The myth of the gifted child: How Rory Gilmore failed to live up to her potential

And why I'm still optimistic about her future.

Hi there informational interviewers!

How are things going? It’s been a challenging week on my end. A number of tumultuous life situations are causing anxiety, and it’s been difficult to keep my head above water. Things are looking up, though, and I’m hopeful that if I just keep rowing in the right direction, eventually I’ll find the shore.

Anyways, enough about me. Today we’re talking about Rory Gilmore. I know a lot’s been said already, but as Taylor Swift once sang, “I could go on and on and on, and I will!”

Without further ado,


The myth of the gifted child: How Rory Gilmore failed to live up to her potential

Growing up I LOVED Gilmore Girls and I identified with Rory. As a child I thought of myself as smart, maybe even gifted, like Rory. In elementary school this was a source of social discomfort. I was mortified in second grade when classmate called me a “teachers pet.” By middle school, though, I had grown into myself, and I was proud to identify as someone who was gifted at school.

While it felt good to think of myself a smart, the reality is gifted children don’t necessarily excel later in life. According to the National Association for Gifted Children (NACG), a gifted child is someone who demonstrates “high achievement capability in such areas as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields.” But according to research from Vanderbilt University, less than 12% of a cohort of 700 intellectually gifted adolescents grew up to be “eminent” in their fields. Apparently, a lot of us gifted kids turned out to be pretty average.

Rory Gilmore fits squarely in this bucket. But more than being merely average, as an adult Rory flails. In the Gilmore Girls epilogue mini-series “A Year in the Life” Rory shows up to a job interview unprepared and falls asleep while reporting a story. She appears lost and confused. As a child Rory was indefatigable in pursuit of her dream of being a journalist. But as an adult she’s sloppy and disengaged, but still committed to her chosen career path.

As it turns out, overcommitting to a career path is common for gifted students. According to the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented:

Gifted students have demonstrated earlier career maturity by being more certain of career choices than other students. This early, and sometimes premature certainty, may actually limit the further exploration of career possibilities, especially in college, where more choices are offered. Often, academically gifted students choose careers that require 10 or more years of post-secondary training, and if this career decision is made early due to cognitive maturation without synchronous emotional maturation, the adolescent may not be able to consider the long range planning, persistence, and self-sacrifice needed to achieve the intended career goal.

This basically describes Rory’s professional trajectory. She’s gone down a career path that wasn’t quite right for her, and she clearly doesn’t have the wherewithal to succeed in her chosen field. This isn’t that unusual. The only way to figure out what you want to do is to try stuff and see what you like. What’s unfortunate, in Rory’s case, is that she wasted a lot of time on her chosen path. Ideally she would have quickly figured out that being a reporter wasn’t right for her, and that she needed to try something else.

Part of the problem, for Rory, is that in addition to being over-committed to her chosen career path, she’s also very emotionally fragile and intolerant of failure. This is also common of gifted children. As Alice Miller writes in her book, “The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self,” 

“[Gifted people] do well, even excellently, in everything they undertake; they are admired and envied; they are successful whenever they care to be—but behind all this lurks depression, a feeling of emptiness and self-alienation, and a sense that their life has no meaning. These dark feelings will come to the fore as soon as the drug of grandiosity fails, as soon as they are not “on top,” not definitely the “superstar,” or whenever they suddenly get the feeling that they have failed to live up to some ideal image or have not measured up to some standard. Then they are plagued by anxiety or deep feelings of guilt and shame.

This describes Rory to a T. She reacts strongly when her status as a high-achiever is threatened. And she acts out in response to those strong feelings. In high school she throws a tantrum when a teacher bars her from taking a test because she’s arrived late. And she drops out of Yale when her boss at her internship tells her doesn’t have what it takes to be a reporter.

Despite this reactivity, though, there may be hope for Rory. In “A Year in the Life,” when Rory pivots from being a reporter to being a memoirist, we see her starting to grapple with her failures as a reporter for the first time. And while it’s a messy and cringy process, it seems possible that she’ll figure it out. She’s starting to make choices that are responsive to the reality of who she is and what the world is really like. Granted a career as a memoirist seems even less feasible than a career as a journalist, but no matter, she’s starting to experiment, respond and make changes.

This demonstration of flexibility bodes well for Rory. She is proving that she is willing to show up and relinquish the ideas she and others had about who she is and who she should be. This is all any of us needs to do. And while it may be harder for formerly gifted children than it is for those who never identified as gifted, its all the more important. Because the truth is, giftedness is just an idea that is tenuously connected to the reality that some children are precocious. There are many, many ways of being gifted. And the greatest gift of all is the willingness to fail and try again.

What I’m reading this week…

You Think You're Not That Ambitious. Are You Dead Wrong About That? ~ Heather Havrilesky in Ask Polly Rory Gilmore would have benefited from this beautiful meditation on ambition. Heather writes, “Understanding our truest desires and building a life based on that knowledge has never been more challenging or more crucial to our well-being.”

Thats all! :)


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