Cursed Gifts

Of Bright (but Troubled) Kids &
Savants Who Improve the World

To most parents, their children are very smart until they catch them having a hard time becoming middle-level managers.
Savants are another story, and often too much to their own kin to handle. To most of us, though, life is a succession of lackluster encounters and evil torment in the hands of the terminally mediocre.
In fact, educators have argued for years whether reward equals spoiling, or if depriving necessarily builds character. The jury is still out on that one.
What only now they’re beginning to understand is why outstanding childhood intelligence doesn’t always translate into promising lives.
Pedagogy has experienced many fortuitous leaps and surprising regressions, but a major landmark in this turnaround of expectations can be traced back to the Intelligence Quotient test.
After a popular run as an absolute measurement of cognitive abilities and, consequently, the level of rational power of an individual’s brain, it suffered a major setback.
That’s when field studies demonstrated that the skill of solving a mathematical or spatial problem had little to do with what it takes for someone to navigate social conventions and succeed in life.
Forget about ’emotional intelligence.’ What came to play here was the realization that our brains were nothing like central computers, managing all aspects of our conscious and unconscious decisions.
Study after study proved that more often than not we are guided by unrealistic expectations and irrational assumptions about the world and our chances to tackle it successfully.
Whether such ‘spur of the moment’ impulse is successful or leads to failure is irrelevant. It’s rarely, though, subjected to our brain’s careful consideration of the pros and cons involved.
That’s why the stereotypical notion of the ‘nerd’ as a bright but social inept individual, and the shallow jock, as the one who wins the heart of the prom queen is so ingrained.
This generalization is, of course, only the rule that misses the point; life is way more complex than such reductionist approach.
Still, the case of the original and creative kid, who has a hard time finding a job when he or she comes to age, is all too present.
More so now than ever, when PhD graduates are driven to compete with high-school dropouts for a McDonald’s counter job.
A Harvard study may have established the better argument yet as to how and when some of these preconceived ideas take root: in the fifth grade.
In a series of tests to gauge the effects of praise on performance, two separate groups of kids were complimented: one for being ‘smart’ solving problems, and the other, for having ‘worked hard.’
The unexpected result of these two differentiated praise approaches was that the first group, when faced with a difficult task, gave up earlier and blamed themselves for not being smart enough.

The other, though, simply tried it harder, and succeeded in the end. In other words, even though they were all complimented for their efforts, being called smart caused the first group to doubt themselves, when success didn’t occur right away.
It’s easy to trace parallels with real life from this example, as it is to wrongly extrapolate its results.
But the study does give credence to the thought that praise, of the unrealistic kind, can do more harm than good. Or something like that.
In the end, one can’t help but think that it’s really a shame that bright kids are also more susceptible to questioning and have a humbler sense of themselves.
Exactly what’s commonly, and cruelly, dismissed as possessing a ‘fragile ego.’ Society usually regards harder workers with a more sympathetic eye.
But if it’s regrettable that the more creative the kids are, the harder it’s for them to find a place in this brutal world, the situation dramatically worsen when other handicaps come to play.
Take autism, for example, since we wouldn’t go too far if we’d choose other types of mental disability.
Within it’s general umbrella, the segment everyone seems to have a rosier view about it is the Asperger Syndrome, the classic savant.
Part of such a mild and unrealistic view is due, of course, because of the movies on the subject.
Rain Man, based on one of the most famous of the savants, is arguably the front runner of this view of the syndrome as being an oddity, yes, but also a fascinating window into our own dormant brain abilities.
Reality, as it often goes, is radically harsher than that. Kim Peek, the original Rain Man, who could tell you the weather in different parts of the world at any day since the early 1940s, is a typical example.
He could do that and many other fantastic things, but until he died, in 2009, he was completely depended on his father to do even the most basic things a person needs to do in order to function.
Stephen Wiltshire, the artist who can draw an entire city from memory, is another famous savant. The 37-year old usually requires only a helicopter ride to ‘photograph’ what he later lays down on paper.
This astonishing quality gave him world notoriety and an outlet that allows him to make a comfortable living.
But the story would have most likely been much different, and tragic, if he also didn’t have the good fortune of finding the right people who propped him up in life.
On his own, he probably wouldn’t have lasted, and who knows how many like him we missed knowing about, because they were not as lucky?

Fortunately, we did learn about quite a few of these extraordinary beings and, one may say, the world is indeed a better place having them around.
We’re not going to slip into the quicksand of examples of famous people who, in retrospect, seem to have also been autistic here.
But let’s mention three extraordinary contemporary of ours, and then be done with it: Temple Grandin, Daniel Tammet and Donna Williams.
We do recommend finding out more about them. Despite them having a hard time showing that most ‘humane’ of the human traits, empathy, they often have managed to display more humanity than many.
And while they lack the spontaneity of establishing eye contact, the way corner grocers and serial killers are all at easy doing, they’re still capable of showing enormous emotional resonance.
We were going to put an end to this post with a sour note, a contrasting chord, a bitter, acrid, toxic touch, to counterbalance what we wrote above.
You know, the crappy people we meet, the difficult a-holes who make a point in torturing us, the despicable humans who’re bent into exacting their particularly lethal brand of twisted justice.
But then, we applied to the mix a few drops of a special dye we use just to reveal whether the final content meets some required specifications, and voilá, we’re off to the high road.
Is it funny? Is it new? Do people haven’t heard about it lately? Do we even have time for this? If the answer to any of these is no, the mixture doesn’t pass muster and it’s now mere damaged goods.
It’s a useful dye, you see. It prevents us from going into the deep end of what’s trivial, and tends to waste everyone’s time.
Then again, it’s also a not so particularly clever way of wrapping up a complicated post such as this one.
Oh those bright kids; if they only knew how much they have on us, perhaps they wouldn’t get discouraged that easily.
And about those savants, let’s just say that if we too had trouble bathing ourselves, or reading social cues we take for granted to live in society, we simply wouldn’t be here telling you this story.

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