Saturday, November 19, 2005

The American infatuation with performance: optimizing genius

The New York Times Magazine has a long review of various past and present programs to identify children with extraordinary intellectual gifts and guide them to careers of power, prestige, fame and prominence. Some of the projects have a strong eugenics influence, others are reminescent of Nietzshe, still others seem to feel the children will be "wasted" unless their gifts are harnessed.

The enterprise appears to have a history of disappointment. This matches my own limited experience with living among geniuses, my undergraduate experience at Caltech (note: I am not a genius). The geniuses I knew were exceptionally good at almost everything. They usually didn't study very hard, since they could excel with relatively little effort. They, were, however, not necessarily terribly ambitious. Indeed, I'm tempted to recall that the more balanced and well adjusted they were, the less driven and ambitious they appeared (even there, however, the numbers were small and memory is misleading).

Perhaps a truly brilliant deep thinker would conclude that many driven persons suffer from a lack of deep insight, and that they would be better to spend their limited days caring for loved ones and quietly contemplating the uncaring universe.

Update 11/20: One way to think about this is to consider Lance Armstrong. What made Armstrong one of the greatest atheletes of the past 100 years? Was it genetics? Sure. Was it luck? Definitely. Was it being emotionally well balanced and raised to be wise and mature? Uh, no. Armstrong was (he's mellowed a bit), by all reports, a bit of a nut case. He wanted to win in a "rip arms off", "sell soul", "pay any price", "crush the enemy" sort of way. He is even now not a nice man. A well rounded, well balanced, optimally raised person with Armstrong's genetics would more likely be a sunday school teacher than a world champion bicyclist.

Or consider Isaac Newton. Was Newton a nice well rounded man? No. Isaac Newton, perhaps one of the greatest human minds of all time, was a miserable, nasty, bitter, cruel, vengeful creep.

Genius is genius. It doesn't say anything about how the person will be, it doesn't even seem to correlate with insight. You may produce more Newtons by cruelty and spite than by wise instruction and compassion. Which is not to say we should torture our young geniuses, but we shouldn't imagine we'll produce great leaps in knowledge by making their lives more agreeable.

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