Let's do more of those
Thanks for writing this Henrik, I've been doing a lot of reading in my own spare time with similar interests and there's a lot of overlap here with what I've seen as well. Simplistically my attempt to summarize would be something like, "deviant outcomes tend to involve deviant origin stories, deviant nurturance, etc" – which is somehow not obvious to lots of people.
I would say the big thing I'm personally obsessed about here is "what comes after?" in relation to this is– I tend to ask the question "how did they solve for distribution?" Because yeah there are definitely people who have had similar formative experiences and yet tragically they languish in obscurity. And the big difference I think is that they found, or fell into, some context where their unique perspectives and skills (often developed earlier in childhood) could be properly put to use towards outcomes that were valuable to other people.
I intend to write a more coherent essay about this... but thank you again for writing this, I see it as a valuable bit of scene-building to get more curious eyeballs on a potentially very consequential topic. 🙏🏾
Thanks for this - I needed it this morning!
One approach to answering some of the nature/nurture/why do some "exceptional" children fail to live up to early promise? questions: what do the biographies of the parents (or primary adult caregivers) tell us about their approach to their young charges?
I can see how one could grow up in an environment that supported creativity and self-reliance in technical or mechanical areas but that taught emotional and relational lessons that unintentionally sabotaged the more concrete successes. A person with that experience would be likely to work to correct those deficiencies in rearing their own children, meaning that it could take two or three generations for things to come together.
As an American reared on ideas of rugged individualism and self-sufficiency and the importance of paying attention (which eventually reveals that rugged individualism and self-sufficiency are more complex than folk wisdom seems to imply), I spend a lot of time thinking about education and how it has changed over the years. The point that strikes me as most informative is this: School was primarily about learning to read and to write and to cipher - learning the means of communicating skills (carpentry, food preparation, farming, blacksmithing, clothing construction) they had already begun learning at home. This is contrast to the foundational principle that drives (in my experience) education over at least the past 20 years: assume they don't know anything and start from the really basic basics. Sad but appropriate. But the tragedy (it seems to me) comes with the attempt to teach basics with pencil and paper or computer, not with tools and and materials and the physical elements that make up our physical existence. Teaching with tools and materials requires significant adult supervision, which functions as a shepherding into the adult world. It's also expensive.
I am delighted to discover your substack (via Eric Barker). Thanks.
Okay, I'm almost 21, I suppose I've missed the cut off point for much of this, but now I'm wondering if I'm at a point in which I could, I don't know, inject myself into a delayed version if I could. Does it seem possible?
Jeff Bezos attributes his success to childhood summers he spent at his grandfather’s ranch where the two of them were forced to confront some some daunting challenges by themselves. I also am now wondering if social ineptitude could actually be an advantage from a learning perspective.
Thank you for writing this. It was thought provoking and very well researched. It will stimulate a lot of conversation in our family.
Thanks for writing back. I'm simply saying to take your observations of what makes a winner with one or more grains of salt. Rather than rigorously emulating Pascal's father, or anyone else, I'd suggest you follow your own best instincts, feelings, and gleanings from actual scientific studies and raise your kids the best ways you can, according to your own lights. As a father, I'd also suggest you work hard at helping them become the best person they already are, rather than driving them to be someone else, particularly someone you wish you were. I'd also suggest that kids learn from what their parents do, much more than from what their parents say. So if you want your kids to be wonderful people, starting trying to be one yourself.
I'm sorry, but this appears to me to be another case of "winners observational syndrome." Basically I'm saying if you go into the locker room of the person or team who just won, and you ask them how they got there, they'll tell you all manner of important stuff, from playing hard to having a great plan to not changing their sweat socks, or whatever . But there's no evidence any of that matters, and there are plenty of other people who didn't win who did all the same things. In this essay, you mention that these "winners" were gifted. In my view, that's the explanation right there: the gifted kid becomes a winner because of his/her gift, not because daddy brought them into adult conversations, immersed them in Latin, or taught them one on one. Yours is a nice story, but I don't buy it.
It seems that all these originates from having exceptional parents. The amount of meticulousness and care that went into curating those environments had to be devised by equally (or more) exceptional daddies and mommies, who knew what kind of qualities are needed to be placed in an exceptional environment.
Feeling better and better about my decision to make summers long, boring, and lazy and send my big kids out to play in the creek or the park.
A lot of the exceptional people in history were allowed to be exceptional because they grew up in elite families in very exceptional societies: e.g. Bertrand Russell and Virginia Woolf (and many others) very near the center of intellectual life in England at the height of the British Empire.
Great post on raising exceptional kids. The formula, if there is one, sounds like: Self directed learning, tutors rather than teachers, apprenticeship, free time that enables boredom and interaction with smart adults.
Very interesting and as a father of 5 still fairly small very helpful.
Your final point about how you view the children is something that I believe very much. I can't understand people who have children just to send them away all the time. What's the point if you aren't going to spend time with them?
I think the 'idle' time is very significant and hard to obtain without a more radical break with society than we have made to date. I believe it was your countryman S. Kierkegaard(I think you said Dane but my memory is imperfect and my phone a limited tool for checking references) who said that the best cure for the modern world was to 'create silence',, without silence, and pause, and idleness our capacity for action is progressively eliminated.
As a parent I think a lot about how modern electronic media, games etc interact with this. Are they just a time sink that detracts from the creative boredom kids need to have to develop themselves? Do we need to cut them off from computer entertainment, with all the negative social consequences that are likely to ensue from when they can't do what all their friends are doing? Or are there some upsides?
By upsides I think of things like:
-- Minecraft giving them a broad range of ways to imagine things they could build
-- Civilization, the Paradox games, etc teaching them a lot about history, politics, logistics etc
And probably I could think of others. Special pleading or is there something real there?
And speaking of what their friends are doing: how many of these exceptional people had significant numbers of same-age or near-same-age friends, vs spending all their social time with adults or just being oddball introvert loners? How lonely were their childhoods, and how much typical peer-group socialization did they get?
This makes sense for intellectual geniuses of literature, philosophy, and natural and social sciences.
How about geniuses of politics, religion, business? Men of action who shaped the physical world and peoples around them, birthing institutions and artifacts that outlive them? Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon; Krishna, Buddha, Jesus — men who became myths?
I wonder if there are any similarities in their childhoods at all. Perhaps their only similarity might be that they were incapable of being shaped by their past environment; that they overcame whatever came their way, including their childhoods, no matter how good or bad it was.
It is a matter of study.
I always struggle with these kinds of studies/essays when we do not study people who also got a similar environment and freedom as these kids but did not accomplish much. I think inner drive, raw intelligence, and luck makes a huge difference in the life outcome. In the US, it is advertised a lot that going to a top college makes a huge difference in life’s outcome but as we all know several kids who have gone to other colleges are also successful. I know of a study that looked at individuals who got admission to a top college but decided to attend something else and still ended up accomplishing a lot in life. Can we say the same thing about this scenario? These individuals would have accomplished almost the same amount of success if they would have encountered a different environment. I look forward to your thought on this topic.
Below are my comments to Eric’s essay using my other email Id:
I agree with you that one-on-one education was probably the cause of a lot of inventions in the 18th, 19th, and early part of 20 centuries.
The invention has become much harder as most of the low-hanging fruits have already been picked and future invention requires collaboration with people from multiple fields and requires a very high level of specialization even in a particular subfield. As you see people are becoming highly specialized in each subfield as it is becoming harder to get a job being only having a very high knowledge of a field or subfield like you get during your bachelor’s degrees.
I also believe that two world wars from 1915 to 1945 and another 15-20 years after that led to a time when we saw inventions in certain areas but a lot of basic research suffered due to people fighting wars and/or a lot of folks have to interrupt their education and jobs to fight wars and millions of them dying in their peak years and another factor was Europe took a long time to recover from the wars.
However, I think that there is another factor playing a role, especially in the last 30-40 years.
Here are a few excerpts from Utopia for Realists by
“In the 1950s, only 12% of young adults agreed with the statement “I’m a very special person.” Today 80% do, when the fact is, we’re all becoming more and more alike. Is it any wonder that the cultural archetype of my generation is the Nerd, whose apps and gadgets symbolise the hope of economic growth? “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” a former math whiz at Facebook recently lamented.
A study conducted at Harvard found that Reagan-era tax cuts sparked a mass career switch among the country’s brightest minds, from teachers and engineers to bankers and accountants. Whereas in 1970 twice as many male Harvard grads were still opting for a life devoted to research over banking, 20 years later the balance had flipped, with one and a half times as many alumni employed in finance.
Back in 1970, American stocks were still held for an average of five years; 40 years later, it’s a mere five days. If we imposed a transactions tax – where you would have to pay a fee each time you buy or sell a stock – those high-frequency traders who contribute almost nothing of social value would no longer profit from split-second buying and selling of financial assets. In fact, we would save on frivolous expenditures that aid and abet the financial sector. Take the fiber optic cable laid to speed transmissions between financial markets in London and New York in 2012. Price tag: $300 million. Time gain: a whole 5.2 milliseconds.
More to the point though, these taxes would make all of us richer. Not only would they give everyone a more equal share of the pie, but the whole pie would be bigger. Then the whiz kids who pack off to Wall Street could go back to becoming teachers, inventors, and engineers.”
When our best and brightest are applying their knowledge in a zero sum games like Wall Street and trying to become rich by keeping people longer on a website or making them click on a page something will suffer and I think that is another factor playing a big role. I know several of my friends' kids went to an Ivy League/MIT etc schools and the majority of their classmates went to either Wall Street, consulting, or a tech company like those mentioned above because of much higher pay. The incentive to go thru the pain of inventing which takes decades and the chance that you may be a complete failure is also there when you can take a shortcut and be a multimillionaire in 10 years or less.
So to summarize, I think the priorities have changed we still produce several geniuses but they are very specialized and/or are focused on industries that do not use their skills effectively. However, one-on-one education is probably the best way to produce a lot more geniuses than the current education system can produce. However, it is highly unlikely that most of the new geniuses will accomplish anything close to what was accomplished by geniuses in the 18th and 19th centuries due to above mentioned reasons.
One of my favorite substack posts I have read so far. Thank you!