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Why Talented Kids Become Troubled Adults

Why do some smart, intelligent kids grow up to be apathetic, dull adults? Why do we hear of college football stars fumbling in life when they go pro? It is heartbreaking to see this happen especially to students and young adults we know personally. The next thoughts that follow are: Why did this happen and what caused them to stumble?

Consistently we find this underlying reason: Their gift was bigger than they were. Their talent matured, but it was at the expense of their integrity. They struggle with growing in the other areas of their life because so much attention is given to their talent. It was an oversized gift.

The Oversized Gift

We see this “oversized gift” every week in the news. It takes the form of an NCAA athlete who is a great wide receiver or strong forward, but who keeps making bad decisions off the field—and eventually gets kicked off the team or, worse, arrested for a crime. It’s as though the player assumes they’re invincible. We all ask, “How could such a talented person do such a stupid thing?” Their gift blinded them from seeing reality.

Oversized Gift

It can also take the form of a young actor or actress, like Lindsay Lohan, who broke into the entertainment world as a child model when she was three years old. At 11, she starred in Disney’s remake of the movie The Parent Trap. She was adorable. Sadly, the rest of her life fell apart. She’s been in and out of court, spent time in jail, and fought addictive behaviors through her teens and twenties. Now consider Whitney Houston’s incredible voice. Although she sold 200 million records in her lifetime, she died with a $20 million debt. Her story ended sadly — due to addictions. My explanation? Her gift was huge. Her life didn’t keep up. It was an oversized gift. It’s people of influence who are great in front of the camera...but not so much with the rest of their lives.

It can take the form of Olympic athletes or baseball players like Ryan Braun or Alex Rodriguez who sacrifice their body, personal life, and the rest of their career and reputation for a few years playing a game on steroids. The performance-enhancing drug may help them today, but the rest of their life has been sabotaged. Short-term benefit. Long-term consequence.

Or take Justin Bieber, who was spotted on a YouTube video by Usher, broke into the entertainment world as a talented young singer — then got caught up in a lifestyle that overwhelmed him because he wasn't ready for it. His gift was big, but perhaps it was bigger than he was.

Are Talents Bad?

So what am I saying? Are big talents bad? Not at all. We love to see people with great talent perform or lead. But often the inner life is left underdeveloped due to the spotlight on the outer life. We’re distracted by the gift. Charisma becomes mammoth. Character becomes minimized. The solution is not to do away with talent; it is to give attention to developing our discipline and personality. Our inward character is the infrastructure that holds us up through our lives. And you can’t “wing it” in building discipline. I believe the greater the size of your gifts, the more time you must dedicate to developing your personal, inner life.

There’s a great story about a millionaire who asked a builder to construct a house. He showed him the blueprints, then gave him a huge amount of money. The millionaire told the builder, “You probably won’t need all this money, but I want you to have plenty to build a solid house. When you are finished, you can keep whatever money you have left over.”

The builder smiled. Inside, he thought: “I can build a house for a fraction of this money. Then, I can pocket most of the money for myself!” So he did. He began to throw that house together quickly. He put studs five feet apart; he pounded only one nail per board; he slapped on one, thin coat of paint. He threw on the shingles and barely covered the roof of the house. Later, when he was finished, he knew the house wasn’t solid, but at least it looked good, and he had lots of money left over. He returned to the millionaire and said, “Here are the keys to the house.” In that moment, the millionaire smiled and responded: “Oh, I forgot to tell you...the house is yours.”

That poor builder had no idea he was building his own house. Does this sound familiar? There are times I must remind myself that the life I’m building is my own life. I can take shortcuts, but I will only hurt myself. It’s true for everyone. We can misuse our talent, become obsessed with it, and try to build a reputation on it, but eventually the inside truth about us will come out.

Help Equip Your Students

We as adults must equip students with this Oversized Gift self-leadership principle. Too many students fall into traps they can avoid. They need to understand that leaders are often gifted. They can begin to depend on their gift for success, to the neglect of their character. They begin to “wing it.” Leaders sabotage themselves when their gift is bigger than they are.

For more self-leadership principles that help students succeed in life, check out Habitudes®: Images that Form Leadership Habits & Attitudes. The Oversized Gift principle comes from the first book in the Habitudes® series, The Art of Self-Leadership. It contains images, conversations, and experiences that help you instill these self-leadership principles in your students at schools, youth groups, and homes. Order your copy here.

Student Leader Habitudes


  1. David Esposito on July 30, 2014 at 6:20 am

    Tim – Thanks for sharing such great insight. You hit on a great point about fully developing our talents while we also build and strengthen our character. Thanks and keep up the great work. David

  2. Jeff Fessler on August 2, 2014 at 9:56 am

    Good empirical data, but I struggle with the slight over-generalization of the assessment. It’s easy for a leadership author or leadership researcher on the outside to evaluate empirical, hard data and make an assessment about all people with “big talent” who fall or “fail.” Perhaps, Mr. Elmore, you experienced big talent and overcame it, just as I did, so you have an understanding of the more detailed complexities of such failures.

    Nonetheless, when someone, who has never personally experienced the weight, the struggles, and the responsibilities of a so-called “oversized gift,” reads this article, the tendency is to assume such individuals “fail” because they were trying to “wing it,” or get a free ride on their gifting. Those of us who study and analyze leadership models are all very familiar with the age-old struggle of one person’s gifting against another’s – as old as “Cain and Abel,” and “right & wrong,” itself – but we can’t allow our personal assessment of such struggles to lead us to presume or generalize every circumstance the same. The human reality is that people who feel they’ve not been given such gifts tend to make their own resentful judgments, using data such as what is posted here.

    Does that mean people with a large gifting are excused for immoral behavior? No. The understood rules of responsibility apply to all mankind equally. However, having struggled with “big talent,” personally, I can say on my own behalf (and on behalf of a few friends of mine who carry the weight of big talent) that the details are far more complicated than can be well-represented in a quick blog article.

    Then again, that could be a generalization, in and of itself, I guess. :-

    • Tim Elmore on August 5, 2014 at 7:55 am

      Thanks for your input. I can appreciate your point that we shouldn’t generalize about the over-sized gift. I was hopeful I didn’t do that here. I was simply suggesting that a large percentage of the thousands of students we’ve worked with over the years shared this struggle: when they have a large gift it is tempting to ride the wave and simply walk through the doors that gift opens, without developing the grit and discipline others might be forced to develop, because their gift was not so obvious. Pardon me if this came across as an over-generalization.

      • Jeff Fessler on August 5, 2014 at 10:22 am

        Not to worry, Dr. Elmore. I appreciate the professionalism that you employ in your articles when dealing with subjects like these. I also understand the weight of maintaining balance on sensitive topics like this one.

        This is a helpful article and very informative for students, employees and employers, all, alike – my apologies for failing to say that to begin with!


        • Tim Elmore on August 6, 2014 at 5:44 pm

          Not to worry either, Jeff. Thank you for the discussion :).

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Why Talented Kids Become Troubled Adults