Margin of Error: Life, Common Sense and the Gifted

Bio_casperby Kathleen Casper

As I watched one of my very gifted friends almost back his car into another car at the gas station because he wasn’t paying attention, I thought about all the very bright people I know who do dumb things and how lucky we are that life often is full of “almosts” —almost collisions, almost falls, almost complete disasters. Life often has this buffer—this margin of error—that protects those who do things without thinking about the consequences.

Somehow it seems the people who benefit from this margin of error the most are those who we would consider “very smart” in other situations. It is sometimes glaringly true that being smart and acting smart are not always correlated, and assuming they are correlated can really deceive us as we work with other gifted people and as we review our own occasional inane behaviors.

For example, someone who knows about veterinary medicine and who can tell you about all the breeds of dogs and how they evolved may not actually be able to take care of your dog for the weekend! Another who speaks multiple languages and knows the history of the world backwards and forwards might not be able to interact with your coworkers without being embarrassing at a company picnic.

The same is true with children. A 10-year-old who reads at a high school level and could easily pass a written driving test after studying the book for a few minutes might not be able to ride his new bike down the street without crashing into his friend’s bicycle and almost killing himself by riding into traffic within ten minutes of getting that new bike (a bike that he could take apart and put back together without a manual).

I know I give people the benefit of the doubt, and sometimes I am sorely mistaken, mostly by those who I think of as the smarter people in society, those with amazing “book smarts” or the ability to convince me that they know just about everything about everything. But being smart really does not always mean someone can maneuver in society safely or sanely.

There are a couple anonymous quotes that stand out when I think about the issue of common sense:

  • “The thing about common sense is it’s not that common…”
  •  “Common sense is like a flower—it does not always grow in everybody’s garden.”

Common sense is not something that you can take for granted in the general or gifted population.

Think about the characteristics of gifted people who you know and what research says many gifted people possess. “Increased common sense” is not usually listed. But there are so many traits and research out there that points to the potential for gifted people being creative and sometimes disorganized and needing help with social skills or help with anxiety or intensities, etc. These are all things that all can add to the tendency for gifted people to appear to lack the basic skills that help us all function in society. In other words, gifted people may struggle with common sense and frustrate those around them just like others do, but it can seem more confusing when the person comes across as able to absorb information at higher levels because we seem to expect more from them.

Ralph Waldo Emerson correlated common sense with high intellect. “Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes,” he said. And yet some of the highly gifted people out there seem to struggle with how to dress up their smarts in this way. On the other hand, some gifted people are talented in organizing their lives and making decisions after looking at all of their options. Some can even function at high levels in society as managers and even help others keep their lives in order. But many gifted people are so focused on the things going on in their minds that they tend to forget to pay attention to other things.

Gifted children have this problem often. One parent of a gifted child summed it up well: “My 11-year-old old son is able to write at a high level, does amazing research projects, can remember almost everything he ever read or heard about things he is interested in, yet he can’t remember to look both ways when he crosses the street or to close the gate so the dog won’t escape.” Another mother of a young gifted child asked her child’s doctors and counselors for help. “They told me that many gifted kids they saw didn’t have common sense either, and we would just have to work with her as she grew and assume she wouldn’t always make the best decisions to help her stay safe.”

So how do you help these kids (and adults) pay more attention and think more about the big-picture results of their actions or lack of actions?

First of all, common sense is something that cannot be taught exactly, but the skills that we equate with common sense can definitely be practiced. Taking the time to explain the rules, the cautionary actions, and the implications of each alternate action may seem silly when you are working with an older child or even another adult, but if that person has shown any indication of not acting properly in other situations it may be worth your time and potential embarrassment to talk about the things that they should be thinking about ahead of time. Phrasing it in a way that makes it seem like you are saying it for your own benefit may work best to keep them from thinking you doubt their own capabilities. For example, before a social event you can share these thoughts: “I have a hard time not saying stupid things when I am at the neighborhood party. Sometimes I say things that others think are embarrassing, like when I told the guy whose dog just died that I hated dogs. I’m going to be really careful about what kinds of things I say by thinking about who I am talking to.” Hopefully the recipient of these warnings will also heed the advice.

Another way to help them pick up these skills can be repeated practices. If your child is not so great with social skills, set them up with play dates over and over, explaining to the parents of the other children that your child sometimes struggles with these situations and asking them to help on their end to talk to their own children about patience and social skills as well. If your children need to learn about safety in society, try setting them up with situations where they can practice without being hurt, such as practicing crossing the street in a high foot-traffic area where the biggest danger is stepping out in front of an angry pedestrian, rather than a vehicle that would do much more damage. If you are the one thinking ahead and showing them new behaviors and skills you want them to improve on, chances are later they will use those same skills when they are put in a real-life situation.

You can also practice things ahead of time with adults who you worry may not use common sense, too. Take your friend to a smaller social gathering before you introduce her to all your work friends at a formal work gathering and then talk about how it went. Or take a smaller trip with someone before going cross-country with them, to figure out if they really do know how to change a tire or react well when something goes wrong. The focus of these practice runs is to work together to find better solutions for future events.

The real moral of this story is that no matter how smart people are, they may not act like it when confronted with real-life challenges. And even more importantly, the higher their intellect (and the more gifted quirks they may have) the more likely they are to misjudge, misinterpret or completely miss the social or environmental cues that others take for granted and react well to, causing uncomfortable and sometimes even unsafe situations. Life is sometimes gracious and allows us to get by without so much as a scratch (physically or emotionally) but without developing better sense we may rely on this margin of error much more than we should. Practicing and discussing ways to improve behaviors in certain scenarios are steps towards improving a gifted person’s uncommon “common sense,” and, in the end, perhaps the most important thing we can do is learn to not assume anything!


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