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. 🙏🏾

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Feb 6Liked by Henrik Karlsson

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.

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Feb 27Liked by Henrik Karlsson

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.

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Feb 7Liked by Henrik Karlsson

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?

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Apr 29Liked by Henrik Karlsson

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.

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Feb 6Liked by Henrik Karlsson

Thank you for writing this. It was thought provoking and very well researched. It will stimulate a lot of conversation in our family.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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One of my favorite substack posts I have read so far. Thank you!

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As a homeschooler whose child has crashed and burned at several forms of group education in the United States, I really appreciate this study. She is autistic with dyslexia and several other learning disabilities and severe anxiety. Our kid got kicked out of a nice private preschool at the tender age of four; I cried because the other kids were learning Japanese and caring for the school chickens, and I truly wanted her to have those experiences. We tried public school for two years--two horrible years--before switching to homeschool and forest school. She is eight now and learned to read and write at home. She says she never wants to go back to regular school. Teaching her is one the great joys of my life but my husband (who teaches her math) doesn't enjoy it as much as I do. The best things about homeschooling are her eyes lighting up when she accomplishes a difficult task for the first time and all the time we spend together, as well as being able to follow a tangent to wherever it leads whenever we choose. I'm honestly angry because most kids--the well-socialized kids in packed classrooms of thirty-odd students--are actually missing out on so much. They don't all have to be geniuses to deserve good outcomes and *gasp* a pleasant educational experience. Surely there is a better system than the sardine classroom model for all our children.

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> At least two-thirds of my sample was home-educated (most commonly until about age 12), tutored by parents or governesses and tutors. The rest of my sample had been educated in schools (most commonly Jesuit schools).

How does their education compare to other peers of their cohort? More specifically, I'm curious about what actionable advice there is for fostering an "exceptional milieu". I noticed a lot of these figures are from older generations when schools were less of a common thing. Until the 20th century, most children were either home-educated or majority home-educated (schools weren't a full-time endeavor until later). Additionally, having a governess or live-in tutor was a common indicator of status, so we'd need to dive deeper to divorce success by class (education) from success by class (socioeconomic status). Obviously, having a dedicated (in both senses of the word) tutor should lead to improvements in outcome, but this might also be pointing out that status propagates, which isn't super actionable.

> Wagner was thirteen at the time. Two years later, he was able to transcribe Mozart’s 9th symphony for piano.

> I have known quite a few talented musicians, and that just never happens.

Are your musician friends classically trained? Transcribing music by ear is actually a pretty standard part of the curriculum, even at such a young age. I recall having to do the same in my public high school's music class as homework. Granted, it was only for one instrument at a time, but it was also just classwork for a single subject. I'd expect nothing less from someone who lived and breathed music.

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I love seeing this laid out! I've been pondering something very similar for a little while, albeit very different examples.

The first leaping to mind is the Polgar family. Laszlo Polgar set out to prove women could play chess and basically trained all 3 of his daughters from the beginning to make them Grandmasters. He succeeds with all 3, and the youngest, Judit, is considered the best female chess player ever, and broke at least one record set by Bobby Fisher.

Then the other domain I think you have overlooked is in athletics, where intensely / hell-trained GOATs are findable. Tiger Woods, the Williams sisters, recently the Ball brothers - you look at all of them and what they have in common is a father who went 'Gonna make my kid GREAT' and proceeded to do so.

In another case - actors. It's fairly common for there to be acting dynasties, and they have many of the factors you cited - especially the leg up to access to top talent to cultivate themselves. Plenty of them fail or become non-notable, but every so often it produces a great.

And you have plenty of kids who made it in show business who later come out and reveal their parents basically hell-trained them to fulfill dreams they failed at. Often it breaks the child, but sometimes...

In music, one of my favorite Japanese singer's biography begins with her Dad training her from very early childhood to sing. That was basically her life back when, and...well, it was lonely and painful, but it worked and she's the greatest in her field.

A common factor to many of these is, I think, that the childhood training is...unnecessarily brutal. That part is clearly suboptimal, since it means the child succeeds in spite of that. And plenty won't be that True Genius, so they don't have that flowering to develop.

But there is definitely something to be found there. Some other piece of that Genius Development Algorithm that empowers them to tap into their inner fire and lay claim to it. And it sucks we've completely oriented society in an ass-backwards way, sending so many of them into the standard school system to be broken by bullying, alienation, and worse.

It's not even, I think, that school is necessarily the bad here, but that the educational pathway needed is...different. And we haven't figured out what that looks like, yet. Not systematically. But the beginnings of the blueprints are there to be found.

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