I first heard of Malcolm Gladwell on RadioLab a few weeks ago. I was listening to a show on success and one of the show’s hosts was debating Gladwell on the idea of genius. Gladwell doesn’t believe in “geniuses” as we normally think of them. He’s skeptical of innate ability and he thinks people are strong in certain fields because they spend more time doing things in those fields. They have passion and drive and opportunity…and that lucky combination can make someone extremely successful. But by in large, he views the idea of a self-made-man, as myth.

The snippet that they aired on the show stuck with me. It rattled around in my brain and nagged at me until I went ahead and googled this guy and bought his book. I needed to know more.

See, I’ve been thinking A LOT about intelligence lately. I’ve been thinking about our culture’s ideas on intelligence and success for years. I’ve been actively breaking down my own thoughts on intelligence and success because, as a mom to special needs kids, I could see that that what I previously thought was hogwash. Low IQ score does not mean ‘dumb’. Lucrative job does not mean ‘success’. And although, that’s not *quite* what the book is about, I was very curious to hear what he had to say.

Gladwell picked apart successful people, layer by layer, and found several common elements. One was opportunity…and one was the ten thousand hours phenomenon. He looked at Bill Gates and professional hockey players and corporate lawyers and legendary violinists and found this common thread of ten thousand hours: ten thousand hours programming computers or practicing hockey or law or violin. He could not find a single “successful” person that hadn’t invested at least ten thousand hours into their field.

And that made total sense to me.

My boys are really good at what they are really good at. And what they are not good at? Lord, help me. Andrew’s always been drawn to construction and codes. He loves buildings things, seeing how things work, taking things apart, making contraptions. His understanding of physics is beyond what’s typical at his age level because that’s what he loves doing. And the codes? He’s drawn to letters, numbers, written music, morse code, sign language, the periodic table of elements, even different kinds of puzzles and mazes have a code quality to them that he’s driven to crack. He’s not really off the charts in any of these areas. But they are his strengths. They are what he loves so he spends time doing them… at the expense of other areas of his development.

But this idea is even MORE obvious to me what I look at Isaac. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I recently discovered that Isaac can recite the alphabet backwards. This past weekend I caught it on video and emailed it to friends and family. And almost everyone said “I can’t even do that!” (Me neither!) But Isaac spends a LOT of his free time organizing the alphabet. Either with letter tiles, or magnetic letters, or writing it down himself…he’s drawn to the order of the alphabet. He can also read three digit numbers, count to 1000 and he knows what numbers are odd and what numbers are even. And again…that’s because it’s what he DOES. He knows odd and even numbers because we have a math game on our iPad that he plays a lot. He’s drawn to it, spends time with it…and now knows the concepts presented in it. It’s not that remarkable to me that he learned that stuff. It’s more remarkable to me that that’s what he chose to do when presented with an iPad filled with games. Isaac’s strengths are STRONG. 99th percentile strong. But…he’ll be 5 in May and he’s not yet potty trained (we are so close though!!). So…his weaknesses are almost a mirror match of his strengths in their intensity. I used to think Andrew was a kid of extremes with very strong strengths and very real challenges…but then I got to know Isaac better and could see that it’s substantially more true of him. Isaac is a kid of extremes.

But, as their mother, as the person that’s been watching them play and learn and grow their whole lives…I could see that their strengths were not necessarily innate. What was unusual was not what they could do…it was what they chose to do and how much they did it. They are magical and special and different…but everyone is. Everyone has the things that they spend more time doing…and things they avoid. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses.

I do think that people that score high on IQ tests do have a “larger platform” as one of my education professors explained it. But I don’t think that a larger platform will necessarily mean “high achieving” and it certainly doesn’t equate to “happy”.

I think I still have more work to do in my processing of all of this, but I was definitely grateful to add Gladwell’s book into the mix. Anything that challenges our culture’s understanding of intelligence and success I am eager to get my hands on. I want to expand how I think about these things and I want to understand these topics better. I highly recommend Gladwell’s book to any kindred spirit that finds themselves on a similar journey.

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About robyn

I stopped teaching Kindergarten in 2005 to become the mom of two crazy boys here in Brooklyn. At first I thought being a stay at home mom meant that I needed to pour all my time and energy directly into my sons, but I realized somewhere along the way that being a rockstar mom meant not only taking good care of my boys, but also taking good care of myself. And taking good care of myself means pursuing something creative...just about everyday. I started Made In Brooklyn to motivate myself in my creative goals as well as share my work with others and perhaps inspire them in their own creative journeys.
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6 Responses to Outliers

  1. Susan says:

    This is awesome, Robyn.

    Have you thought about doing some more serious writing along the lines of this kind of post? I think your voice is so honest but not in the kind of overly-sentimental or moralistic way that I tend to see a lot. And you have a lot to offer.

    • Robyn says:

      Susan, you are so nice.

      I would love to. I just don’t know what to say. I feel like all I have right now is the occasional post. I’ve thought about articles for a magazine…but…I don’t know…maybe.

  2. I agree with what Susan wrote! This is a really interesting read, Robyn. I love that you take time to really try to understand your boys and their personalities and what makes them special. And they truly are special – each of them.

    I’ve always felt like I was good at a whole lot of things, but not an expert at any of them. Maybe if I picked ONE thing and really focused on it I would be an expert, but I suppose that my attention span is too short for that.

    • Robyn says:

      Well, but Deb…there’s also a WHOLE lot to say about being able to do many things. I think in day-to-day functioning, it’s preferable. It means you’re more adaptable to various situations, you can care for yourself better, you have more in common with more people, you have a more common-sense approach to problem solving…

      All that to say…you’re pretty rad, Deb. Don’t knock it. ;)

  3. Miss Vicki says:

    Write, Robyn, write!!

  4. Anne Hoang says:

    I love Radiolab!

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