A recent book by Stefanie DeLuca, Susan Clampet-Lundquist, and Kathryn Edin, Coming of Age in the Other America, that aims to explain how some poor kids manage to thrive, go to college, and build good lives, and others don’t. The researchers had previously studied things like programs that allow families from poor neighborhoods to relocate to middle-class suburbs, or voucher programs that give their children the chance to go to better schools; in this book, they also talk about more personal factors. One of the things they discovered, as Alana Semuels explains in The Atlantic, is that many of the successful kids “found what researchers call an ‘identity project,’ essentially a passion or hobby that helped motivate them, went even further, onto college or decent jobs.” Of course, other opportunities were important, but “what helps them excel, more often than not, are these identity projects.”

Bob, for instance, got into Japanese anime as a kid, and then found a passion by following the musical group Insane Clown Posse. Another—whose father was shot in the courtyard of her public housing complex—was passionate about dance, which drove her to apply for and be accepted into a competitive arts school. Another reared pigeons, an interest that kept her off the streets.

About half of the youth researchers studied found this “life raft,” which helped inspire them despite tough conditions. Out of the 116 youth studied who are not still in high school, 90 percent of those with an identity project graduated, while only 58 percent of those without one did so. And 82 percent of those with an identity project were in school or working, compared to 53 percent of those without an identity project.

This is true for high-achieving kids as well. In the late 1990s, psychologists Roberta Milgram and Eunsook Hong observed childhood hobbies are a good predictor of later-life intellectual interests.* Some gifted children show precocious ability in one particular area from an early age, others demonstrate talents in several areas. How then can you tell if teachers should accelerate their studies math or art, or science or literature? High achievement in any field isn’t just an expression of genetic ability; even prodigies need to practice, and the gifted won’t flourish without developing discipline and resilience. Practice can be dull, failure and setbacks are inevitable, and early promise is no insurance against critical and professional disappointment. Gifted students who make the wrong choice or are pushed by demanding parents to become young mathematical wizards or chess masters are likely to rebel and abandon their studies as adults. Push in the right direction and children will flourish; push in the wrong direction, and they child will eventually break.

Milgram noticed two things about the way we assess gifted children. First, because assessments tend to be done by schools, giftedness is usually identified by academic achievement and IQ: the bright underachiever, or the child who doesn’t test well, tends to get overlooked. Second, gifted students have lives outside the classroom that aren’t measured by tests given at school. Could those hobbies help predict future achievement?

To answer this, Milgram looked at people in their 30s who as high school seniors had been identified as gifted by the Talpiot program, the Israeli Defense Force’s program to identify the nation’s brightest students. (The IDF isn’t just one of the world’s most famous armies. Because most Israelis serve in it, it’s also one of the world’s largest social science laboratories.) Milgram found that 45% of the Talpiot seniors had turned their hobbies into professions as adults. Further, while as a group the Talpiot students were more accomplished than the average, kids who’d turned their hobbies into professions were among the most accomplished.

She also noticed something else about hobbies and leisure among gifted children. Their leisure ranged from watching TV to hacking into computer networks on a military base, but hobbies that were more challenging had the biggest payoff in the long term. Non-challenging leisure activities were relaxing, but they also tended to be “passive, repetitive, and require little involvement or effort.” Challenging leisure, in contrast, was stimulating rather than relaxing, and required effort and dedication. But it also had much bigger payoffs.

Challenging hobbies gave kids a creative outlet that they sometimes did not have at school; a platform for developing self-discipline, resilience, and other emotional resources necessary to succeed and deal with setbacks. That was why “challenging leisure activities lead to creative accomplishment” and “unusual and high-quality products in a specific domain.”

A couple months ago I wrote about a project started in the 1950s by Berenice Eiduson that tracked the careers of a group of California scientists, and looked at how and why some had accomplished careers and others did not.

*See Roberta Milgram, Eunsook Hong, “Creative out-of-school activities in intellectually gifted adolescents as predictors of their life accomplishment in young adults: A longitudinal study,” Creativity Research Journal 12:2 (1999), 77-87.