Gifted education is simultaneously one of my most, and least, favorite things about working in schools. Too many people confuse working really hard with being gifted. Both have huge advantages but for some reason people obsess over the gifted label. Are you financially gifted or a grinder? Read and decide!
The Joy and Pain of the Gifted Label
One of my professional pillars is that all students are gifted. It’s my job to find and support those gifts. Yet, there are some students that you know have an exceptional academic gift.
These students make unusual intuitive connections between concepts. Or, they may grasp abstract concepts with exceptional speed and then apply them to the concrete immediately. Sometimes, they progress to learning theories you haven’t even taught. They might obsess over a particular problem until they have a solution and teach everyone else with incredible enthusiasm.
This giftedness may show in a single discipline or across multiple areas of knowledge.
No matter what, they stand out. It’s a joy to work with these students.
You may also be surprised to learn that rather than ensuring success, this type of giftedness can lead to horrible outcomes – disengagement, dropping out of school, frequent discipline problems, greater rates of depression.
Schools try, and often fail, to support these students with gifted programs.
I was identified as gifted myself and generally had a good, if mediocre, experience with gifted education. As a result, I’ve always tried to support students who display these traits.
Unfortunately, many people equate “gifted” with status or a designation of achievement. Parents demand their student be identified as gifted because they are high achievers. Most often, these students are just well-enriched at home and/or have incredible work ethic. They study hard, use their resources, and accomplish great things through effort.
Somehow, this isn’t enough. Parents will raise hell, threaten to withhold donations, or even go after educator’s jobs to get their child designated as gifted. (And of course, you can imagine the inequities inherent in the formal gifted programs as a result – but that’s for a different time…)
I’m not sure why – the label is virtually meaningless. In most cases it provides no benefit beyond bragging rights (or a bumper sticker) for a parent. In fact, as noted, those labelled gifted don’t experience better outcomes (and may even do worse) than those who are not.
It’s also a mindset error. The ability to achieve through effort is arguably better than waiting for “giftedness” to strike like lightning.
This phenomenon extends beyond education. Everyone wants to be gifted or a “natural talent.” For many, the idea that you “just worked hard” is an insult.
This all seems backwards.
Gifted Vs. Grinder
I’ll start by saying this is a false dichotomy. I’d argue that we all have things that come easily to us and other things that require more effort.
The ideal condition is that you quickly grasp a concept AND have the ability to work diligently at it.
But if you had to choose one, would you rather be gifted or a grinder?
If you are gifted in an area, things probably come easily to you. You understand intuitively or see connections that others may not. If you and someone else are learning the concept at the same time, you’ll acquire it quickly and may not understand why others don’t see it. You’ll move quickly to application and meaning while they are still just understanding it conceptually.
If you’ve ever had this experience it can be exhilarating. It feels like a superpower. People like to do things they are good at, and it may become your passion. At least temporarily.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you may become interested in knowing something. Or, you may have a critical reason for needing to know it. Yet, it doesn’t come easily to you.
You fail, retry, fail, retry, and fail again until finally getting it. Each step takes effort but you never stop. If you are missing a critical piece of information you search high and low until you find it.
Through sheer effort and diligent use of resources, you achieve. The sense of accomplishment is powerful.
The Pitfalls of Being “Gifted”
While being gifted can be a huge benefit, it also has potential downsides.
Perhaps the biggest downside of being gifted is the ease with which things come to you. This was certainly true for me in school. Connections between concepts were easy for me and new information made sense intuitively so I never had to study at all to top my classes in high school.
Then I went to college. I still did well, but I had no idea how to respond when something didn’t make intuitive sense or required a little extra work.
I had a roommate who was a grinder. Almost nothing came quickly to him, but he spent hours in the library studying. I did not.
Imagine my surprise when he did consistently better in every course. His study skills paid off and carried him through school and onto being the top IT guy for a fortune 500 company.
I had to teach myself study skills from scratch. I got there – but it wasn’t because I was gifted.
You’ll see the same things in student athletes who dominated in high school but never developed the training regimens needed to succeed in college.
This experience is when I really started to appreciate the advantages of grinding.
If something comes easy to you, other areas may not be as appealing. For example, a student may do exceptionally well in some subjects, while others require more effort or work. We all prefer to do things we are good at.
Again, I’m a perfect example. Virtually all subjects were easy for me. Except foreign language. As a result, I’m shamefully monolingual with a few broken pieces of other languages.
While some level of specialization can be beneficial, it can also be limiting. It can lead you to be trapped in a discipline (or job) that you don’t enjoy because you are good at it. Or, one can spend so much time focusing on something that when you achieve or master it you no longer enjoy it.
It can also keep you from acquiring skills that may be useful later. (…like foreign language!)
Ability to Deal with Failure
If you’re always good at something – what happens when you suddenly aren’t? I described my experience in college.
What about an athlete who has always been the best due to size and speed and then suddenly realizes everyone around has those same attributes?
It’s rare that natural talent or giftedness alone carries you to the highest levels. Eventually, you’ll hit a wall. If you’ve never had to cope with that before you may not be equipped to recover. When it becomes hard, you might decide it’s not worth doing.
This, along with work ethic, is one of the biggest reasons gifted students might underachieve.
Arrogance and Blindspots
It’s easy for one who is gifted to believe that they know more than everyone else. They may refuse to listen to other perspectives or may miss a critical small detail because they “just know.”
We all benefit from being challenged by others. We just have to believe others are able to challenge us. This isn’t easy if you’ve always been told you are exceptional at something.
Advantages of Being a Grinder
I’ve telegraphed this pretty well throughout the post – but I believe it’s better to be a grinder than gifted. (Of course, I’d love to be both simultaneously..)
If you’ve successfully worked through hard things and achieved, you come to believe you can apply this to other areas of life. You are less likely to believe you are “just bad” at something. Everything can be learned.
This mindset is a huge benefit.
Failure is Temporary
A grinder knows that failure is just part of the learning process. Every failure is a step forward.
You Assume Nothing
You’re open to new information because you’ve always had to reach out. When presented with a different perspective or new data you’ll work to integrate it into your model or make sure it doesn’t fit.
Not everything is easy. In fact, most things worth doing are hard. You are willing to work until you’ve accomplished your goal. While the more talented person is producing in short bursts, you’re getting there through constant applied effort.
A grinder may not be the superstar of a team, but they’ll be the one others know they can count on.
What Does This Have to Do With Finances?
Do you consider yourself financially gifted? Did you come to be good with money naturally? Do you believe you understand the market in a way that almost no one else does? Perhaps you just naturally understand the connections between different parts of personal finance?
Or do you just work hard to be better with your money? Are you gridning towards financial success through effort and diligent use of resources?
I’m certainly not financially gifted. I’ve made tons of mistakes and very little about personal finance or investing is intuitive to me. I mean – I mostly ignored it until I was 40. That’s certainly not a gift!
Instead, I read as much as I can. I try to learn by doing, but make sure I do a ton of research before risking anything substantial.
I don’t assume I’ll achieve outsized returns. I don’t even try. People I believe are smarter than me have tried and failed. Others appear to be gifted in this area, but may actually just be brilliant grinders. Either way, I know I’m not them.
Instead, I’ve built a diversified portfolio and constantly add to it. I’ve increased the amount I invest by growing my income and saving wherever possible.
I’m not trying to find a magic new way to reach financial independence. I’ll get there eventually, even if I experience some failures along the way. It’s all part of the process.
I’m happy to be a financial grinder.
How about you? Are you financially gifted or a grinder?
(Look for a future riff on this concept: Are you financially gifted or just enriched?)