Book name: The Psychology of High Abilities
Author: Michael J Howe
Publisher: NYU Press
Format: ebook, print
Publication Date: 1999
Star Rating: 5/5
The philosophy behind my blog is to share with you some of the books I've read which have surprised or intrigued me.
Mostly I choose them because they leap out at me when I first see them and I'm dying to know what's inside.
It was like that with The Psychology of High Abilities by Michael J Howe.
First up, take careful note of the title. It's not about successful people. It's about people who are good at something.
Not everyone who is good at something is successful more generally in life. The skills for this last one are very, very different and there are so, so many books devoted to that out there already.
Second, it's about abilities rather than intelligence. Those two things are very different.
Nor is it about those people who just seem to be good at everything. We all know someone who falls into this category, and boy are they annoying.
This book is, instead, about what it takes to be good, really good, really, really good at something - maybe just one thing, but still something you can become excellent at doing.
The starting point for this book is that an innate gift or talent for something is only the very beginning of becoming good at it, but that it doesn't hurt if your first attempts at doing it go well.
From the teenager who picks up a guitar and just somehow knows how to twist their fingers just right to make the chords work, to the young kid whose first trip to the swimming pool shows how easy they find it to coordinate their arms and legs in just the right way to stay afloat and move gracefully through the water with growing confidence.
The Psychology of High Abilities very sensibly makes the point that being drawn to something because you find it easy at the start and enjoying doing that thing are closely linked.
The other premise for this book is that good quality training and hard work lie at the heart of becoming proficient at something, be it music, sport or academic subjects.
Nothing comes of nothing, and all the talent in the world won't get you onto the podium unless you work and work.
Again, liking what you're doing is key. No one spends the thousands of hours required to excel at something unless they really enjoy it.
I first bought this book when it was published. At that time, I was focused on doing well at work and I found it very helpful.
I re-read it several times when I had a family and was glad of its good sense and balance there, too. This is no manual for hothousing children, nor would I have bought it if it had been.
The chapters that talk about how some children learn to do things faster (accelerated acquisition of abilities) are moderate and always humane.
These suggest that you can encourage your kids to become more confident in physical or other skills at any earlier age, but just don't overdo it and undermine their self confidence along the way or the efforts will be completely counterproductive.
It's not a parenting manual, either, any more than it's a 'how to' guide. There are plenty of chapters that aren't about children at all, looking at family background (nature and nurture), whether innate talents are a myth or a reality, and about the (tentative) link between intelligence and high ability.
Intelligence is far from being a strong predictor of accomplishment, so this chapter was fascinating for exploding some of the myths that surround the link between the two.
It's a work of middle-range psychology, neither an academic tome nor a book of popular psychology. It's grounded and accessible.
There are plenty of case studies and specifics along the way to guide the reader away from excess or mistakes. They were really interesting.
Not every child prodigy grows up to continue with their activity, many in fact lose interest or else plateau and just fade away. Other people take up a hobby later in life and totally fall in love with it, becoming amazingly good at it after devoting many hours to learning.
This book was fascinating as a glimpse into how people become really, really good at something and also what happens when it all goes wrong. I learn something new every time I read it.
Thank you for reading The Psychology of High Abilities by Michael J Howe. Please share your thoughts in the comments section.
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If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested reading in my review of The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall.
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