Gifted But Underachieving

Most people think of the gifted as those who cruise through school, skirting along at the top of their classes, hardly putting in any effort yet still succeeding.  But there’s another group of gifted individuals who get lost in the crowd, or even fail in school, or in life, completely.  What happened to them?


As gifted people we know inside that we can do great things in the world.  But sometimes we doubt ourselves, or others around us tell us that there’s no way we can do the things we’re dreaming of, and eventually some of us lose hope altogether.  We operate very far from the potential that we have.  Why?

There are many reasons why gifted adults (and children) underachieve, some with more drastic consequences than others.  Each group below, though they may have some overlapping characteristics, has its own set of associated behaviours and challenges.  We may fall fully into one of these groups or see bits of ourselves in many.

Do you recognize yourself in any of these?

Group 1 – There aren’t any models of high achievement in our lives, so we don’t even know what is possible for us.  We don’t know what others can do so we don’t ever explore what we can do.

Group 2 – We know our talents and abilities, but being comfortable is very important to us so we don’t do anything that may jeopardize that.  And standing out from the crowd in any way is definitely uncomfortable.

Group 3 – We have a lot of interests and can’t choose which one or two we want to pursue in depth.  We get lost by getting caught up in, or being reasonably good at, too many things.

Group 4 – We are extremely perfectionistic and would rather not do something at all than be wrong or inadequate at it.  We avoid trying to avoid failing in any way.

Group 5 – We decide not to decide.  When offered a choice, we find ways not to make a decision and either let someone else do whatever it is for us, or put it off until it becomes forgotten.

Group 6 – We move forward in life, but stop just before reaching the goals we set for ourselves.  We are perfectionistic and fear not being able to have what we want so we quit before we get close enough to find out.

Group 7 – We set impossibly high standards and then blame ourselves when we can’t reach them.  We consider any success only an accident.

Group 8 – We’ve gotten very good at talking our way out of just about any situation and use this skill to avoid completing our tasks or being prepared for our responsibilities.  We make excuses with a smile and people accept this from us.

Group 9 – We thrive on excitement and spend life totally on the edge.  We take risks on a grand scale, even if we aren’t prepared for them or their consequences.

Group 10 – We want things our way and have a lot of trouble listening to authority.  Though it seems we are very outgoing, we just want to do enough to get by so that people will leave us alone.

Group 11 – We think we know a whole lot more than everyone else and tend to blame our failures on others’ ‘incompetencies’.  We’re right, they’re wrong.

Group 12 – We only take on challenges at which we know we will succeed. We win, but at levels much below our potential.


Knowing where our weaknesses are help us to determine how to get around them.  And when we understand ourselves it makes finding success much easier, and more possible.


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  • Elizabeth Braun

    How about this one:

    We found the first stages of school – in my case about the first 10 years in most subjects – so easy that we never learned to work and never understood that, if someone didn’t get it straight off, that didn’t mean that they never would and were no good at it. 25 years later, with a good degree and a fairly impressive list of school achievements compared to the majority (but not the As across the board she *could* have got), such a person is still struggling with the inclination to fly by the seat of one’s pants knowing that they’ll still do better than average. OK, so the days of getting an A just for turning up to the test (what’s ‘revision’??) are gone, but it’s hard to start working when you’ve rarely needed to in the past…..

    So, that’s perhaps Group 13. Although I suspect many of us see familiar ideas in many groups. For me, group 3 is spot on and part of group 4 and no doubt others, only I still don’t have the patience to read much through thoroughly!LOL!=)

    • Sonia Dabboussi

      I’ve realized that all the recognitions and achievements in the world don’t bring satisfaction if we haven’t done our absolute best to achieve them. ‘Flying by the seat of one’s pants’ can get us by in the world, but inside we still remain empty if we haven’t actually been challenged in the way we need or hope.

      So how to we reach the top? The top for us? By being brave enough to stand alone when necessary, without acceptance from everyone else, in order to follow that voice inside that says, “Go for it!”

    • Lyca

       A little late in replying but hey, better late than never.

      I can totally identify with what you felt. I breezed through the first 6 years of formal education. I don’t have any memory of studying really hard or doing revision. I only remember having finished reading all my textbooks the moment my mother bought them, a month *before* school started. Then the following 6 years, I continued to use the same way to handle school tests and exams but started to see my results slip. I got by but I also started failing in some subjects. Then the shock came when I completely failed and had to repeat a year. Didn’t feel smart at all. In fact I felt stupid for having stayed back. I also blamed myself for not paying enough attention in class, for playing too much, for not starting to study earlier, etc. But yet at the same time I know that I can make the bare minimal grade without trying too hard so that I can have time to do other things I like.

      However, university was so much more fun because I got to study a wider variety of subjects and could choose what I liked. The library became my second home because it contained a plethora of ideas and theories that I would become lost in them. I also liked trying out new things. And once I got started on something or a subject, I would go all out and pursue it till I’ve exhausted everything possible on it.

      I can’t really tell which group(s) best describe me because there’s a little bit of me in almost every group that I can’t decide. Does that make any sense?

      • Vea

        It makes perfect sense!!! I feel like I’m 3,6 and 10.

        (“Group 11 – We think we know a whole lot more than everyone else and tend to blame our failures on others’ ‘incompetencies’. We’re right, they’re wrong.” – Hahaha … I think that is just how it is for the gifted. We are more competent than others and should be surrounded with our true peers or we will never achieve our potential.

        Lyca I went through the exact same thing in school and then later in college!! Libraries are like my second home also and let’s not forget the internet. As you, I can get lost in almost ANYTHING … people around me have never understood it. I gave up trying to explain myself .. it’s too nerve-racking. Only my boyfriend <3 understands me at a satisfactory level.

        • Vea

          My boyfriend is totally 2,4 and 12

  • Mimi

     you should read up on the subject (try google) before you make any judgement

  • Jasmine

    “The Gifted are ALWAYS extremely high achievers”
    ^ Actually, this isn’t necessarily true. Even the gifted only have a certain amount of time in a day, and they can just as easily overreach their abilities as anyone else; they’re still human after all, and have human needs, like eating and sleeping. And the gifted are just as susceptible to emotional and mental problems as non-gifted people; in fact, there have even been studies that link creativity (a main part of being “gifted”) with a heightened risk of mental disorders. And as you said, there isn’t much real evidence to back up these statements, but that is why one should use common sense when perusing these kinds of websites.

  • Roxangella

    The research actually shows that alot of gifted adults underachieve and struggle in ways that others don’t.  A simple google search reveals many papers on this topic.

  • Kay Slimani

    I am an underachiever now . 🙁

    • giftedforlife

       Kay, if you aren’t happy that way then you don’t have to stay that way.  Once you start to identify what has been holding you back then you can begin to work through it to let it go.  This isn’t always an easy process, but sometimes it isn’t as hard as you may think either.  So are you ready to make some changes? 🙂

  • Kay Slimani

    ~The Gifted are ALWAYS extremely high achievers.~ Please Look up: Albert Einstein. Study his Case very well.

  • Annemarie Bush

    i was good at everything when young. my family is nearly grown up now we still have a 10 yr old at home but they require a lot less of my attention now. I have always worked for my husband. I have no quals since A level, I hate what i do at work as we are self employed and it is always fighting and problems keeping the business running. I’m getting older and its hard as i used to be young and beuatiful and needed.  I want to feel good and complete again but dont know where to begin

    • Sonia Dabboussi

      What is it that you truly love, Annemarie? When you were young, what did you enjoy, or what do you remember that made you truly happy? Sometimes the secret to our happiness today comes from the things we loved before we ‘learned’ that the other stuff of life was ‘more important’. And sometimes the secret lies in noticing what moves us today, what makes us feel fully alive, and what brings out that spark of passion again.
      You are never too old and it is never too late to be, do or have something more. As soon as you find, or should I say rediscover, the things you really love, you’ve already taken the first step toward having them.

  • Kayle

    hm. burnout and existential despair didn’t make the list…hm

  • Nurul

    I identified with the gifted characteristic a lot with the experience of gifted people when I was a little kid but I am not so sure of myself being a gifted person as I always see that gifted people as being an achiever individuals. It is till now that I identified with some of the characteristic above. But by then, I still am confuse whether do I fall under the characteristic of gifted people

  • Miriam Pia

    I did not underachieve when young, but while living as a foreigner during my 40s I have often felt that I have been. Mainly, I mean that while I have learned a lot of the local language I am not entirely fluent and it is my 5th year of living in Germany. Like many women, my career has not developed as I had hoped…I have had some achievements but had hoped to do as well both in personal private life with relationships and in the work world as I had done in school and sports, camps etc.. as a child. I may be doing better than I give myself credit for or I may have defaulted to goofing around to avoid difficulties. The environment in general has been a mixture of way too easy and overwhelming difficult without nearly as much emotional support as I generally need. It has been getting better but is agonizingly slow going compared to my expectations. Maybe I simply misjudged it and have been making big drama about that in my mind when it is not that weird. It can be hard to pre-judge when one really doesn’t know. Duh, but true.