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Strength Based Article

Making Room for Talent

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.

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