Back in 1998, Teresa Amabile, writing in the Harvard Business Review, argued that creativity in each individual “is a function of three components: expertise, creative-thinking skills, and motivation.” Of these three spheres, Amabile believes that motivation forms the most crucial component. After all, without the motivation to pursue a creative endeavor, expertise and creative-thinking skills are of little use.
She also explains, that “When people are intrinsically motivated, they engage in their work for the challenge and enjoyment of it. The work itself is motivating.” The intrinsic nature of motivation for the creative output is, I believe, the crux of Amabile’s model of the creative individual.
Before Amabile, there was Joseph Renzulli, who proposed that “persons who have achieved recognition because of their unique accomplishments and creative contributions possess a relatively well-defined set of three interlocking clusters of traits.” The triad of clusters, Renzulli believes, “consist of above average, though not necessarily superior, ability, task commitment, and creativity.” The motivated, creative individual, with well-above average ability becomes Renzulli’s model of a gifted individual.
Taken together, one can argue that both these academics, the first at Harvard and the second at the University of Connecticut, recognize that the expression of creativity in a productive manner requires task commitment or looked at another way, motivation. Furthermore, Amabile’s “expertise” is not too far from Renzulli’s “ability;” and they both agree on creativity.
What then makes for a gifted individual? Renzulli answers that question with an unequivocal “above average, though not necessarily superior, ability.” That, I would suggest is the Achilles heel of the Renzulli definition of giftedness.
For example, extraordinary creativity, intrinsically motivated, driven by ability can manifest itself as giftedness. Case in point is the works of artists that adorn the walls of our nation’s museums. No one can argue DaVinci was a genius and extraordinarily creative. In other words, I would suggest that there is little justification to insist superior ability is the lone progenitor of giftedness.
Amabile’s theory also suffers from a similar affliction, though for a different reason. She like Renzulli, omits a critical component of a creative individual: knowledge.
The model I propose for giftedness requires a tetrad of traits or clusters, as opposed to the triad that Amabile and Renzulli independently postulate. Exceptionally successful individuals, I would argue, tend to be intrinsically motivated, draw on a font of knowledge which I would call subject matter competence, possess ability or expertise, are creative, and have motivation or task commitment.
With this tetrad of traits, the rise of one or more to a level that is above the norm creates a gifted individual. Unlike Renzulli, I don’t subscribe to the belief that above average ability alone contributes to giftedness. Instead any one of the other traits or a fortuitous combination of all four rising above the average can be looked upon as gifted.
Gifted advocates like Delisle, for example, focus on IQ “to pinpoint” giftedness. It is homage, I believe, to the popular media fascination with genius as a manifestation stratospheric IQ. Not so, I argue, it takes a number of other traits to harness the IQ to produce exceptional achievements. Mere possession of a trait is not a manifestation of giftedness. It must be within the individual’s grasp to harness it for extraordinary achievements, and that requires the tetrad of traits I propose.
So, what about recently popularized embrace of Dweck’s growth mindset, Duckworth’s grit, Lopez’s hope, and the likes? They are intrinsic to the tetrad model of giftedness that I propose. Grit and the growth mindset are integral components of task commitment or motivation. Intrinsic motivation, one can argue, is absent without a positive outlook.
With this in mind, we arrive at the doorstep of a recent landmark paper by Rena F. Subotnik, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, and Frank C. Worrell. They propose that giftedness should be defined as: “…the manifestation of performance or production that is clearly at the upper end of the distribution in a talent domain even relative to that of other high-functioning individuals in that domain.”
As Worrell confirmed in an interview, giftedness is considered rare or uncommon. Furthermore, Subotnik et al., also recognize that there is a certain maturity that is prerequisite for outstanding contributions. To their credit, they also recognize that an ability may not be recognized or identified if an individual is not exposed to the opportunity manifest that ability. To borrow Worrell’s example, you are unlikely to recognize someone with an innate capacity to learn music without exposing them to music.
The gifted individual, in the model I propose, performs or produces “at the upper end of the distribution in a talent domain even relative to that of other high-functioning individuals in that domain,” and are intrinsically motivated, draw on a font of knowledge, possess ability or expertise, are creative, and have motivation or task commitment. One or more of these traits must rise above the average.
In future columns we will look at the new definition through the lens of existing research and the prism of established norms.
(c) Kumar Singam, 2014
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