Leadership

The longest-running study of genius kids reveals what it takes to be highly successful

In the longest-running study of gifted children ever, scientists followed 5,000 kids who tested in the top one percent of intelligence for over four decades. They learned that intelligence plays a huge role in achieving success later in life.

The research, titled the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, was originally founded in 1971 at Johns Hopkins but is now co-directed by Vanderbilt University. Contrary to its name, the study also looks at verbally precocious youth and most of the participants are now adults.

These findings contradict two long-held theories, according to the science journal Nature. First, the idea that high performance comes mainly from practice and the second that "anyone can get to the top with enough focused effort of the right kind."

According to the journal, the research suggests that early cognitive intelligence has more effect on success than deliberate practice or outside factors like your socioeconomic status.

"The kids who test in the top one percent tend to become our eminent scientists and academics, our Fortune 500 CEOs and federal judges, senators and billionaires," Jonathan Wai, a psychologist at Duke University Talent Identification Program in Durham, says in Nature.

The research also emphasizes the importance of nurturing precocious children and the importance of allowing fast learners to skip grades in school.

Children who bypassed a grade were 60 percent more likely to earn doctorates or patents, the study found, and more than twice as likely to get a PhD in a STEM field, compared to similarly smart children who didn't skip grades.

The science journal notes that as these subjects are now entering the peak of their career, it's become clear how much the "precociously gifted outweigh the rest of society in their influence."

In fact, many innovators are people whose cognitive skills were identified and supported in their early years through enrichment programs such as Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth, which began as an accompaniment to this ongoing study.

Some notable one-percenters who have passed through the center include Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Lady Gaga.

However, the study's co-director warns against pushing children to become geniuses. That can "lead to all sorts of social and emotional problems," Camilla Benbow, dean of education and human development at Vanderbilt University, says in Nature.

The study proposes the following eight tips to encourage both achievement and happiness later in life:

  1. Expose children to diverse experiences.
  2. When a child exhibits strong interests or talents, provide opportunities to develop them.
  3. Support both intellectual and emotional needs.
  4. Help children to develop a 'growth mindset' by praising effort, not ability.
  5. Encourage children to take intellectual risks and to be open to failures that help them learn.
  6. Beware of labels: being identified as gifted can be an emotional burden.
  7. Work with teachers to meet your child's needs.
  8. Have your child's abilities tested.

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