One is Not Born, But Rather Becomes, Gifted!

The whole ‘nature versus nurture’ debate is increasingly fought out in the field of education. In an interesting article called Nature, nurture and exam results, Mike Baker looks at the current state of play. Which is, that a child’s family background largely dictates their potential for academic success.

According to Professor Chris Woodhead – former controversial Chief Inspector of Schools in England – genetic inheritance plays the decisive factor. He has a swathe of anecdotal evidence on his side.

Yet others, coming at matters form a more policy-making agenda, want to play up the part of social class as a determinant.

However kids start off, “subsequent educational success is more likely to go to those with affluent, middle-class parents” says the article. Those nefarious suburbanites are at it again!

I have only a few points to make.

Intelligence is Not the Same as Academic Skill

The article, and most of those in the education sector, seem to equate the two. One would think that they had never heard of Multiple Intelligence Theory, probably the best theory in the world (in a Carlsbergian sense). Traditional academic skill in words and numbers is one way of expressing intelligence. There are others – bodily movement, personal interactions, attunement with nature, capacity for self-reflection, spatial awareness, and musical appreciation.

So the question is not whether you are intelligent, but in what way you express it. The education system in the UK has still not faced up to this liberating truth.

In my opinion, monkeys can be taught to pass exams. It’s not the big deal we were told it was.

Motivation is More Important than Raw Ability When it Comes to Life Success

The world seems increasingly full of academically smart people (i.e. university graduates) who aren’t making much of their lives. They don’t know what they want, they aren’t interested in self-improvement, they work for money and nothing more. The averagely bright person with enthusiasm will always ace the smart person who can’t be bothered trying or who fades out at the first setback.

And the twist is, this very ability to motivate yourself is in itself a form of intelligence! (Emotional intelligence writers call motivation “the master aptitude” for a good reason.) So perhaps that supposedly ‘average but optimistic’ kid isn’t so average after all.

The great thing is that you can learn this optimism. You can grow your own self-motivation skills. You can teach yourself to be resilient when the chips seem down.

You can become gifted.

Image credit: Werwin15.

A Dangerous Happiness

For believe me: the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas!

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyous Knowledge, 238

According to Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, there are three levels of happiness in life.

  1. The Pleasant Life in which we seek happiness by maximising the quantity and quality of pleasurable sensations
  2. The Good Life in which we attain happiness by achieving commitment and competence in work, play and love
  3. The Meaningful Life in which happiness flows from a deep sense of fulfillment by living for a purpose greater than oneself

I want to suggest a forth level, or better, a forth perspective on happiness.

  1. The Dangerous Life in which we strive for happiness by opening ourselves up to the excitement and opportunities of risk

Positive Psychology lists twenty-four character strengths the discovery and development of which leads to personal happiness. Three of them are: curiosity/interest in the world, leadership, and hope/optimism.

Pandora’s Box

Curiosity is dangerous. Nietzsche ‘s quote mentions exploration of the unknown. The drive to experience new places, new people, and new ideas is usually considered positive and healthy. Such an inquisitive spirit is the basic motivation behind all learning and information gathering.

Of course, exploration can be physically dangerous. But recent research has shown that the emotion of curiosity itself can lead humans to expose themselves to aversive stimulifor no apparent benefits. The human need to resolve uncertainty, regardless of the consequences, sometimes leads to trouble, as Pandora found out.

Believing in yourself is dangerous. Another study showed that believing in ourselves increases risk taking subjects who are led to believe they are very competent at decision making see more opportunities in a risky choice and take more risks. Part of this belief was due to positive feedback, and part due to strong self-belief, or, as psychologists call it, self-efficacy .

Risky Business

Optimism is dangerous. Optimists show considerably less risk-aversion than pessimists, both in relation to risk perception and actual risk taking. An uncertain environment can contain a situation of either pure chance or imprecise probability. In both counts, optimists are willing to plunge in where pessimists fear to tread.

So, even in Positive Psychology, here is no positive without the possibility of a negative. There is no happiness without the danger of pain. There is no reward without risk. If you want to grasp at more happiness, then you must relish embracing the dangerous too.


Christopher K. Hsee and Bowen Ruan. “The Pandora Effect: The Power and Peril of Curiosity.” Psychological Science 27, no. 5 (2016): pp. 659 666.

Krueger, Norris, and Peter R. Dickson. “How believing in ourselves increases risk taking: perceived self-efficacy and opportunity recognition.” Decision Sciences 25, no. 3 (1994): 385-400.

Tadeusz Tyszka (Kozminski University) and Jaideep Roy (Murdoch University). “Optimism and Attitude Towards Risk.” Kozminski Business School Working Paper Series No. 06 (2008).

Pessimism, Realism and the Recession


An Australian psychologist has claimed that feeling grumpy ‘is good for you’. At least that’s the spin the popular media put on the findings of Professor Joe Forgas of the University of South Wales. What the guy actually says is a little more nuanced. His claim is that there are some advantages to negative moods, just as there are to positive moods. Continue reading “Pessimism, Realism and the Recession”

Cutting the Crap of Recession-Speak (Part 2)

Breaking news – Gordon Brown has become a personal development guru! I’ll have to watch out for my customers…

In Cutting the Crap of Recession-Speak (Part 1) I contrasted the advice of entrepreneur Sir David Tang with our Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Tang urges small-but-optimistic thinking, whereas Brown preaches a kamikaze imprudent doctrine of spend, spent, spend.

Now it seems that Gordo has got on message. For this new attempt to harness positive psychology in the name of politics, see Brown warns against ‘pessimism’. But even here, he can’t resist the use of that histrionic, grandiose language that may well be one of the causes of the recession in the first place! For instance, he claims that the economic crisis should be treated as “the difficult birth-pangs of a new global order”. I find this kind of overtly Orwellian language disturbing. Continue reading “Cutting the Crap of Recession-Speak (Part 2)”

Is the Economy Half Empty or Half Full?


Yet another story about how UK customer optimism ‘increases’ hits the headlines. This is according to the Nationwide Consumer Confidence index. Actually, its a pretty good tool. Check it out. There’s even a confidence barometer. But what does all this talk of ‘optimism’ actually mean in this context?

I’ve blogged before about these strange use of words in Cutting the Crap of Recession-Speak Part 1 and Part 2. Luckily enough, I train businesspeople in the skill and strategy of optimism as an aspect of Emotional Intelligence. So I can say a few things about it.

Continue reading “Is the Economy Half Empty or Half Full?”

Cutting the Crap of Recession-Speak (Part 1)


I’ve just read the best article yet only article worth reading on the current recession.

I’m no macro-economist, so I’ve found it hard to follow some of the more technical melodramatic discussions so beloved by the media. How did this global economic tsunami downturn come about? An over-inflated property market? A housing crisis? Banks too eager to lend? Stock market greed and irresponsibility? Premiership footballer wages? Or – my opinion for what it’s worth – is it part of a natural cycle? Continue reading “Cutting the Crap of Recession-Speak (Part 1)”

A Positively Brilliant Workshop

On Saturday 6th December I delivered a 1-day workshop at Queen’s University called The Psychology of Happiness: How to Grow Your Happy Skills. Its purpose was to introduce the students to the new positive psychology movement, and to the thoughts of Martin Seligman and Mih√°ly Cs√≠kszentmih√°lyi in particular. Those who read the blog will know that I’ve reviewed Seligman’s latest work Authentic Happiness before, and I’ve also captured the two of them in a fascinating conversation.

In the workshop I did four things. First, I discussed Seligman’s analysis of the three types of happy life: the Pleasant Life, the Good Life, and the Meaningful Life. Then I explored the whole notion of optimism, perhaps Seligman’s main contribution to the field of academic psychology. After lunch, it was time to check out our signature strengths. Finally, we applied all this to the area of work, that most usual and difficult source of unhappiness. Continue reading “A Positively Brilliant Workshop”

Working Class – Heroes or Thicko(e)s?

An interesting debate broke out last week when some egg-head claimed that there is a direct relation between IQ and social class. Specifically, he said that the reason why few working class types get into the best universities is because..

higher social classes have a significantly higher average IQ than lower social classes

Read his comments here. This debate interests me for several reasons. First, as a working-class hero myself, I like to know what people think of me. But, as a critic of traditional IQ testing, I want to make a comment.

All sorts of politicians and left-wing types immediately plunged in to take a swipe at the naive academic. There were the usual shouts of prejudice and privilege. But among the furore that ensured, no-one asked the two most obvious and important questions: Continue reading “Working Class – Heroes or Thicko(e)s?”