Why are so many gifted students and adults underachievers?

Various factors contribute to the behavior of gifted underachievers (children and adults). For example, there are times when underachievement is caused by emotional distress, family problems, or peer pressure; other times, it results from boredom and an absence of challenging academics. Finally, there are times when underachievement is more pronounced, such as when a child begins failing at school, but sometimes it is subtler and goes unnoticed. Why are so many gifted students and adults underachievers? 


gifted students and adults underachievers
gifted students and adults underachievers

Alternatively, the green-eyed masses have it out for intelligent people (apparently a marginalized group), blaming a flawed education system.

My entire childhood was spent in GT programs in eight different school systems. I have many “gifted” friends who are professional mediocrities at 35+: working in retail management or the same clerical job for ten years, or else chronically unemployed but still defiant about their superior intelligence. Their lives are dictated by their paychecks. There is something wrong with the (low-IQ) man, especially their boss, who is nowhere near as intelligent as they are and resents them for it.

You can follow their decision-making over the last 20+ years and find out exactly why they failed.

Many believe intelligence is not the most critical factor in professional success. Instead, the following is just as important:

  • Leadership skills – A senior executive’s IQ is not always the highest in a healthy organization. You do not need a high IQ to be successful at managing people or developing a business.
  • People who are smart enough to become doctors, but lack patience and temperament, would make terrible doctors. The work may be too tedious for people who can write code or do financial analysis daily.
  • Gifted children are notorious for hesitating to try things they’re not already good at.
  • To succeed, it is necessary to adapt to institutional mores, even if you disagree with them personally. For example, some intelligent people believe they are above dress codes, reporting policies, documentation requirements, etc., and get fired repeatedly for not following them.
  • Wise people do not always learn to work hard, follow through, or meet deadlines. No matter how smart you are, if you aren’t reliable, you won’t succeed.
gifted underachievers (children and adults)
gifted underachievers (children and adults)

You get the label “gifted” in elementary school when you outperform other kids based on what you’ve learned from cultural osmosis and natural curiosity.

Even the most intelligent students will need to study and learn actively at some point in their academic careers, no matter how smart they are. Maybe you’re in 9th grade. There may be a college involved. My gifted friends started peeling off when hard work and discipline were required to master the material.

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However, they failed to deliver on anything despite their “gifted” label.

In high school, I learned my lesson. One terrifying day, I looked at the blackboard in physics class and realized I had no idea what was going on because I was so confident in my academic dominance. It was easier to pretend the subject matter did not concern me at first rather than buckle down. However, there was no doubt in everyone’s mind that I could be the best at it if I put my mind to it.

the concept of gifted underachievers, such as a group of students in a classroom or adults working in a professional setting.

I almost failed school in one academic year after being a valedictorian candidate. Working part-time at a convenience store at 16, I knew the lifestyle awaited me if I didn’t get out of it.

After a while, I began to feel better. But, unfortunately, it never happens to some kids.

Among the most successful people in my high school class, standardized test scores weren’t the highest. But, besides being brighter than the average, they were also friendly and hardworking, the kind of people we all want to work for.

Misguided praise.

I’m so impressed with your intelligence.”

The compliment seems innocent.

This isn’t true.

You are constantly told that you are gifted as a child.

As a result, it becomes a part of your identity. You are unique because of that. It’s your intelligence that people appreciate. Being smart is the only way to be valued.

When you’re small, you don’t have to try or study; you get every question right on every test. “You’re so smart,” your friends say enviously. Being innovative means you can do everything perfectly, you conclude.

School gets harder and harder. The 100% on your test drops to 96%, then to 89%. You try out new hobbies and realize there are things you aren’t naturally talented at. You begin to doubt your abilities. What if you can’t do everything?

You would be foolish if you did that, then.

What is a person if they are not competent?


Underachievement is the result.

The solution is brilliant.

It doesn’t matter if you fail. After all, you tell yourself, you could have gotten an excellent grade if you had tried.

The answer to which you did not give.

Putting more effort into it would have resulted in better results. You’d have done better if you’d tried harder.


There are no answers to your questions, and you are too afraid to ask.

If you do your best, but it is not enough, what should you do?

There is nothing you can do.

Identifying the causes of gifted students
Identifying the causes of gifted students

Students with gifted abilities are at risk of underachievement for several reasons.

Identifying the causes of gifted students’ underachievement can be complex due to problems identifying such students in the first place and their ability to hide their shortcomings. 

Parents and teachers must discover the root causes of underachievement once behaviors indicative of underachievement are identified. Various factors, including poor learning environments and social/emotional challenges, can contribute to underachievement among profoundly gifted students.

An environment that is not conducive to learning

Some gifted students can thrive in regular education classrooms, but it is unlikely that the most profoundly talented students would flourish in such an environment. In Genius Denied, the Davidsons describe the “quiet crisis” in education: gifted students spending their days in classrooms relearning material they have already mastered.

Lack of challenge causes frustration, underachievement, and failure in some gifted students, even leading to severe depression in others. 

Although some classrooms are designed to serve gifted students, some cannot reach the level of profoundly talented students due to their broad reach and scope. 

These students’ underachievement may be due to not being adequately prepared for these challenging materials, to still not being appropriately challenged, or simply being in their heads.

The following characteristics are often present in environments that can lead to underachievement:

  • Limitations; inflexibility;
  • There is a lack of respect for the strengths and interests of individual students;
  • Overemphasis on errors and failures;
  • The environment is inappropriately centered on the teacher;
  • In addition, the curriculum is bland and unrewarding.

It may be the case that exceptional students who are first exposed to appropriately challenging gifted programs are not capable of meeting more demanding intellectual demands. Without real challenges, they can coast and rely on their inane ability. Furthermore, they may lack self-discipline and tolerance for roadblocks since everything comes easily to them.

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social interactions, emotional well-being, and activities that promote positive development among gifted students.

Considering four categories of underachievement can help us identify different types of gifted underachievers:

1. People who underperform involuntarily

Despite their best efforts, these students are trapped in schools that are underfunded, understaffed, or incapable of meeting their needs. 

Gifted students in the minority and low-income communities are often bored, distracted, and unaware of what might be offered through a more comprehensive, enriching education. 

Many students are not even identified as gifted or offered gifted education. Some of these students may be hardworking but are never given the opportunity to excel. Others may coast through school, give up, or act out because they are bored. Their underachievement does not result from personal, family, or peer conflicts.

2. Classic underachiever

They have abandoned school… and themselves… because they underperform in everything they study. 

The signs of boredom and depression may manifest in elementary school, but underachievement typically begins in middle school. 

Despite their intelligence, these children often refuse to exert themselves and resist parents’ or teachers’ efforts to encourage, prod, or coerce them. As a result, faculty may give up in frustration, pointing out the “waste of potential” and feeling that they have “lost” these children.

3. Those who underperform selectively

Underachievers are active consumers – they excel only in areas they are interested in or in classes where their teachers like and respect them. 

Underachievers who are gifted view school as a Sunday buffet where they can choose what they want and ignore the rest. “Selective consumers” describes the independent path taken by gifted underachievers. 

Even though their involvement in what they love creates challenges, refusing to succeed in other classes limits their academic development and sets an unhealthy precedent for future learning. It may also adversely affect their grades and job prospects.

4. The underachievers who go unnoticed

Many gifted “underachievers under the radar” are frequently overlooked and sometimes even mistaken for high achievers. As a result, these exceptionally talented students coast through school, receiving average to high grades but not reaching their full potential. 

Despite their performance, their lack of effort is rarely recognized. Consequently, they may never learn how to take on academic risks, experience and learn from failure, or develop resilience. Instead, these lessons often occur much later – in college or at work – when they may feel blindsided by a lack of preparation.

Underachievement in gifted children

It can be confusing and frustrating for educators and parents to observe profoundly gifted students underachieving. These students may demonstrate mastery in their areas of strength but still need adult guidance for basic skills.

Establishing an appropriate educational environment

Compared to students of a similar age and intelligence, gifted students who are ability grouped with similarly motivated and intelligent peers advance as much as a whole year. Through ability grouping, gifted students progress at their own pace while pursuing their interests through enrichment opportunities. Studies focusing on the social-emotional needs of the expert have found that talented students perceive homogeneous ability grouping more positively than mixed-ability grouping concerning academic outcomes. Most report having more positive feelings about school and their giftedness in general when grouped with their intellectual peers. Learn more about ability grouping for gifted students.


To help profoundly gifted students reach their academic and personal goals, parents and educators must model patience, resilience, flexibility, and determination. Parents and educators must model the kind of patience, resilience, and flexibility they are asking from profoundly gifted students.

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