Childhoods of exceptional people
Let's do more of those
Virginia Woolf and her sister, Vanessa, in the 1890s
Let’s start with one of those insights that are as obvious as they are easy to forget: if you want to master something, you should study the highest achievements of your field. If you want to learn writing, read great writers, etc.
But this is not what parents usually do when they think about how to educate their kids. The default for a parent is rather to imitate their peers and outsource the big decisions to bureaucracies. But what would we learn if we studied the highest achievements?
Thinking about this question, I wrote down a list of twenty names—von Neumann, Tolstoy, Curie, Pascal, etc—selected on the highly scientific criteria “a random Swedish person can recall their name and think, Sounds like a genius to me”. That list is to me a good first approximation of what an exceptional result in the field of child-rearing looks like. I ordered a few piles of biographies, read, and took notes. Trying to be a little less biased in my sample, I asked myself if I could recall anyone exceptional that did not fit the patterns I saw in the biographies, which I could, and so I ordered a few more biographies.
This kept going for an unhealthy amount of time.
I sampled writers (Virginia Woolf, Lev Tolstoy), mathematicians (John von Neumann, Blaise Pascal, Alan Turing), philosophers (Bertrand Russell, René Descartes), and composers (Mozart, Bach), trying to get a diverse sample.
In this essay, I am going to detail a few of the patterns that have struck me after having skimmed 42 biographies. I will sort the claims so that I start with more universal patterns and end with patterns that are less common.
Exceptional people grow up in exceptional milieus
This seems to be true for >95 percent of the people I looked at.
These naked apes, the humans, are intensely social animals. They obsessively internalize values, ideas, skills, and desires from the people who surround them. It is therefore not surprising that those who grow up to be exceptional tend to have spent their formative years surrounded by adults who were exceptional.
Virginia Woolf never attended school. Her father, Leslie Stephen, who, along with their tutors, educated Virginia and her sister, was an editor, critic, and biographer “complicatedly hated” by his daughter and of such standing that he could invite Henry James, Thomas Hardy, and Alfred Lord Tennyson to dine and converse with his children. Leslie Stephen described his circle, in which Virginia grew up, as “most of the literary people of mark . . . clever young writers and barristers, chiefly of the radical persuasion . . . we used to meet on Wednesday and Sunday evenings, to smoke and drink and discuss the universe and the reform movement.” When they went to the Hebrides in the summers, Leslie brought along painters and philosophers, who would hang out and work in their summer house while the children played.
This parental obsession with curating a rich intellectual milieu comes through in nearly all of the biographies. As I wrote in First we shape our social graph; then it shapes us:
Michel Montaigne’s father employed only servants who were fluent in Latin, curating a classical culture, so Montaigne would learn Latin as his mother tongue. J.S. Mill spent his childhood at his father’s desk, helping his father write a treatise on economics, running over to Jeremy Bentham’s house to borrow books and discuss ideas.
Blaise Pascal, too, was homeschooled by his father. His father chose not to teach him math. (The father, Etienne, had a passion for mathematics that he felt was slightly unhealthy. He feared mathematics would distract Pascal from less intrinsically rewarding pursuits, such as literature, much like modern parents fear TikTok.) Pascal had to teach himself. When it was discovered that Pascal, then a young teenager, had rederived several of Euclid’s proofs, the family relocated to Paris so father and son could participate in the mathematical salons of Mersenne. The instinct was to curate a culture, not to teach, not primarily.
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).
As children, they were integrated with exceptional adults—and were taken seriously by them. When Bertrand Russell, at five years old, refused to believe the earth was round, his grandparents didn’t laugh him off—they called in the vicar of the parish to reason Bertrand out of his misconception.
The adults had high expectations of the children; they assumed they had the capacity to understand complex topics, and therefore invited them into serious conversations and meaningful work, believing them capable of growing competent rapidly.
John von Neumann (the Hungarian physicist who at one time managed the development of the hydrogen bomb and the first digital computer, and as a pastime, at night, invented game theory) was included in the discussions of the management of his father’s bank before reaching school age.
From the business visitors, at relatively formal dinners, and from father’s approach to them in the context of the activities of his banking house, we got introduced to the secrets of making business contacts and of management with executive powers in father’s banking house. This was always discussed, just as all school subjects, and analyzed in terms of father’s management of his activities through the means of delegating powers to his associates and staff.
Given your children access to observe you while you work—is, in my experience, rewarding but draining. While writing his ten-volume History of British India, John Stuart Mill’s father allowed John Stuart, who was three years old, to interrupt him every time he encountered a Greek word he had not seen before (he was reading the classics). His father considered raising his children to be of equal importance as his intellectual work.
Not everyone who grew to be exceptional was this lucky. There are a few cases of people who rose to greatness despite their non-ideal circumstances—like Ramanujan and Michael Faraday. But they, too, were the fruit of exceptional milieus. They just had to summon it themselves. How did they do that?
First, they did this by reading books, by self-teaching. Second, when they grew more skilled they started reaching out to exceptional people, trying to convince them to bring them into their milieu. Ramanujan famously sent letters to a large number of English mathematicians, until one of them, G.H. Hardy, realized that this strange kid writing letters from India was not actually a crank but a raw genius and brought him over to Cambridge. (There were also college students who lodged in Ramanujan’s house as a child in Erode, so he could possibly have been tutored by them, too.)
Faraday grew up in poverty in early 1800s London. He spent less than a year in school and then ended up as a book binder’s apprentice (the same fate as struck Benjamin Franklin). The bookbinder, George Riebau, seems to have been a decent intellectual role model, but more importantly—he gave Faraday access to books. After having read Isaac Watts’ The Improvement of the Mind, an intellectual self-help book, Faraday started attending scientific lectures where he took copious notes. He turned Humphry Davy’s lecture series into a book, bound it, and gave it to him. That, Davy thought, was a nice gesture and, after first having ruined his eyes in an experiment with nitrogen trichloride, accepted Faraday as an apprentice in his lab.
Books can, in other words, be a good stand-in for a social milieu, up to a point, but eventually, you need direct access to exceptional people. And having access to them from a young age greatly increases the likelihood that you will be shaped by them.
They had time to roam about and relied heavily on self-directed learning
Britain has produced a range of remarkably gifted multidisciplinary scientists and scholars who are sometimes described as polymaths. The group included, in recent times, Bertrand Russell, A. N. Whitehead, J. B. S. Haldane, J. D. Bernal, and Jacob Bronowski. Russell commented that the development of such gifted individuals required a childhood period in which there was little or no pressure for conformity, a time in which the child could develop and pursue his or her own interests no matter how unusual or bizarre.
This freedom from peer pressure was certainly true of Russell. He was largely kept separate from other children, living secluded in his grandparent's aristocratic mansion, something many biographers lament (just imagine how brilliant he would have been had he just had access to schools!).
In his loneliness, Russell was also kept idle. His grandmother, who was his guardian, was, Russell writes in his autobiography, “always afraid that I should overwork, and kept my hours of lessons very short.”
The “most important hours” of his days were spent alone, walking around the gardens at Pembroke Lodge which “seemed to remember the days of its former splendor, when foreign ambassadors paced its lawns, and princes admired its trim beds of flowers” but was now growing gradually more neglected, with shrubs growing over the paths and the box hedges turning into trees.
In solitude I used to wander about the garden, alternately collecting birds’ eggs and meditation on the flight of time. If I may judge by my own recollections, the important and formative impressions of childhood rise to consciousness only in fugitive moments in the midst of childish occupations, and are never mentioned to adults. I think periods of browsing during which no occupation is imposed from without are important in youth because they give time for the formation of these apparently fugitive but really vital impressions.
Russell’s childhood seems a little depressing, as did Virginia Woolf’s. In a letter to her brother Thoby, who had been sent off to boarding school, Woolf lamented: ”I have to delve from books, painfully and alone, what you get every evening sitting over your fire and smoking your pipe with Strachey etc.”)
But this immersion in boredom is also a universal in the biographies of exceptional people. A substantial fraction were completely kept apart from other children, either because their guardians decided so or because they were bedridden with various illnesses during childhood (like Descartes). A spicy hypothesis raised by this is that socializing too much with children is simply not good for your intellectual development. (I’m not going to test that hypothesis!)
A common theme in the biographies is that the area of study which would eventually give them fame came to them almost like a wild hallucination induced by overdosing on boredom. They would be overcome by an obsession arising from within.
Mozart was drilled on the piano and violin by his father, but the compositions he undertook on his own.
Pascal, as we have already mentioned, wrote several of Euclid’s proofs after self-teaching math in his spare time.
Alan Turing, who was raised in boarding schools, also seems to have self-taught a lot of mathematics (at fifteen, he derived the inverse tangent function before having encountered calculus!) while being an outcast at school and facing resistance from the teachers, who thought his interests were not ”well-rounded”.
Another case is Maxwell, the Scottish mathematician who unified electricity and magnetism in a series of equations of such power that the Austrian physicist Boltzmann proclaimed, War es ein Gott, der diese Zeichen schrieb? Was it a God that wrote these signs?
James Clerk Maxwell grew up in relative isolation, in Glenlair, a country house on the Middlebie estate in southwest Scotland in the 1830s. At an early age, Maxwell grew fascinated by geometry and rediscovered the regular polyhedra before receiving any formal instruction. His parents tried hiring a tutor, but Maxwell, when hit over the head by his tutor, ran out into a lake and refused to come back in until his parents fired his tutor. Instead of being tutored, his first ten years were spent reading novels with his mother, discussing farm improvements with father, climbing trees, doing mischief, and exploring the fields and the woods and the birds and the beasts.
Let me sum up what I’ve said so far. A lot of care went into curating the environment around the children—fascinating guests were invited, libraries were built, machines were brought home and disassembled—but the children were left with a lot of time to freely explore the interests that arose within these milieus.
A qualified guess is that they spent between one and four hours daily in formal studies, and the rest on self-directed projects. Unlike children today, they had little access to entertainment, and so were often bored, unless they figured out a way to keep their minds occupied; the intellectual obsessions that grew into their life’s work often grew out of this boredom.
They were heavily tutored 1-on-1
All were likely tutored at some point; ~70 percent were tutored for more than an hour a day growing up. I’m basically making these numbers up; it is an informed guess.
When it comes to formal instruction, an important element is tutoring. Some do all of their formal learning this way (such as John Stuart Mill), others have it as a complement to schooling (such as Albert Einstein, who had a number of math-focused tutors outside of school). Erik Hoel, who has written a series of great essays about why we stopped making Einsteins (here, here, and here), singled out “aristocratic tutoring” as the most important factor. (In this term, Erik includes not only tutoring, in its classical sense, but also more casual interactions between children and competent adults.)
Aristocratic tutoring was not focused on measurables. Historically, it usually involved a paid adult tutor, who was an expert in the field, spending significant time with a young child or teenager, instructing them but also engaging them in discussions, often in a live-in capacity, fostering both knowledge but also engagement with intellectual subjects and fields.
The importance of tutoring, in its more narrow definition as in actively instructing someone, is tied to a phenomenon known as Bloom’s 2-sigma problem, after the educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom who in the 1980s claimed to have found that tutored students
. . . performed two standard deviations better than students who learn via conventional instructional methods—that is, “the average tutored student was above 98% of the students in the control class.”
Simply put, if you tailor your instruction to a single individual, you can make it fit so much better to their minds, so that the average person, if tutored, would become top two in a class of a hundred. The truth is a little bit more complicated than that (and I recommend Nintil’s systematic review of the research if you want to get into the weeds), but the effect is nevertheless real and big. Tutoring is a more reliable method to impart knowledge than lectures. It is also faster.
When I worked as a teacher, I had students who were disruptive in a way that made them rarely learn anything during class. To make sure they didn’t fall behind, I would tutor them 1-on-1. And, though these were children with deep emotional problems, I found I could usually progress two to four times faster with them alone than I could with the class.
If you do this for 1-4 hours daily, you can go much deeper earlier, even more so if the child is uncommonly motivated and gifted. This also means more time for free exploration, self-directed learning and developing meaningful relationships.
Many of the tutors in the biographies are not particularly inspiring, however. Leo Tolstoy’s tutor, for example, seems a rather stereotypical teacher of the older stripe:
Next, when we came to our writing lesson, the tears kept falling from my eyes [because I wanted to be with my mother] and, making a mess on the paper [. . . my tutor] Karl was very angry. He ordered me to go down upon my knees, declared that it was all obstinacy and “puppet-comedy playing” (a favourite expression of his) on my part, threatened me with the ruler, and commanded me to say that I was sorry. Yet for sobbing and crying I could not get a word out.
This is from Tolstoy’s novel Childhood, written when he was 23—but the portrayal of Karl has been described as accurate by people who knew Tolstoy’s real-life tutor, Friedrich Rössel. (Though, a commenter points out, Henri Troyat in his biography paints a more endearing picture of Rössel.)
Russell was also abused by several of his tutors and governesses. Maxwell, as I mentioned, escaped his.
But there were also tutors who were able to forge deep and meaningful connections with their pupils, where the learning became a shared intellectual pursuit.
John von Neumann’s father would get so excited about their discussions that if they were, say, talking about machine weaving, he would set out to find a Jacquard automatic loom they could study.
Marie Curie’s father built a laboratory in their apartment so they could study chemistry.
Mozart’s father was a devoted tutor to his children, with a deep love for music.
One of Virginia Woolf’s tutors, the classics scholar and women’s right activist Janet Case, was so dear and important to Woolf that she wrote Case’s obituary nearly 40 years later.
These inspiring tutors tend to be singled out as more important than the abusive or boring ones in the autobiographies. That can be a reflection of how the authors felt about them, not what actually caused their greatness, of course. But I think this assessment is likely right. Helping another person grow rapidly requires a deep and delicate bond, in my experience. A tutor can be demanding, expecting sincere effort from you, but if the firmness does not come from a place of respect—if they do not signal that they truly believe you are capable of more than you think—harshness is degrading. I doubt the tyrannical tutors were important in shaping long-term trajectories in the cases of Tolstoy or Russell.
~90 percent did apprentice themselves at some point. ~30 percent did so before turning 14.
Every morning after breakfast, John Stuart Mill would take a walk with his father. In his Autobiography, he writes:
My father's health required considerable and constant exercise, and he walked habitually before breakfast, generally in the green lanes towards Hornsey. In these walks I always accompanied him, and with my earliest recollections of green fields and wild flowers, is mingled that of the account I gave him daily of what I had read the day before. To the best of my remembrance, this was a voluntary rather than a prescribed exercise. I made notes on slips of paper while reading, and from these in the morning walks, I told the story to him; for the books were chiefly histories, of which I read in this manner a great number: Robertson's histories, Hume, Gibbon; but my greatest delight, then and for long afterwards, was Watson's Philip the Second and Third. […] In these frequent talks about the books I read, he used, as opportunity offered, to give me explanations and ideas respecting civilization, government, morality, mental cultivation, which he required me afterwards to restate to him in my own words. He also made me read, and give him a verbal account of, many books which would not have interested me sufficiently to induce me to read them of myself[.]
These conversations were a cognitive apprenticeship. Learning through apprenticeship is one of the most powerful ways of growing skilled—but if the skills are cognitive, you have to find ways to make the thoughts visible so the apprentice can imitate them.
James would model patterns of reasoning by thinking aloud and ask John Stuart to recreate his thought, imitating the thought patterns. He would give him increasingly complex tasks (books or ideas that he wanted John Stuart to summarize and articulate), then he would scaffold John Stuart by asking questions that helped him solve the task, and he would coach and give feedback on how to improve.
(James only seems to have been able to do this on walks, however. When he tried to instruct his son in the study, he would, perhaps because of the more formal setting, use less effective pedagogies - hammering John Stuart in the head with instructions, failing to give examples or demonstrate the skills he was trying to impart—resulting in a lot of pain and frustration.)
On the walks, James would refrain from giving lectures until John Stuart had himself struggled with the problems and gotten a visceral feel for their difficulty:
Striving, even in an exaggerated degree, to call forth the activity of my faculties, by making me find out everything for myself, he gave his explanations not before, but after, I had felt the full force of the difficulties[.]
First, these tasks were made up—summaries of stories and the like. But already in his early teens, John Stuart was doing real intellectual work on the walks.
His first major contribution came at thirteen when James, who had recently finished his History of British India, decided to write a didactic treatise on Ricardo’s work on political economy.
In writing this work, James Mill leveraged the apprenticeship he had fostered with his son. He began thinking aloud about this new field, political economy, “expound each day a part of the subject”, and asked John Stuart to give him a written summary the next day. John Stuart was pretty good at this by now, but this being a work of an altogether new seriousness, it was hard work. They would spend the walks dissecting John Stuart’s summaries “which he made me rewrite over and over again until it was clear, precise, and tolerably complete”. That is: John Stuart externalized his thought, and his father corrected the thoughts and gave feedback until John Stuart’s understanding of political economy converged with his. He also sent John Stuart on walks with Ricardo himself.
When they were done, James Mill took his son's notes and polished them into the book Elements of Political Economy. It was published the year John Stuart turned fifteen.
This type of intellectual apprenticeship is a recurring pattern in the biographies. At some point in their teenage years—and sometimes earlier—the future geniuses would apprentice themselves intellectually to someone with exceptional capacity in their field.
Russell was discovered by Whitehead, one of the world's foremost philosophers and mathematicians, and collaborated with him all through his twenties; Pascal worked with his father; Faraday became Davy’s assistant; Euler was taken on by various members of the Bernoulli family, all extraordinary mathematicians.
At this point, they were not only learning, but also doing real intellectual work.
They were gifted children
An important factor to acknowledge is that these children did not only receive an exceptional education; they were also exceptionally gifted.
Erik Hoel, in his essays about the education of genius, indicates that tutoring matters a lot more than raw intelligence and other genetic factors. I think this claim is too strong:
Erik’s tweet sounds more extreme than it is (MIT is a selective institution); still, the outcome he predicts is highly unlikely given the observations we have.
Like most of the people sampled in this essay, John von Neumann was fiendishly gifted. He could divide eight-digit numbers in his head at six; I’m a pretty dedicated tutor to my five-year-old, and I can see no path to that type of excellence within the next twelve months.
When von Neumann entered university, George Pólya, another famous mathematician, recounts:
There was a seminar for advanced students in Zürich that I was teaching and von Neumann was in the class. I came to a certain theorem, and I said it is not proved and it may be difficult. Von Neumann didn’t say anything but after five minutes he raised his hand. When I called on him he went to the blackboard and proceeded to write down the proof. After that I was afraid of von Neumann.
If we were to clone von Neumann and for some reason distribute the clones in a random selection of American homes, few if any of them would have the quality of education the original von Neumann had. A few of them might be broken down by toxic family conditions. But the other 950 or so—if they decide to attend MIT at the same time—would probably be quite a sight. Maybe not “I’ll invent the computer, game theory, and the hydrogen bomb at the same time” levels of genius; but also not the average MIT class. And who knows, having 950 von Neumanns at the same campus might also supercharge them into world-destroying feats of genius.
The innate talent of those who grow up to be exceptional is particularly clear when it comes to those who excelled in mathematics like this. But we can see the same thing in other fields. Richard Wagner was instructed on the piano by his Latin teacher but dropped out since he was unable to understand scales. Instead, Wagner learned by transcribing theatre music by ear. Once he had reached the end of his natural abilities, he sought out a composer, Christian Gottlieb Müller, and convinced his mother to allow Müller to teach him composition. 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.
This is not to say that the peculiarities of their education were not important and (in whatever regard it fits the lives of you and your child) worth emulating. Access to exceptional role models, and dedicated, personalized education is transformational. In some cases, as with John Stuart Mill, it is possible that most of his exceptional skill can be attributed to the education, rather than innate talent.
If you want to, you can do this, too
Doing all of this—curating an exceptional milieu, providing dedicated tutoring and opportunities for apprenticeship—is hard work. You could pull it off if you put your mind to it, I trust. Though, like everything pursued to excellence, it would demand serious sacrifices. Particularly of time. It is ok not to want that.
A lot of it does not require sacrifices, though. It is just a way of viewing children: as capable of competence, as craving meaningful work, as worthy to be included in serious discussions. We can learn to view them like that, but it is a subtle and profound shift in perception, a shift away from the way we are taught to view children. When I read the biographies, it feels a little bit like getting new peers. Their way of being works on me. Gradually, I raise my aspirations.
There is a moving scene in John Stuart Mill's biography, when John Stuart is about to set out into the world and his father for the first time lets him know that his education had been . . . a bit particular. He would discover that others his age did not know as much as he did. But, his father said, he mustn’t feel proud about that. He’d just been lucky.
Let’s make more people lucky.
I would not have written this without the impulse from and conversations with Erik Hoel. The essay contains fewer errors than would have been the case without the comments of Justin Shell, Johanna, and Justis Mills. Thank you.