birth!

    I love your statement – “Now imagine being a Kindergarten girl with a 5th grade reading level (because you taught yourself to read at 4–with neither flashcards nor parental pressure to perform) and sitting in a classroom most of the week while the sweet kid next to you struggles with his ABCs. And then there is the high-energy, over-excitable second grade boy who builds brilliant robots and programs his older sister’s computer on the weekends but his inexperienced, overwhelmed teacher–stretched to her limits with an overcrowded classroom–wants to load him up with Ritalin to make him sit still and be quiet because he is distracting the other kids.” – – – this is the problem with today’s education system. We don’t reward gifted children, we punish them because they are “different” and think way outside the traditional box, and most teachers have no idea how to relate to these children.

  6. We have tall poppy syndrome here in Australia. If you stand out as better than the rest of us then we will cut you down to size and bring you back to normal so that we don’t feel threatened by your difference/gifts/specialness/our perceived inferiority in comparison.Any way you are different is enough. 😦

    Erin, I am very saddened by your loss. I have no words except how very very sorry I am.

  7. It’s obvious to me as a mother of two completely different “gifted” kids and a husband where they got it from that the brain is wired differently from the rest of us. There is gifted that is a matter of being relatively bright and applying yourself with enthusiasm, and then there’s GIFTED (maybe we need another name for this because it’s a totally different animal). You cannot learn it, it comes from the womb. It is also often a major problem because it can come with social cluelessness (like in autism), executive function problems, learning disabilities of all types, asynchronous development, and a bunch of other issues like bullying later on.

    Parenting kids who are highly or profoundly gifted is a blessing and a…I won’t say curse! How about “major challenge with a significant learning curve.” Everyone who has been through this knows it, but if you haven’t or you’re not neurotypical maybe you just can’t see it. Reading adult novels at 3 or 4 or 5 and being able to discuss them like you are giving your dissertation is NOT “normal” and no child that does these types of feats can be considered eligible to be educated in the same way as most other children their age.

  8. I could not agree more. Gifted is a term taht can be as much of a disability as is the term retarded. I was labelled gifted on my first grade IQ tests. There were not gifted programs in my district, so I and two boys from the first grade were taught by teachers from the high school on a volunteer basis. We learned mathematical equations, earth science etc., And then went back to felt ducks and other kids just learning numbers in our class. We were made out to be freaks, and were lonely. The socialization of gifted children is as important as their academic abilities. That is a forgotten measure of success, and gifted kids pay for that error dearly.

  9. It took me 24 hours, but I finally zeroed in on what really bothers me about Seth’s post.

    The “be gifted” in his first sentence suggests something different than “becoming gifted” or even “having gifts.” If he’d said: “Wouldn’t it be great to BECOME gifted?” then I might read the entire thing differently. I might see it as an essay on talent development.

    But the “be gifted” at the beginning followed in the end by the negation of the experience of many people who are literally “born gifted” suggest to me, at best, sloppy and insensitive writing.

  10. Pamela,
    I, too love Seth Godin’s work and I believe you hit the nail on the head when you speak of him perhaps having the difficulty of publically acknowledging his own giftedness. Have you emailed him directly about this? It would be a great conversation I believe that could go far.
    Thank you for addressing this topic and speaking about the challenges in the school system.

  11. as a parent of a highly gift child, I can say that no parent would ever opt to have their goal be what I experience. with the gifts come the over excitabilities and those are the part of the “gift” too and those are not something ANYONE in their right mind would want. Our gift is emotionally and financially draining.

  12. I’m reminded of a presentation given by Cameron Herald at TED a few years ago. When you identify a kids gifts encourage them as best you can, the standard is to raise the lowest skill vs strengthen their “gifts” it may be hard but it makes all the difference to give them that head start, learning to apply oneself can be a very difficult thing for a “gifted” kid http://bit.ly/teach-entrepreneurs

    • Wow, thanks for that idea and the link, Alvin. I do think sometimes people are so overwhelmed by the “gifts” that they do ignore the other skills and their development. And those other skills may make all the difference in the long run! (I’m thinking not just about academic but executive functioning and other “real life” skills.)

  13. Love your post Pamela.

    I always find it a difficult subject to discuss – although I was fortunate to be identified as a “gifted” student and channeled through a education among other “gifted” students. A feeling of awkwardness exists whenever the subject comes up – sometimes as a guilty feeling, at other times knowing the presence of “tall poppy” is alive and well in Australia and feeling the term “gifted” carries negative connotations among the wider community.

    Now, as a parent, one of my greatest fears is failing to maximize the opportunities for my daughter to develop her “gifts”. Whether she is identified as “gifted” is another thing altogether.

    • Well said, Tim. I experienced great discomfort with that label–and even greater discomfort in not understanding the full meaning of the word “gifted”–esp. overexcitabilities.

  14. In a bit of defense of Seth, I disagree with your premise that giftedness cannot be achieved. I’ve seen many “gifted” people squander their talents and many “average” people excel exactly through the path Seth describes. Ultimately, the results matter and those that get results will be held higher than those who fail to launch.

    • I see what you’re saying, but I just don’t equate “giftedness” with “visible success.” I regard it as a way of “being” as I explained in an earlier comment.

      And I think the longstanding assumption that “you’re not gifted if you don’t grow up and change the world” is harmful, too. A gifted person may be just as apt as another person to pursue a life of quiet solitude or isolation, pursuing her own interests to their own end.

    • From a musical perspective, all the training, education, practice, and application in the world cannot substitute for being gifted. For example, a cellist may study and practice hard for years, and they may even achieve some level of technical expertise, but unless they are truly gifted, they will never reach the level of artistry of a Yo-Yo Ma.

      As for the argument about excelling, at 18, I was told by John Wustmann, Pavarotti’s accompanist and a vocal coach in his own right, that I had great potential for a major operatic career. However, I chose to pursue a different path, and my most memorable musical “performances” include singing hymns to an elderly woman I helped care for during the last few hours of her life, and hosting monthly sing-alongs at a local Alzheimer’s daycare facility. Though some might accuse me of “squandering” my talent, I have to believe that I chose what was ultimately best for me and for those around me. Meanwhile, I know of less-gifted singers out there who are “successful” opera singers simply because they’ve diligently pursued a path that I rejected. (And kudos to them, by the way, for doing what they love and felt called to do.) So yes, they are “getting results”, but I don’t believe that makes them more talented than I; it just makes them more ambitious.

      • It’s amazing how quickly people judge people for “squandering” their talents, isn’t it? But if you’ve found happiness, then I say that you are on the right path for YOU. Congratulations!

  15. The term “Gifted” is the problem for me. A student may experience Asynchronus Development (10th grade in math, 3th grade socially, 4th grade by age), but for a myriad of reasons does not perform up to their potential. By Mr. Godin’s definition, that student is therefore not gifted.

    I agree with Mr. Godin in the sense that TALENT can be developed, and even created. However, society has chosen to label those with high IQs or extreme natural ability as “Gifted” as well.That gift is not something that can be achieved by hard work.

    • I agree that “talented” is a much more accurate word for what he was describing. I wish we had another word for “gifted”–inclusive of the asynchronous piece, but we don’t. Sigh.

    • Yes! I completely agree with Jennifer. The post by Mr. Godin immediately brought to mind the current debate about “Gifted Education” versus “Talent Development.” What Mr. Godin is describing is Talent Development.

      I’m starting to find myself struggling to find middle ground. I deeply believe people are born gifted. Like F. Gagne described – some people are born with gifts that not everyone got. Over time, due to persistence and practice and drive, these can be developed into talents – high levels of performance. But it doesn’t happen for everyone who was born with the gifts.

      There are others who are not born with the gifts but have exceptional persistence and drive. With hard work and support, they achieve great things. They need services and support to get there, just like gifted kids.

      But they don’t experience the world in the same asynchronous way gifted kids do. They don’t have the sensitivities and “wiring” differences. Confusing the two terms is dangerous. It threatens the progress we’ve made in gifted education to help people understand the special education needs gifted children have due to their wiring differences.

  16. Considering how “gifted” some people are supposed to be, the fact that they use the word “gifted” is absurd. MAYBE one is, say, a gifted mathematician, or a gifted left fielder. But to run around saying that you are gifted, end of story, is to deserve the reputation for hot air that it gives you. I know a guy who would not appear to be gifted at much at all, except that he is truly gifted at making the people around him feel good about themselves. That is his gift–I would trade my Harvard PhD to have it (ooo. I must be “gifted”). Pretty sure I could turn it into gold. Also, I’ve known certifiable geniuses to look pretty dumb when trying to do things they’re not good at. It’s my bet that when we bother to look, we find a gift in every single person. Every single one.

    • Dear Jane:

      You claim you’re “pretty sure” you could turn your friend’s kindness into gold–and expressed a willingness to give up your Harvard PhD to do it.

      A much simpler way to show kindness to the world is to seek understanding, show human compassion, and perhaps–just perhaps–to refrain from trolling on the Internet in order to vent your own “hot air.”

      For I do believe, as I said in my post, that WE ALL have gifts. And to have them well-received by the world, it is usually best to deliver them with kindness and respect and a loving heart.

      Just a thought.

  17. I saw links to a lot of these posts on Tumblr,and I wrote my thoughts there. It doesn’t quite fit in with all these other posts, because I don’t have kids and I’m not a teacher. I’m coming at it from the perspective of someone who was born gifted and who didn’t know how mainstream society thought about giftedness until I got on the internet, because I grew up in a working class culture.


    I think that the issue at the core of all this is the way that our society defines giftedness. Like I’ve seen in the comments, where people are coming here associating giftedness with the capitalist definition of success. I guess, coming from the working class and being more interested in the social justice and equality side of the internet, my experience has been with people assuming that giftedness is a capitalist construct and stereotyping it as rich white upper middle class parents thinking that their child is better than everyone else and pushing their children into exclusive preschools that feed into the Ivies, or something. I don’t even know, because I grew up in the rural South in a factory town where we didn’t even know that people who fit that stereotype existed, really, and the people that I grew up around wouldn’t know a status symbol if it came up and hit them in the face and told them that they didn’t have any swag.

    So in all my innocence I got on the internet and started talking about my experiences of being gifted, and hoo boy. I got flamed to hell and back. And so I tried to understand where all this irrational hate and anger came from, and I’ve been trying to figure it out for years, doing research and reading the occasional mainstream discussion on giftedness online and thinking and writing.

    I think that really it all comes down to the fact that people just sort of build their own image of the world in their mind, and for non-gifted people that image seems to be made up of what they’ve heard other people say, and they don’t seem to examine it or think about it on their own. And so they’re all going around thinking that giftedness is what they’ve heard other people say it is, and they go around repeating all the things that they’ve heard other people say, like “Let them be a kid” or “Well, I know someone who was “gifted” and they’re just doing their own thing and being happy, and someone else who wasn’t “gifted” is a hedge fund manager and making lots of money exploiting others and increasing the misery of the world, and my society tells me that I should approve of people with lots of money no matter how they got it, and that people who don’t want to destroy the world to make money have something wrong with them and aren’t succeeding,, so yeah, giftedness doesn’t mean anything and it’s all about determination and selfishness and not caring about others at all!” or whatever. I don’t even know. But it definitely seems to come back to that invisible equation in American culture: Intelligence = Education = Money = Worth. Where people assume that intelligence is what is rewarded by our educational system, which is built to turn out unthinking robots, actually, and of course education equals money, because really most people can’t afford college, especially these days, and with schools being funded by local taxes the schools in richer communities are nicer, and then, of course – our whole society thinks that money equals worth.

    And so you get people thinking that saying you or your kid is gifted is saying that you or your kid is worth more than other people, because their brain does all this unconscious mirroring of social messages, and they don’t even know how they get there themselves. And I haven’t figured out how to get their brains to work right and to get them to really think. Yet.

  18. It’s a shame that being genuinely ‘gifted’ at something means having to wear a label that often carries such negative connotations in society. It’s equally as disheartening to find that this ‘tall poppy’ convention still has a place in society when really, we should be embracing those fortunate among us to be born with natural ability. Sadly, it also places a lot of pressure on those who believe they can work themselves to being gifted, and if they don’t ever reach that pinnacle, are left feeling like they failed.

    How many of us wouldn’t like to have a true affinity for something we love? It’s cruel to have society naturally turn on those born with ability for being different, but on the flip-side, elements of that are sadly human nature. Not necessarily one of our proudest features, but definitely a factor in our response.

  19. I’m so glad I came across this post, I can relate to so much of it! I was pulled out of my classroom for the gifted program starting in first grade and I continued to be in gifted programs all the way through 8th grade. I always felt like it was a curse because being “cool” and being “smart” just did not mix well where I grew up. I was so worried about having that NERD label that I tried everything I could to ignore my abilities. In high school, advanced classes were optional so I chose not to take them. Of course, if I could go back to my school days, I’d embrace that “gifted” label instead of trying so hard to fit in! Aaaaand, that brings me to where I’m at today, wondering if sending my kids to public school is going to cause them unrepairable damage. I know both of my boys are gifted since they are clone copies of me and it takes one to know one 😉 They don’t fit in, they are quirky and just don’t think like the typical first or third grader. They are both BORED TO DEATH and I can see that “love-for-learning light bulb” fading more and more each day in both of them. Our school doesn’t have a gifted program in place for elementary school, but I’m a little afraid of what will happen later on if they are given that label and all the outcast treatment that comes with it. So, I am pretty sure it’s time for us to homeschool. I want those light bulbs turned back on and then some!

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