Gifted children have grown up to become some of history’s highest achievers, from influential 17th century thinker Blaise Pascal to physicist Enrico Fermi, creator of the nuclear reactor.
However, high IQ individuals are not always drawn to traditionally intellectual vocations. Among the scientists and writers on a worldwide list of prominent members of Mensa compiled by Wikipedia, an international high IQ society founded in 1946, are actors, boxers, rappers, and the odd criminal.
The diverse list of Mensa members, who qualify by having an IQ in the top two per cent of the population, includes actress Geena Davis, former chairman of the Ford Motor Company Donald Petersen, boxing champion Bobby Czyz, pianist Patricia Prattis Jennings and author of ‘Clan of the Cave Bear’ Jean Auel.
Then there’s Alfred George Hinds, a British criminal who served a 12 year sentence for robbery, broke out of three jails and became an outspoken critic of the English legal system before becoming secretary of the Channel Islands’ Mensa Society.
Mensa Australia chair Kymberley Wilson, who has a PhD in Maths, started her career with Shell as a petroleum engineer before she moved into software development, eventually starting her own software business. While Mensa Australia does not gather formal data regarding occupations of its members, Wilson says that “anecdotally, there is a high proportion of IT professionals” in the organisation.
A quick scan of a self-reported list of Australian Mensa members’ occupations reveals this to be true. Accountants, engineers and teachers also appear frequently, but less common careers are represented as well. A cartoonist, a potter, a special effects makeup artist, a train driver and a yoga teacher are all found on the list.
Aiming for the stars
So do gifted children have better job prospects? In a word, yes. An article by gifted education academics state that gifted children who grade-skip perform better than other similarly able students across metrics including “grade point average, school satisfaction, honours received, success on exams, number of university credits awarded, education level attained, income as an adult and innovations made.”
They cite a study in the US that found “that grade-skippers were more likely than non-grade-skippers to have more prestigious jobs, higher earnings and job satisfaction.”
But personality also plays a role. A longitudinal study published in 2018 in the US found that student characteristics and behaviours in adolescence predicted their educational and occupational success better than parental socioeconomic status, IQ, and broad personality traits. Students who showed a strong interest in school reported higher educational attainment, occupational prestige and income later in life.
The lottery of life
But job prospects don’t just come down to a high IQ and strong motivation to learn. Life can throw us curveballs.
Like many kids, Tereen Hough, the Mensa State Secretary in Western Australia, wanted to be an astronaut when she was growing up, but unlike most kids, it wasn’t a passing fad. As soon as she finished high school, she left Perth and moved to the US to pursue her dream.
She studied physics and maths at college in the US, but her hopes of passing the necessary physical test to join NASA were shattered when she suffered a head injury in a car crash in California in 1985.It’s a rule, she says, “that you cannot pass a flight physical if you have sustained a head injury and lost consciousness.”
It was a crushing moment, but one that afforded Hough an epiphany. Like many gifted children, Hough’s intelligence was the focus of a lot of attention when she was young, and her sense of self-worth became tied up with her natural ability and others’ approval. Having her dreams dashed forced her to re-evaluate her life, and she realised that what other people thought didn’t matter. “That was a wonderful lesson,” she says.
She set her sights on becoming a flight attendant, a career path that satisfied her desire to travel and provided opportunities to visit her family in Australia. The common response to her plans was: ‘you could do anything – why would you want to do this?’
“In the 80s,” she says, “there was this notion that if you can do something, you should do it.” If your marks were high enough to get into medical school, the accepted wisdom was that you should be a doctor, no matter where your interests lay.
“I had…a lot of difficulty explaining and convincing interviewers that no, I really understand what this job is about, and I want to do it,” she recalls. “Later, when I got the gig and I was in flight attendant school, I was hauled into the office and the head of flight attendant training looked at my resumé and said, ‘you worked in physics…all the physicists I know are not ‘people’ people, and you really need to be a ‘people’ person to be a flight attendant.’
“There’s this notion that if you’re smart, if you’re nerdy, if you’re geeky, you have no social skills.”
Hough went on to have a 20-year career as a flight attendant. “I loved it,” she says. Another car accident, this one in 2002, forced her to medically retire from her role at the airline. She went back to university to study nursing, and today runs a tutoring business in Western Australia.
Obstacles and opportunities
To flourish, gifted children need appropriate support during their education.Without it, some children develop a fear of failure during their schooling, particularly if outperforming others is important to their self-worth. “That doesn't disappear once you finish Year 12 – you carry that into the workplace,” says Andrew Martin, Professor of Educational Psychology at UNSW. It’s important to sort out these issues in primary school, he says, “because they don't go away, they usually amplify.”
Both university and the workplace are very different settings to the structured school environment, demanding soft skills like self-direction, says Martin. “There’s no-one there to catch you. That will test abilities in you that haven't been tested before. You might’ve been very good in a highly structured school setting, [but] university will be a new test for you. We know that amongst high ability students…there are high attrition rates, they do drop out of university for various reasons, and there's also a lot of course swapping.”
Like Hough, many gifted children run into limiting stereotypes when they try to pursue their passion. “There’s this pervasive idea that you’re over-qualified for a job, which is ridiculous,” she says.
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