Monday, January 19, 2009

Genius undone

I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, in which he posits that iconic success stories about the self-made man are generally a crock. He writes that in most cases, it's not just a matter of having some innate genius or talent that dictates success. You also need to put in lots of hard work and practice, have luck and timing on your side, and live in cultural and institutional environments which not only allow you to be successful but proactively nurture the skills required for success.

Sure, that all seems pretty obvious but still if you're born a genius, you're a genius and bound to get ahead of the rest of us middling masses, right? And if you're born with natural superstar talent, you're bound at some point to realize that talent and at least do pretty well for yourself, right?

Apparently, that just ain't so. For example, two thirds of Canada's professional hockey players were born in either January or February. Unless there's some weird weather effect on babies conceived in May or June (maybe watching the NHL finals creates sperm with better stick handling abilities) that just doesn't make sense - at least not until you consider the luck of good timing. Kids hockey leagues in Canada are organized by age based on the calendar year. That means that the kids born in the first two months of the year will inevitably always be bigger, stronger and more coordinated than the other same numerically aged, though months younger kids on their team and because those Jan/Feb kids seem "more talented", they'll get more training, more ice time, more attention from their coaches and parents. Those Jan/Feb kids get more chances at being superstars. Those talented Nov/Dec kids, on the other hand, might want to consider broomball instead.

Inopportune genius doesn't fare much better. Consider Chris Langan. He is the world's smartest man with an IQ of about 200. Einstein, at 160, was a relative idiot. Mozart and Darwin, at 153, were barely smart enough to pick Langan's nose. The rest of us, with our average IQs of 100 must be positively amoeba-like in comparison.

Langan is a genius among geniuses. He could talk at 6 months, read at 4 years. He could learn in an hour of textbook skimming what it takes most people a semester to learn. He taught himself post graduate level physics and math while still in high school. He's a freakin' super sci-fi brainiac.

So how come the height of Chris Langan's career path is his job as a bouncer? That's right, a muscleman whose main task is to escort blathering, violent drunks out the front door. Why is it that the world only sees usefulness in his fists and not his brains? How did it come to be that this genius, this world's smartest man, is only valued for his aggressiveness?

In a word: unlucky. He had a horror story of a childhood because of a jealous, brutal father. Opportunities were scarce and the ones that did crop up were not taken full advantage of. Small bumps in the road became huge roadblocks for Langan because he never had the social skills to deal with them. Now, in his fifties, he is a soured man who visibly looks back on his life with regret and anger.

Reading and watching the videos about Langan, I couldn't help but think about how much environment plays a role in the outcome of a life and, of course, not just human life - this is a blog about dogs after all. I see more and more examples of dogs in the shelter who behave like a complete idiots and yet blossom into something magnificent in the care of nurturing, loving owners. I have to wonder if we do those dogs justice with our behavioural assessments. I have to wonder how many dog "geniuses" we write off because of a previous deprived life, because of being brutalized or starved, because of lack of training and socialization.

Water without a cup is just a messy puddle.

The situation for Pit Bulls is a perfect example of this. What were once considered desirable traits in a dog: loyalty, strength, courage, resilience, tenacity have been in the last decade turned against them. They live in a perfect storm of being born into an unfortunate time, systemic prejudice and lack of a cultural desire to provide them with the training for success in our human environment. Even if Pit Bulls were geniuses, they'd still be considered only good enough for fighting.

Gladwell makes the argument that if we continue to ignore the good traits in others and only concentrate on deficiencies, it is all of us who end up paying the price. Talent, genius, strength, courage, anything we call good, can fall by the wayside if not recognized for what it is and encouraged to grow. We have to learn to nurture, not to discard.

Clay without the hands to mold it is just mud.


Caveat said...

Here's one of my favourite quotes from somebody I thought was pretty intelligent:

"I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops."
— Stephen Jay Gould

Your post nicely sums up why all the BS about dogs being 'bred' to be dangerous drives me nuts.

I got Outliers for my birthday from a friend, haven't cracked it yet but it's next.

I'm a January kid but didn't like sports. Dang! Could have been an NHL superstar if only my par...oh, wait. Did they take girls back in the '50s?

Didn't think so :>)

Lynda said...

My friend is attending therapy sessions with her partner. The therapist told them to write a letter about the top 25 good/positive things about the other.

Focusing on the positives instead of the negatives is extremely difficult to do if you are not raised to see the glass as half full. Fortunately for me, my Mom was an optimist to the extreme. My Dad is the complete opposite, so I ended up somewhere in the middle. Lucky me, as some people are pessimists their whole lives and that's sad.

So ya, let's make a point of noticing the good stuff in everyone and everything. (except those assholes that are afraid of my dogs,lol!)
p.s. My brother went pro-hockey and his birthday is in January. Go figure.