Janitor or mathematician – adult achievement, or not

Matt DamonGood Will Hunting

The movie Good Will Hunting (1997), as summarized on Wikipedia, tells the story of Will Hunting (Matt Damon), “a troubled prodigy who works as a janitor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, despite the fact that his knowledge of and facility with higher mathematics far outstrips that of anyone in the university.

“Good Will Hunting is the story of a young man and his struggle with both himself and personal relationships, trying to work through his problems… and begin putting his immeasurable intellectual potential to work.”

Studying the gifted over time

In her article Giftedness in the Long Term, Joan Freeman writes about a number of issues that impact career achievement and personal growth for high ability people:

“High level creativity, as seen in adult careers, has demanded a particular type of personality which is relatively independent of other’s opinions, and at times great courage.

“The successful gifted architect who was a regular school truant, for example, did not do well in his exams and did not show his talents until long after he left university with a modest degree.”

Freeman’s article is based on longitudinal studies of children, followed into adulthood.

She notes, “Whether conventional and rule-abiding or constantly straining at the leash, the children have usually carried their personal style through to adulthood.

“Maybe there were no tortured geniuses in this sample, because poor home circumstances, such as a constant change of ‘uncles’ did nothing but harm to the possibility of adult success.”

Outside influences

She adds, “Many of the sample had accepted their parents’ views that some of the good things in life, such as a professional career, were not for them, even though they had the ability to do almost anything they could imagine, and more besides.

“Many opted for modestly-paid clerking-type work and called it coming to terms with reality.

“The 13 individuals who hit the top of the Stanford-Binet scale at IQ 170 have shown great variety of adult occupation, one became a professional gambler, another is a janitor to a sports club, one has a small business, another is a full-time mother, one died of cancer, one never uses his early PhD and works in IT, and so on.”

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Joan Freeman is a Professor at Middlesex University, London, UK, and Founding President of the European Council for High Ability (ECHA). She has been honoured with The Lifetime Achievement Award for 2007 from the British Psychological Society.

See list of articles by Joan Freeman.

One of her books: Gifted Lives: What Happens when Gifted Children Grow Up.

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And for a bit of comic relief: this is Monkey-ed Movie: “Good Will Hunting” – a short film parody directed by Tom Stern (Freaked, The Idiot Box) featuring monkeys. [Mild profanity.] Originally shown as TBS’ Monkey-ed Movies, and later on the show Dinner and a Monkey.


Sian L. Beilock is a professor in the Department of Psychology at The University of Chicago. “Her research program sits at the intersection of cognitive science and education. She explores the cognitive and neural substrates of skill learning as well as the mechanisms by which performance breaks down in high-stress or high-pressure situations.

Sian L. Beilock audio clips

Hear brief audio clips in post:
Thriving In Work and Life: An Online Conference


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Originally posted 2007-11-15 22:43:50.

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