The Care and Feeding of Genius

Einsteinby Anniel   4/25/14
Can we really know what genius is?  •  In the late 1970’s, Popular Science ran an article about The Next Decade’s Up-and-Coming Young Scientists, or something of that nature. At the time I was busily engaged in the trenches rearing three small children. Our eldest son had scored very high on an IQ test (I almost want to say here that he was “diagnosed” with a high IQ), which was no surprise, but it did increase our insecurities about how best to meet his needs.

The author of the article in question interviewed several of the men and women scientists who had been recommended for the magazine’s honor. Some of the questions asked and the answers were very illuminating.[pullquote]Remember, we should be engaged in the business of rearing good people first, geniuses if we have to.[/pullquote]

When asked when they knew they were “smart,” over half said they had no idea until they took the SAT and/or entered college. They thought of themselves as “just one of the guys” until they went away from home. There were very few who said their parents told them or any of their siblings they were smart or praised them for it. Some of the respondents still sounded shocked that they were considered smarter than average.

When asked what they considered their biggest advantages in growing up, the answers were almost all along the lines of:

My parents made me do my homework, and they checked it.

I had responsibilities at home, but learning was a priority.

My mother took me to the library at least once a week to get as many new books as I was allowed to borrow, and made certain I both read the books and took care of them. My parents questioned me about them.

Both of my parents were interested in what I was doing and what I thought. We ate dinner together and discussed everything under the sun.

All of the respondents said their strengths started with their parents and being taught to work.

The article also quoted one top scientist as saying, “You can learn anything in the world if you have an IQ of 120, anything above that number is just so much gravy.”

I’m still not convinced that we know enough about intelligence to “test” for it. What is considered intelligence in one culture may be totally irrelevant in another. Is a Polynesian explorer steering his canoe by his knowledge of the ocean and heavens any less intelligent than a book taught scholar at Cambridge? Would some of our present day educators have enough knowledge to survive if dropped into a wilderness? What kind of IQ would survival take?

So, does IQ matter? I read once that after Richard Feynman won the Nobel Prize in Physics, he and his wife visited his old high school where he asked to see his school records. Upon leaving he turned to his wife and said, “Winning the Nobel Prize didn’t seem like such a big deal, but now that I know my IQ it seems huge.” I guess he didn’t think he was that high in the gravy score.

I have watched the trap that parents of “smart” kids can fall into when they think that their child “has no peers,” as I heard one woman say. It’s an easy trap to be caught in. When our son skipped sixth grade and began Middle School he left his friends behind and felt lost without them. He came home one day and happily told me he had made a friend. Without thinking, I asked, “Is he smart?” My son, wiser than I, answered, “I don’t know, but he sure is nice.” I mended my ways.

Remember, we should be engaged in the business of rearing good people first, geniuses if we have to. Now that I have watched my children become adults with families of their own, I have learned a few lessons that, in the real world, seem important to me in growing those good people:

All children should be taught to work at a young age. They should also be given some moral and/or religious instruction.

All of your children, whether genius or not, will have different strengths and weaknesses. Other children are their peers.

All children will fail, and need to be told they failed. Their feelings will recover and their self respect will be strengthened when they master what they failed at.

Never be afraid to tell your children “NO”, and mean it.

Unless they are infants or ill, never clean up after your children. They need to clean up their own messes and mistakes.

All children should learn a skill or trade, but not all should go to college.

Your child may be a “late bloomer,” cut him or her some slack.

All children, no matter how “smart,” will have troubles and heartache. It’s called the human condition.

At some point, earlier than you might think, you lose the right to be your child’s boss. They’re on their own.

As long as your children know how to work and love God and learning, chances are, no matter what they do, they’ll be fine.

One more thing. If I were doing things all over again today, I would home school in a heart beat. • (2753 views)

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19 Responses to The Care and Feeding of Genius

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I would differentiate between genius and “mere” high intelligence (or even brilliance). I can think of 2 possible examples of this difference.

    One is historical, and involves Confederate Lieutenant General Richard Taylor’s later observation, concerning the battle of Pleasant Hill, that he should have accompanied the key flanking movement in the battle, which fell short of flanking the main Federal line and thus ultimately failed. Taylor concluded that the difference between genius and the commonplace mind is that the former sees in advance what the latter only sees after the fact.

    The other example comes from Frank Herbert’s novel Dune. When Paul Atreides first puts on a stilsuit, he affixes it correctly without being taught how to do so (to the surprise of Kynes, the imperial planetologist and Fremen sympathizer, who had expected to show him how to do so). This intuitive understanding (operating at a level beyond merely carefully figuring out what to do) seems to me to exemplify what we mean by genius.

  2. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    A high IQ and $2 will get you a cup of coffee. The older I grow, the more convinced I am that attitude is the key factor in living a “successful” life. It is something a person can control in a very chaotic world.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      A friend of mine once observed that IQ measures your ability to take IQ tests. I suspect there may be a bit more meaning than that, but the score depends to a certain degree on one’s level of cultural literacy.

  3. Anniel says:

    Interesting observation. Feynman may have had “mere” high intelligence but had the genius to grasp things in advance because of his “feel” for math and physics, although his calling attention to the O Ring after the Challenger disaster shows he also had an instinctive grasp of the obvious. Some people have an almost tactile feel for things mechanical and/or physical. Others have a feel for math or physics and still others for language or sports. To somehow try to lump everyone together under the guise of an IQ score seems somehow misguided given the wide range of human experience and need. If someone “fails” at math but can build or repair just about anything who is to say they don’t have their own genius? There is a famous Einstein quote that seems about right:”Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing that it’s stupid.” Sadly, we may judge the “fish” too harshly.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      “Feynman may have had “mere” high intelligence”

      If I recall correctly, one of the main reasons Feynman was so proud of winning the Nobel Prize was that his IQ was “only” 145, which when compared to someone like Einstein, is not terribly high.

      I go back to my earlier observation about IQ. I have come to the conclusion that it is the most overrated trait in the jumble which makes a man. Honesty, loyalty, a sense of duty, drive, a positive attitude, flexibility and a bit of humility and compassion are, in my judgment, more important that raw intelligence.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Speaking of mere high intelligence, I love this bit from Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!:

        The first time I was in Brazil I was eating a noon meal at I don’t know what time–I was always in the restaurants at the wrong time–and I was the only customer in the place. I was eating rice with steak (which I loved), and there were about four waiters standing around.

        A Japanese man came into the restaurant. I had seen him before, wandering around; he was trying to sell abacuses. He started to talk to the waiters, and challenged them: He said he could add numbers faster than any of them could do.

        The waiters didn’t want to lose face, so they said, “Yeah, yeah. Why don’t you go over and challenge the customer over there?”

        The man came over. I protested, “But I don’t speak Portuguese well!”

        The waiters laughed. “The numbers are easy,” they said.

        They brought me a pencil and paper.

        The man asked a waiter to call out some numbers to add. He beat me hollow, because while I was writing the numbers down, he was already adding them as he went along.

        I suggested that the waiter write down two identical lists of numbers and hand them to us at the same time. It didn’t make much difference. He still beat me by quite a bit.

        However, the man got a little bit excited: he wanted to prove himself some more. “_Multiplicao!_” he said.

        Somebody wrote down a problem. He beat me again, but not by much, because I’m pretty good at products.

        The man then made a mistake: he proposed we go on to division. What he didn’t realize was, the harder the problem, the better chance I had.

        We both did a long division problem. It was a tie.

        This bothered the hell out of the Japanese man, because he was apparently very well trained on the abacus, and here he was almost beaten by this customer in a restaurant.

        “_Raios cubicos!_” he says, with a vengeance. Cube roots! He wants to do cube roots by arithmetic! It’s hard to find a more difficult fundamental problem in arithmetic. It must have been his topnotch exercise in abacus-land.

        He writes a number on some paper–any old number– and I still remember it: 1729.03. He starts working on it, mumbling and grumbling: “_Mmmmmmagmmmmbrrr_”–he’s working like a demon! He’s poring away, doing this cube root.

        Meanwhile I’m just _sitting_ there.

        One of the waiters says, “What are you doing?”

        I point to my head. “Thinking!” I say. I write down 12 on the paper. After a little while I’ve got 12.002.

        The man with the abacus wipes the sweat off his forehead: “Twelve!” he says.

        “Oh, no!” I say. “More digits! More digits!” I know that in taking a cube root by arithmetic, each new digit is even more work than the one before. It’s a hard job.

        He buries himself again, grunting, “_Rrrrgrrrrmmmmmm_ . . .” while I add on two more digits. He finally lifts his head to say, “12.0!”

        The waiters are all excited and happy. They tell the man, “Look! He does it only by thinking, and you need an abacus! He’s got more digits!”

        He was completely washed out, and left, humiliated. The waiters congratulated each other.

        How did the customer beat the abacus? The number was 1729.03. I happened to know that a cubic foot contains 1728 cubic inches, so the answer is a tiny bit more than 12. The excess, 1.03, is only one part in nearly 2000, and I had learned in calculus that for small fractions, the cube root’s excess is one-third of the number’s excess. So all I had to do is find the fraction 1/1728, and multiply by 4 (divide by 3 and multiply by 12). So I was able to pull out a whole lot of digits that way.

        A few weeks later the man came into the cocktail lounge of the hotel I was staying at. He recognized me and came over. “Tell me,” he said, “how were you able to do that cube-root problem so fast?”

        I started to explain that it was an approximate method, and had to do with the percentage of error. “Suppose you had given me 28. Now, the cube root of 27 is 3..

        He picks up his abacus: _zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz_– “Oh yes,” he says.

        I realized something: he doesn’t _know_ numbers. With the abacus, you don’t have to memorize a lot of arithmetic combinations; all you have to do is learn how to push the little beads up and down. You don’t have to memorize 9 + 7 = 16; you just know that when you add 9 you push a ten’s bead up and pull a one’s bead down. So we’re slower at basic arithmetic, but we know numbers.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          I remember that part. Basically, Feynmann knew numbers, but the abacus expert only knew his beads — a special skill only useful with his device. Slide rules are similar, but at least you have to make sure your decimal scaling is right, which is more than an abacus user needs. And those who rely on pocket calculators are little different from those who rely on abaci.

  4. Anniel says:

    Hey, Kung Fu, I’m getting older, too, and I hope wiser, although that conceit may be up for grabs.

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’m with the general theme that there are different types of intelligence, thus one might be good at (even a genius in) math, and one might be good (or a genius) in some other area. Ironically, much of the trouble in our world today is because some people are good in one area and then suppose they have special knowledge in some other. But your dog, Rover, is likely more qualified to make educational decisions for our children than Bill Gates is.

    And as Edison said, Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration. As long as one isn’t mentally incapacitated in some way (and even then), simply working for something with determination is worth all the I.Q. points in the world.

    This is an idea going out of fashion in our increasingly panty-waste Marxist world where people just assume that if you are rich, you had some kind of unfair advantage or were lucky — or you “won life’s lottery” as the rotten Marxists in our own land put it. No one (or few) are telling the tale of how rich people got that way. It’s called the American Dream. It’s call working hard. It’s call getting an education, rolling up you sleeves, and not whining your place to the head of the food stamp line should you encounter any setbacks. But the Marxist fiends amongst us call this method “exploiting the poor.”

    It is said that B. Hussein Obama is an intelligent fellow. And in some respects, he surely is. But there is intelligence as in “raw processing power.” And there is the more vital intelligence of wisdom, of seeing past one’s prejudices and grievances. By that measure our president is an imbecile.

    Another factor — certainly related to the above — is that particularly clever minds are very good at weaving pleasing stories. And they can be pleasing because the clever mind can use language in such a way as to make the pleasing stories sound plausible. Again, whether talking about Obama or Karl Marx, the world has probably always suffered at the hands of such people who have lots of brain power but very little sense or moral direction.

    Certainly Feynman — regardless of what his high school grades were — was a true genius. But genius must still me worked in order to be realized. “Genius” as a disembodied idea means very little. One must apply it, probably even develop it.

    Having read several books on Feynman, the man was certainly modest in his own way. His genius was certainly not gained simply through perspiration. He had a mind with an enormous ability to calculate*. And this was augmented by a character that was eternally curious about the world and never afraid to ask questions and never beholden to someone’s orthodoxy just because it was orthodoxy. And he was very creative in his outlook (one of the common denominators of genius).

    Most people probably do have some thing that they are very good at. Often it takes time to find that. We live in an age where we have the luxury to do so. It hasn’t always been that way. Man normally has been too busy gathering the day’s food to worry about developing whatever unique traits he has.

    But civilization has allowed for specialization and thus man — an inherent jack-of-all-trades species — could flex his muscles in any one thing he was particularly good at. Whether this sort of civilization-wide “genius” has made us relative dolts in other areas is probably true to some extent. You pay a price for everything in this world. Nothing is free.

    *And it is a good question regarding how good one has to be at math in regards to understanding our world. Michael Faraday — not a whiz at math himself but the very embodiment of Edison’s principle of perspiration and hard work (and certainly very sharp in many areas) — in a letter to James Maxwell, wrote:

    There is one thing I would be glad to ask you. When a mathematician engaged in investigation of physical actions and results has arrived at his own conclusions, may they not be expressed in common language, as fully, clearly and definitely as in mathematical formulae? If so, would it not be a great boon to such as we to express them so—translating them out of their hieroglyphics that we might work upon them by experiment?

    Let me answer that for you, Mr. Maxwell. Yes, to some extent.

  6. Rosalys says:

    If I were doing it all over again today I too would wish to home school! Alas, I would also wish that I could have had a little of the wisdom, that can only be acquired with age, to do so. I would make a much better home schooling mother today than I would have 25/30 years ago. Heck I would be a better home school mother today than I would have been 8 years ago! Some lessons have taken me an awful long time to learn!

    This is a good article. You are absolutely correct that it is better to raise your children to be good and moral than to be genius’s. The world has enough genius’s already!

  7. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Pretend I’m just another schmuck (which I am) and not on my soapbox. My opinion here counts for no more than anyone else. This site is your site as long as you’re not a Leftist punk. Blah blah blah.

    But I just wanted to say that I find Anniel’s writing to be sincere, engaging, and refreshing. This is not just another person trying to sound “establishment” erudite like another Charles Krauthammer or Peggy Noonan. Those people aren’t real. They’re simply a brand. My wish is that people would find their own voice and talk about their own American experiences rather than forever sounding like another TV talking-head.

    Also, I like Anniel’s list of “biggest advantages” regarding education. It seems to me that the core of these five points is that the parents should mirror back to their children that education is important and that being smart and accomplished is a thing to be admired. This stands in harsh opposition to the idea in parts of the black culture where getting an education is considered “acting white.” And in large parts of the wigger culture, acting stupid, debauched, and vulgar is considered the height of being cool.

    My hat is off to those parents who give positive reinforcement to the idea of being curious and being educated. And no doubt along with this carrot parents must instill the stick of discipline. I personally think it’s a utopian mindset that children will learn just for the joy of learning. Many, if not most, kids need to be pushed. Left to their own devices, most kids would rather play video games. And some tasks, no matter how “fun” one tries to make them, are simply the equivalent of eating your vegetables. You just have to do it because it’s good for you, whether or not the kids understand this.

    But, yeah, make it fun if you can, but not to the point of dumbing-down or getting lost in the idea that there aren’t many things that kids just have to eat like their vegetables. And this is an enormously important point too. Kids need to learn discipline. They need to learn that not everything in life is all sh*ts and giggles. Sometimes there is drudgery. And the things we drudge through are often the most important things.

  8. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    “I personally think it’s a utopian mindset that children will learn just for the joy of learning. Many, if not most, kids need to be pushed. Left to their own devices, most kids would rather play video games. And some tasks, no matter how “fun” one tries to make them, are simply the equivalent of eating your vegetables. You just have to do it because it’s good for you, whether or not the kids understand this.”

    I am convinced the main reason Asians have succeeded here is the fact that their culture values education and knowledge and the families not only push children to learn, but will sacrifice as a group, to help the children to move ahead in life. They don’t do the “instant gratification” thing nearly so much as the rest of Americans. But given time, they will no doubt sink like the rest of the country.

  9. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    “All children should be taught to work at a young age. They should also be given some moral and/or religious instruction.

    All of your children, whether genius or not, will have different strengths and weaknesses. Other children are their peers.

    All children will fail, and need to be told they failed. Their feelings will recover and their self respect will be strengthened when they master what they failed at.

    Never be afraid to tell your children “NO”, and mean it.

    Unless they are infants or ill, never clean up after your children. They need to clean up their own messes and mistakes.

    All children should learn a skill or trade, but not all should go to college.

    Your child may be a “late bloomer,” cut him or her some slack.

    All children, no matter how “smart,” will have troubles and heartache. It’s called the human condition.

    At some point, earlier than you might think, you lose the right to be your child’s boss. They’re on their own.

    As long as your children know how to work and love God and learning, chances are, no matter what they do, they’ll be fine.”

    Perhaps a second title to this piece could be “The Care and Feeding of Character”

  10. Anniel says:

    Rosalys, we were rearing children at the same time so we probably felt not up to the task of home schooling- and watched people who were incapable of doing so. I cannot tell you how happy I am that I didn’t rear my children in the age of video games. Watching some of my grandchildren slumped over playing Angry Birds left me heartsick. I think Brad and Kung Fu Zu are on the right track about those cultures where education and knowledge are valued as opposed to those who denigrate any scholastic achievements. I especially agree with Rosalys that we have enough geniuses already. Kung Fu Zu’s Second Title is BRILLIANT. Thank you.

  11. Anniel says:

    One thing I forgot. Speak to your children in an adult voice about absolutely everything from the moment they’re born. That doesn’t preclude baby talk when you’re playing. I used to put my little ones in a carrier on the counter while I was cooking and told them what I was doing. Maybe that’s why they all fancy themselves gourmet chefs today.

  12. Anniel says:

    My daughter just sent me this Einstein quote I can’t resist:

    “The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.”

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Thank you for my belly laugh of the day.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      The Einstein quote I recall (I think Elizabeth has a t-shirt with the message) on this subject is: “There are only two things that are infinite, the universe and human stupidity. And I’m not sure about the universe.”

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