No, Not Everyone is Gifted

Jim Delisle is a Colorado favorite.  He’s a straight shooter, and does not mince words.  His new book, Dumbing Down America, is his latest attempt to highlight what is not working for our gifted students in the education system.

I asked Jim to post a guest blog.  He obliged with this blog, No, Not Everyone is Gifted, in which he refutes some of Malcolm Gladwell’s beliefs in Outliers.  Like I said, Jim is not afraid to speak out, especially if it will help people better understand the plight of the gifted child.


Jim Delisle
dr jim delisleI’m pretty tired of reading that anyone can be gifted as long as they try hard enough. The book that epitomizes this idea is the best-selling Outliers: The Story of Success, written by Malcolm Gladwell in 2008, with his follow-up volume, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, appearing in 2013. In the former book, Gladwell contends that what separates the intellectual chaff from the wheat is not aptitude, but practice. Naming it the “10,000-hour rule,” Gladwell uses select case studies to show that 10,000 hours of doing anything will turn you into the genius you’ve always wanted to be. In David and Goliath, Gladwell continues to dismiss the importance of high intelligence and the dominance of strong ambitions. Using yet more case studies of miscreants who made it big, Gladwell contends that overcoming personal hurdles and family troubles, in combination with lots and lots of practice, will turn you from generic to genius.

Of course this readily graspable concept designed to make everyone feel good about their own potential has mass appeal. Too bad that Gladwell’s convenient and simple ideas . . . are wrong.

When a bad idea like Gladwell’s goes viral—as did the 10,000-hour rule—other authors capitalize on it in their own books, as so many spurious clones appeared in subsequent years. In David Shenks’s 2010 volume The Genius in All of Us, the author states that the world doesn’t have a “talent scarcity” but a “latent talent abundance.” He is even so bold to title a chapter “How to Be a Genius,” as if intellect can be grown Petri dish style or baked at 350 degrees for 10,000 hours. And in Daniel Coyle’s 2009 The Talent Code, the author uses scientific evidence (so he states) to prove that science doesn’t have much of a role in development of intellect. With deep practice, ignition, and master coaching, you, too, can become as accomplished as Jessica Simpson—the pop singer used as an exemplar by Coyle to back up his claims. Seriously?

There is an aspirational attraction to a theory that says you can be greater than you think you are, and no one has the right to downplay the honest efforts of someone who genuinely wants to improve. However, this ambition to succeed is a far cry from dismissing the role of heredity (or downplaying it substantially) in determining intelligence, as these “everyone can be gifted” authors contend. You can’t just toss out 150 years of psychological evidence to the contrary to make the general population feel superior.

The real damage done by these Pop Psychology gurus is this: their theories are based on the idea that the best way to deal with giftedness is to make believe it doesn’t exist at all; rather, it is “created” through effort, practice, and the occasional raw deal that life hands you.

Yet those who deny or diminish a biological basis to intelligence are very selective in which branches of the genetics tree they prune. I can’t imagine that any of the above authors would deny that hair color, height, predisposition to diseases, or nearsightedness have at least some basis in the genes we are dealt. If this is so for virtually every other element of our human existence since birth, then how can they deny the rightful place of genetics in determining one’s innate level of intellect?

No one refutes the potential impact of personal lifestyle or the environment in which you are raised on the quality of one’s daily life. So even if you were born with a predisposition toward heart disease, exercise and a healthy diet can mitigate against your chances of coronary impairment. And although there’s not much you can do about increasing your height, even some great basketball players who didn’t “measure up” in the typical sense succeed professionally. (Case in point: Tyrone “Mugsy” Bogues, who at 5’3″ was the shortest man ever to play in the NBA, became a point guard for the Charlotte Hornets and had a successful 10-year career with them.) So of course a person’s environment and ambition can affect their performance in life . . . but so do genetics. By dismissing or discounting the relevance of our DNA on particular aspects of one’s being—like intelligence—some very smart people are making some very dumb assertions and, sadly, carrying a large number of readers with them.

In the 1960s, many new bands appeared during the “British Invasion.” I’m sure many of them rehearsed and performed for 10,000 hours or more, but only one of those bands turned into The Beatles. Their innate talent in music was enhanced by their practice, not determined by it. Gifted children are the same: they exist from birth. As wise parents and educators of these children know, we ignore the early signs of giftedness at our peril, and treating all children the same because we all have the potential to become gifted thwarts the minds of those who already are.


dumbing down america jim delisleJim Delisle, Ph.D., has worked with gifted children and their caregivers for 37 years. The author of 19 books, the above article is excerpted from his latest book, Dumbing Down America: The War on our Nation’s Brightest Young Minds (and What We Can Do to Fight Back), published by Prufrock Press.

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