The Genuine Genius

(1 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Malcolm Gladwell and Robert Krulwich at the 92nd Street Y

copyright © 2008. Revised Edition © 2011 Betsy L. Angert.  Empathy And Education; BeThink or

As educators, parents, and persons who were once young and now thought to be elder, and thus, wiser, and more wondrous, and accomplished, within our own being we might feel we are less than we appear to be.  Tis true; our parents, Teachers, Professors, and friends had such high hopes for us.  Our own dreams were even more impressive.  Most of us envisioned that we would reach the pinnacle as we progressed until we failed an examination, received a lower grade in a class, or “disappointed” our family when we did less well than they hoped we might?  

Frequently, the adage “we are our own worse critic,” filters through the air.  The alternative is also abundantly apparent, especially in recent times.  More than a decade ago, headlines heralded a concern; Down From the Self-Esteem High.  While the caution was heard and applauded, Overpraised Children Can Find They Have Problems Fitting In , the practice continued.  Some stress it was expanded exponentially.  Thus, in more contemporary times, we hear once more, Are we raising a nation of little egomaniacs?

Perhaps, blinded by our fear of criticism, from others or ourselves, society and individuals struggle to find balance.  Belittle or build self esteem, these seem to be our only options.  

Traditionally, in practice, each and either truism is pooh-poohed.  Individuals prefer to present a profound image.  Society honors such facades.  Before the birth of a child, Moms and Dads plan for their offspring’s future.  Corporations, Credit Unions, and Colleges bank on what, as a nation, we commend.  Parents extol and encourage the excitement a tot exhibits when he or she calculates college or career choices.  After all, a solid standing begins in the womb.

Collectively, in this country we have reason to believe, poverty plays a role in the success of our progeny.  We also affirm that parents are powerful, and therefore, need to apply “appropriate pressure on their brood.  Moms and Dads of a certain strata are aware of the  Early Warning! A Kids Count Special Report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation Even those guardians of lesser means grasp what they see, whether or not they act on it.  "There is no substitute for the parent’s or primary caregiver’s role as a child’s first teacher, best coach, and most concerned advocate. This role begins early and covers a lot of ground. "  Thus, the consensus is mothers and fathers must do what they can to push, push, push little John or Jane, Jamal or Janika, Juan or Juanita, and they do.

Parents and Professors observe aloud, Heads of State seek and secure their status for all understand that they are strong.  Corporate Executives, too, are esteemed for their strength.  Tycoons have the courage to challenge the circumstances and crush the competition.  Policymakers are elected to office for their credentials are perceived as profound.  Even Firefighters and Police travel where no man or woman would.  Teachers also are tough.  Educators endure a rigorous academic training.  All those children look up to persons who surely have achieved great success.  Yet, in their heart of hearts, people know, they are not necessarily as they appear to be, or at least most do not think themselves quite so secure.

It is for this reason we each might relate to a tale the author of Blink and The Tipping Point tells.  As a teenager, raised in rural Ontario, Malcolm Gladwell was set apart from the more mundane students.  One might assume from his appearance, or more aptly, from his infinite inquisitiveness, as a lad, he must have been bright.  Persons who hear the author speak, or read his prose, trust a littler Malcolm must have been a prodigy, surely a genius.  Certainly, if as a child, he was sent to special training camps, and he was, it must have been because the young Gladwell was being groomed for greatness.

Indeed, the young Gladwell was made ready for distinction.  His skills, his talent, and his aptitude were impressive to all.  Adults understood this adolescent had fame in his future.  However, as extraordinary as Malcolm Gladwell’s brain is to those who are aware of him today, back in the day, his legs were all the rage.

Malcolm Gladwell was a champion sprinter.  He was the best Canadian runner for his age.  The adolescent was mentored to aspire for an Olympic gold medal.  He traveled to elite encampments, and raced his peers in preparation for a professional career as a world-class athlete.  What seemed to be the young man’s nature was nurtured.

As you or I might have been, Malcolm Gladwell was recognized for his gift.  He spoke of his adventures and the adversity of being spotlighted as superior at the Association for Psychological Science Conference in August 2006.  He titled his lecture, “Bring the Family Address.”  Eric Wargo, who writes for The Observer, the APS Journal shared an account of the lecture in an essay The Myth of Prodigy and Why it Matters..

Mister Wargo tells of how Malcolm stood before a rapt audience and recounted his early athletic successes..  In sports the young man could move.  The story served as a catalyst for the discussion on precocity.  “I was a running prodigy,” Malcolm said without hesitation.  

But – and this “but” sounded the theme of his talk to the rapt audience filling the Marquis Marriott’s Broadway Ballroom – being a prodigy didn’t forecast future success in running.  After losing a major race at age 15, then enduring other setbacks and loss of interest, Gladwell said, he gave up running for a few years.  Taking it up again in college – with the same dedication as before – he faced a disappointing truth: “I realized I wasn’t one of the best in the country … I was simply okay.”

To be admired, appreciated, and placed in a position of awe when we are very young can be wondrous.  It can culminate in a glorious self-fulfilling prophecy.  However, expectations can cause a child to falter.  Unwanted, or excessive, attention might lessen a desire to achieve.  For some, focus on a supposed skill can feel as painful pressure.  A tot can grow to fear failure more than he or she might enjoy a feat.

This was true in my own life.  While words that spoke to my potential were not verbalized, at least not in front of me, when I was eight months old, I gave my parents reason to believe I could achieve.  I walked well and talked incessantly.   As an eighteen month old, enrolled in school, I was admired for my ability to stride fluidly and chatter fluently.  I learned a second language, none of which do I recall.  Even in my infancy, I believed I could not keep up the pace.  By the age of nine, in truth, on my birth date I cried endlessly.  I felt, at this late stage in my life what might be next?  I could not bear one more ounce of responsibility.  From then on, I worked consciously to be less visible, much less collegiately viable. I sacrificed the dream I had for myself since the age of two. I felt a need to hide from view.

I may have been in error.  I cannot know with certainty.  Nonetheless, as I contemplate the question of how we might best educate our progeny and consider the answers, I think it is vital that we discuss as Malcolm Gladwell does.

“I think we take it as an article of faith in our society that great ability in any given field is invariably manifested early on, that to be precocious at something is important because it’s a predictor of future success,” Gladwell posits.  “But is that really true?  And what is the evidence for it?  And what exactly is the meaning and value of mastering a particular skill very early on in your life?”

Might we, as a culture consider our individual history before we impose expectations on an offspring who is still in a state of flux?  Would it not be wise to look at our children as a whole, as an individual with hopes, dreams, successes and what we might characterize as failures?  Could it be that a student flunks a test and is, none-the-less, no less brilliant than the pupil who received a much higher score?  What if society did not tell us we are a “disappointment” if we do or do not do . . .

Malcolm Gladwell muses of “Late Bloomers.”  Perhaps, each of us, erudite elders that we are might ponder the same.  Before we ask our children to choose a career, to complete tasks as though there is an end to education, might we, the adults wonder of our own ability and accomplishments.  Could policymakers, parents, Principals, and everyday people consider a precocious child may not be a prodigy or will be if pressure is not applied?  Genuine genius grows.

References for reflection . . .



  1. Thanks for the essay.

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