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The Trouble With Geniuses

March 28, 2009

I have been greatly enjoying Malcolm Gladwell’s new book “Outliers” – an account of intelligent people who may or may not have been successful due to a number of different conditions – all of which are definable and measurable. What I love about Gladwell is that he opens up a fresh perspective on things we may often pass over as simply curious or interesting by demanding an answer to the question “why”? From the most unlikely scenarios he draws explanations supported by rich data sources – and makes you wonder why no one has quite put the pieces together this particular way before.

The entire books is a fascinating read – but for the purposes of this post I will focus on his third and fourth chapters, “The Trouble with Geniuses.”

When I first began to explore the impact of a high IQ on success my brother was already dead. He was probably profoundly gifted and, although I do not have an IQ number for him, I know that our public elementary school had hoped to skip him a grade or two back in the mid to late 1960’s. When he was very young he memorized the World Book Encyclopedia. If you asked about any year he could tell you the name of the president, his religion, place of birth and death, vice president and his politics. He was great to trot out at parties. But in school he rarely earned A’s and he never graduated from college. He floated from job to job, finally landing at my father’s company where he spent the rest of his career before dying prematurely of heart disease at the age of 45.

I became interested in high ability children shortly after his death – too late to ask the many questions my research would raise after he was gone. Trouble is, similar cases to his abound. Ask any teachers with more than a few years under their belt and they will tell you about one student they had who showed promise – but never amounted to anything or, worse yet, came to a tragic end. I have met parents of high ability children who were lost to suicide, or drug and/or alcohol addiction. And I know high ability children who underachieve and fail to succeed in school. Why is it that some gifted children fail in the greatest test of all – the ability to become a worthwhile and contributing member of society?

The greatest misunderstanding is that gifted children do not need support – that they will do just fine on their own. I also believe generalists mistakenly lump all gifted children into a single category.

To give this some perspective, in bell curve of the intelligence scale, most people fall into the middle at a mean of 100. Most school districts define gifted as an IQ of about 130 – give or take depending on the district. Profoundly gifted people fall into that small place at the far right. They are as different from a 130 IQ student as a severely retarded student is from a moderately retarded student. And this graph only reaches 145 on the intelligence scale.

In “Outliers” Gladwell compares two geniuses: Chris Langan, the man with quite possibly the highest IQ of our time of about 195, and Robert Oppenheimer, another genius most famous for his contributions as the scientific director of the Manhattan Project.

In spite of his genius, Langan isn’t making millions on Wall Street, or publishing in academic journals, or solving mysteries of science or proofing mathematical formulas. He lives on a farm in Missouri and reads loads of books and writes – but has never been able to find a publisher. He doesn’t really seem interested in looking for one either. Getting published? Graduating from college? According to Gladwell:

“These were things that others, with lesser minds, could master easily. But that’s because those others had had help along the way, and Chris Langan never had. It wasn’t an excuse. It was a fact. He’d had to make his way alone, and no one – not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses – ever makes it alone.”

Oppenheimer, born into a wealthy home with parents who valued education and the arts and who supported his learning, became a successful and contributing member of science and society. Langan, born into a poor family and forced into intellectual isolation for most of his formative years, remains unpublished and unproductive.

Intellectual isolation. Lack of support. An inability to use practical intelligence to build on or complement general intelligence. Case after case, Gladwell builds the foundation that “extraordinary achievement is less about talent than it is about opportunity.” The wasted talent of high ability students who lack the resources or support or accommodation is truly a major flaw in our one-size-fits-all approach to education. And it is such a very lonely path for the highly gifted child to have to follow.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 31, 2009 1:52 am


    My condolences on the loss of your brother.

    I am sure that you would concur with me that gifted, highly gifted and profoundly gifted students DO qualify as at-risk, and not as kids whose intellectual prowess means they need LESS support/guidance and intervention from adults. I believe the opposite is likely the truth. I have been trying to convince educators of that for awhile. Wonder where these kids fit with “No Child Left Behind”? Disparities have always existed for this unseeming “high-risk” population.

    Thanks for your post!

    Wendy Young, LMSW, BCD

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