As best friends in a small Midwestern town, Jon and Stephen, both extremely bright and inquisitive, often talked with each other about their dreams of jobs they would have as adults. Throughout childhood, made alive through imaginative play, their wide-ranging ideas about careers were inspired largely by television and movie characters. They were enthralled with the idea of “special powers” to save the universe, but soon realized that “superhero” wasn’t a career. A few years later, they considered becoming crime scene investigators, lawyers, emergency room doctors, and, briefly, even astronauts. Jon and Stephen were inseparable and were regarded by the elementary school’s Gifted and Talented (G/T) coordinator as the most academically advanced students in her memory. They loved to learn, had vivid imaginations, and inspired their classmates and each other to “dream big” about the future. They were big fish in a little pond (e.g., Marsh, 1987; Salchegger, 2016).
Then Jon’s family relocated to an affluent suburban neighborhood on the West Coast after his father took a position in Silicon Valley. Jon, in middle school, had to adjust to a new set of expectations and found the adjustment quite challenging—in fact, far more so than he had imagined. Surrounded by a large group of intense and extremely driven students, who all seemed to aspire to top-tier universities, and struck by the harsh realization that he was no longer one of the very best students, Jon now felt as if he were a fish out of water. He was plagued with self-doubt about his abilities and future educational and career prospects. Compared to the other students, who had long positioned themselves to earn coveted spots in the local STEM-oriented magnet high school, Jon felt inadequately prepared to compete and felt his excitement for learning fading quickly. Once a confident and enthusiastic student, Jon was immobilized by his fear of making mistakes, especially in the presence of his new peers, and he began to retreat from others both at school and at home. He had difficulty dealing with even minor setbacks and grew to resent the students who seemed ambitious and competitive. Adopting a defensive posture, Jon downplayed the importance of thinking about future goals; in his own words, it was “stupid” to worry too much about college and career. Although he generally maintained respectable grades (mainly to make his parents happy and to keep their anxieties at bay), he refused to take the most challenging courses at school and stopped taking academic risks. Since he was getting mostly As and Bs and an occasional C on his report card, Jon’s parents were not alarmed by the changes in his behavior and failed to notice that he had turned away from learning. His academic self-concept had taken a major hit.
In contrast to Jon, Stephen remained in the same small Midwestern school district for the remainder of his precollege years and continued to feel passionate—about everything! Stephen’s parents encouraged him to indulge his intellectual curiosity and explore every subject that captured his interest. But Stephen had difficulty narrowing his interests for the sake of establishing career direction. When he was first exposed to chemistry, for instance, he quickly memorized the periodic table and spent many nights at the dinner table teaching his younger brother everything he had learned about each element. Later, when introduced to physics, he could hardly contain his excitement about quantum field theory, cosmic inflation, fluid dynamics, and a host of other topics. Of course, he also loved math and was eager to learn computer languages. Adept not only in STEM subjects, Stephen also excelled in and enjoyed writing, history, and politics. However, because the school district was small and lacked resources, he often learned advanced content on his own by reading books and searching the Internet. The local public high school he attended offered few Advanced Placement (AP) courses, and school officials believed they could not justify offering additional AP courses just for him. Without his friend Jon, he had no intellectual peer with whom he could share ideas and interact meaningfully. As his precollege years progressed, Stephen did not gain sufficient clarity about educational and career direction to focus his efforts on developing any particular interest to a high level outside of the classroom.