For the Gifted: Living at the Edge of Competence

In transforming potential into performance, talent and achievement, and giftedness into expertise, Dr. Maureen Neihart has identified seven crucial mental competencies. These include a tolerance for stress or anxiety, ability to take realistic risks, goal setting, mental rehearsal, mood management, positive explanatory style or optimism, and finally reconciling acceptance and approval issues.

She posits that in creating true competent experts, talent is not enough. Neither is hard work. Childhood talent is not a factor that explains elite performance in adulthood, and the time (may it be weeks, months or years) we’ve spent practicing our work won’t necessarily make us experts. Intrinsic motivation is the key to success, and the seven mental competencies above are crucial in honing our talent.

I will touch on each one eventually, but I’d like to start with that which struck a personal chord — taking realistic risks. Dr. Neihart argues that to truly develop our talents, one must live at the edge of competence. Note the following diagram.

We all have something we’re already good at and comfortable with — that is the comfort zone. Beyond the comfort zone (light blue area) is everything that’s possible to us. Those possibilities require more effort and hard work to achieve. Everything else beyond that line is the realm of the impossible — no matter how hard you try, you just can’t achieve it.

For example, I’ve been learning tennis. At where I am now, I cannot defeat Roger Federer (World No. 1 to those who don’t know) and that falls in the realm of the impossible. Perhaps, I can defeat someone who has had a month head start in training. That game will be the fight of my life but it’s possible. What is in my comfort zone right now is the thrice weekly training I have with my personal coach. Those drills and exercises I can do. However, I will not improve if I remain there.

What coach has done lately was to drill me harder. He would throw the balls faster and make me run harder. He would put more spin on the ball to make it harder to hit, or would drop the ball close to the net when I am far behind the baseline. He would do that and expect me to return the ball. When I don’t, he would do it again until I do. This line between what I can still do and barely can (red line) is the edge of competence.

When one operates on the edge of competence, the comfort zone expands into the realm of what is possible. Thus eventually, I would run faster, hit harder and handily defeat that other player who has trained more than I.

Furthermore, the realm of the possible could expand into the realm of impossible, in effect making less possibilities unreachable for you. Take tennis world no. 1 Roger Federer. His realm of the possible may now be so wide that he can defeat any tennis player. However, will he remain no. 1 forever? Impossible. Somewhere down the line, his body will give way. He will grow old. He will pass on. A better player will come along. He can’t be the world no. 1 forever even if he tried. Therefore, there are clear limits to what is possible — even if you drag the line all the way to the afterlife.

What is the lesson here?

Often, we fail to live out our potential because we either take unrealistic risks or don’t risk at all. Has there been a time when you risked something that you knew you just can’t have? Or most likely, have you ever stayed well within your comfort zone and not risked at all? Both will lead to frustration and ultimately, the squandering of your potential.

This discussion struck me because I acknowledge that I tend to bite off more than what I can chew at times. I am an ideas man; while I am willing to take a risk for something I believe in, I sometimes fail to grasp that my ideas cannot easily translate into reality. (Wu Wei X, anyone?) At times, I work beyond the edge of competence and almost into the realm of the impossible. No wonder I get tired, stressed and frustrated doing the work I love (maybe too much).

Now I realize that if I focus on what I can already do very well and push a little harder from there, I would achieve more. I shouldn’t jump to doing something I know I can’t and must instead run just along the edge. Perhaps instead of pursuing three big ideas, I should focus on only one. If I am a lousy gamemaster then perhaps I shouldn’t be one again (as a matter of fact never again); perhaps then I can be a better teacher. This message is particularly sobering, considering all my duties this coming year.

Nonetheless, there is a social aspect to taking risks. The realm of the possible may expand when our environment is risk-friendly. According to Dr. Neihart, this would be an environment where mistakes are viewed as opportunities to learn (and feedback is provided), where goals are stressed over procedures, where people actively seek change, where the atmosphere is playful, where individuals are expected to set their own goals, and where people are allowed to choose their own risks.

So do you think you live, study or work in such an environment? When you take risks, will your peers support you? What happens when you succeed? When you fail? I’ll expand on all these in a future entry. Clearly, there is much to be said about our school and our society.

What I’d like to leave with you now is this: so are you on the edge? Or you too far back, or worse, have you fallen over? If it’s the latter, don’t worry. We fall so we learn to climb back up. That, too, is a competency we learn.


3 thoughts on “For the Gifted: Living at the Edge of Competence

  1. i think that dr. neihart is something disney and pixar would not love.. hehe.. it would bankrupt their movie franchise of dream chasing crap.. hehehe..

    but i also don’t agree with neihart. by drawing those spheres she sets boundaries for people and their potentials. by setting what is impossible, breakthroughs and stuff like those are also barred. i just don’t think its a good idea you know, to have this sphere of things that are impossible.

  2. Those spheres don’t set boundaries at all. They just describe the boundaries that are already there. Neihart actually teaches us how to manage the possible in order to breakthrough the impossible.

  3. This is a great posting about the need to experience living on the edge of our competence, something too often not experienced by gifted children. Another great resource supporting these ideas was created by Art Costa and Bena Kallick, and it is called the Habits of Mind. It is a collection of 16 habits that help us solve problems which don’t have an obvious solution. A few of those habits include: thinking flexibly, taking responsible risks, responding to nature with wonderment and awe. For more information, visit this site: I’m glad to see someone else speaking out for the needs of the gifted.

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