One of the big reasons that super smart kids do not do well in the work world is their limited executive function—the skill that tells you to stop eating berries and run away from a lion. Natural selection has made us into executive function geniuses (though we still cannot multitask with any competence, at least we know what to do first.)
Despite limited executive function Aspergers kids can float through school largely unscathed because of their high IQ. This is because school is very structured and if you are very smart, you can compensate for the fact that you forget to do homework or you forget to bring a book home the night before a test. School is a place where you don’t have to make a lot of decisions, you are rewarded by simply following the rules.
But in the work world, jobs that are simply following rules eventually are consumed by technology or to people in developing countries with super-low labor rates. (For example, I hired someone for $3/hour to find me all the people on Twitter who say they are ENTPs because I knew ENTPs would be interested in my course about making money by selling your ideas.)
So the good jobs are where we get paid to prioritize. Sometimes it’s prioritizing work. Sometimes we prioritize ideas, or relationships, or problem. But the better jobs require us to be good at looking at a lot of information that is not equal and prioritizing it well.
So, how do you get good executive function? You could get people to help you. That’s what I do. I pay three assistants to do various parts of my life so I don’t miss the most important thing. And I married someone with incredible executive function who has sort of agreed that he can tell me what to do moment to moment, and I can tell him how to plan long-term (something unrelated to executive function that I’m great at).
For kids, though, training helps. The more opportunity you can give your child to practice executive function in discreet, controlled ways, the better.
My son practices when he takes care of his goats. They love him and for the most part follow him like dogs, but sometimes, they wander off and get into trouble. My son has to decide:
Which goat does he go after? The lead goat or the second goat who does more damage?
Are they hungry enough to be lured back with tree leaves or corn stalks? Will he need to rope them in?
Should he protect something from the goats (are they near the vegetable garden) or should he let the goats eat what they found so they will stand still and he can catch them?
My son’s stress level goes way way up when this happens because executive function is hard for him. (My husband, on the other hand, thrives on an animal emergency because he’s so good at executive function.) Still, by practicing, my son improves because he gets direct, clear feedback about whether he made the right decision in the moment.
Another way to get this sort of feedback is through video games. Engaging, challenging and interactive games help kids learn to make good decisions quickly with incomplete information, according to Sandra Calvert, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University and the director of the school’s Children’s Digital Media Center. Calvert specifically cites executive function as something that improves from screen time.
One of the reasons that kids who play hardcore games do better in life than kids who don’t is because the problem solving required for those games is the same type of problem solving that stretches the brain’s executive function. You need to decide which issue is most important. Sometimes something is about to blow up (starred item is the term Gmail uses), and sometimes you have to solve one problem to move on to the next (interdependencies in Microsoft Project).
In the information age, executive function might be the single most important skill in the whole workforce. You can’t learn executive function in school, where teachers tell you what to do and when to do it. But you can learn executive function in hardcore gaming arenas in a homeschool environment.
So go there. Explore. The skills gained from gaming will ripple across all aspects of your children’s lives.