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Maybe Gifted Underachievers Are More Creative

“Einstein is a classic example of a highly creative and highly gifted individual that did not do well in traditional school environments.”

That is a quote in a research paper by Kyung Hee Kim, PhD, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at The College of William and Mary.

She thinks “the cause of the underachievement of many gifted and talented students may be their creativity, which tends to clash with traditional school environments.

“Many gifted underachievers show potential for high levels of creativity and many of the characteristics reported for gifted underachievers are similar to those of highly creative individuals.”

She notes research that highly creative students “experience difficulty in traditional school environments.” For example, one study of 400 eminent creative individuals (by Goertzel and Goertzel in 1960) found that sixty percent had serious school problems.

Kim writes that Albert Einstein “hated strictly regimented academics and excelled only with self-study or in nontraditional environments.”

[Einstein expressed an insight on non-conforming when he said, “Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.” From my post Einstein and other non-conformists. Also quoted in my book Developing Multiple Talents.]

Kim explains further, “Gifted underachievers tend to be particularly sensitive to teachers who are critical, rigid, officious, and unsympathetic. There are many teachers who have negative attitudes toward gifted students who resist conformity… Gifted students tend to be sensitive to negative social feedback, which contributes to emotional conflict and the development of chronic underachievement.”

From Underachievement and Creativity: Are Gifted Underachievers Highly Creative? [PDF], by Kyung Hee Kim.

That “negative social feedback” may include bullying – see my posts Lily Cole and gifted kids being bullied and Traumatic Childhood, Creative Adult.

In a later paper, Dr. Kim and her co-author declare that research indicates “there might be a relationship between students’ behavior problems and creativity among underachievers. This relationship was recognized by Torrance (1981b, 2000) when he expressed concern that creative behaviors are punished and discouraged by parents and teachers who perceive creative behavior as inconvenient and difficult to manage. This can lead to the child’s unwillingness to be creative and eventually to underachievement and rigid non-adaptive responses in the school environment.”

From The relationship between creativity and behavior problems among underachievers, [PDF] by Kyung Hee Kim and Joyce VanTassel-Baska.

See more papers and other material on her site Welcome to the World of Creativity by Dr. Kim!

Dr. Kim, in 2010, published her study “The Creativity Crisis,” in which she showed the United States has been experiencing a decline in creativity since 1990, based on scores of people from young children to adults. See my post Are We Losing Creative Thinking Ability?

Self-esteem and achievement

Marilyn J. Sorensen, PhD, author of the book Breaking the Chain of Low Self-Esteem, says “People with low self-esteem generally find themselves at one of the extremes of achievement, either as an overachiever or as an underachiever.

“Some take the road of continually channeling their energies into attempts to receive recognition, approval, and affirmation, and become highly successful in their careers and educational endeavors; they are driven; they are ‘overachievers.’ Others slink back in fear, never realizing their skills or talents.”

From my post Creative But Insecure.

The photo is from one of my favorite movies: The Breakfast Club (1985) written and directed by John Hughes, starring Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall, and Ally Sheedy. The story “follows five teenagers (each a member of a different high school clique) as they spend a Saturday in detention together and come to realize that they are all deeper than their respective stereotypes.” [Wikipedia]

Of course, all of this is not just about students and younger people – see my post Adult underachievement – not living up to our high potential.


Maybe Gifted Underachievers Are More Creative

Douglas Eby

Douglas EbyDouglas Eby, MA/Psychology, is a writer and researcher on psychology and personal development related to creativity; creator of the , and author of books including [link to book site with excerpts.]
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APA Reference
Eby, D. (2012). Maybe Gifted Underachievers Are More Creative. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 8, 2020, from


Last updated: 7 Oct 2012
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