Saturday, February 16, 2013

A risky gift

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, gifted children, gifted adults, sociology

In the early 1980s Grady Towers wrote The Outsiders, which was published in the first issue of Vidya that I received when I joined the Triple Nine Society* in 1985. I photocopied it immediately, and still have it. Towers re-calculated the statistics found in Lewis Terman's studies of gifted children and the gifted adults they grew into, but using better statistical measures than Terman had used.

Dr. Terman undertook his study of giftedness hoping to dispel the common notion that highly intelligent people are more likely to be unstable or insane. According to Terman's studies and statistical calculations, he found what he was looking for. Children with high IQ's were not only smarter, they tended to be taller, stronger, and healthier than others, and became well-adjusted adults with no greater risk of insanity or emotional distress than the rest of the population. Towers used a more probing statistical technique and found, not the opposite result, but a troubling trend. Taken as a whole, the "Termites" were at worst only slightly more likely than "average folks" to suffer from depression and other emotional ills. But ranked by IQ, the number of those who suffered such distresses increased towards the top. The group with IQ's greater than 170 had a 35% or greater incidence of such mental problems, and of a small number ranging towards 200, more than half had such issues. However, the incidence of more dangerous psychoses was not significantly different from "everybody".

These conclusions were placed in apposition to the experiences of most gifted persons. Being in the top 0.1% of the IQ range means it is hard to find people to talk to. A very smart child may turn to an older sibling, or aunt or uncle or grandparent. In rare cases, even a parent, but if the child is brighter than the parents, they all too often feel threatened and shut the child down. Once the child grows up, the older relative may no longer be smarter, so the gifted adult must find peers in college or on the job or in church, or in a club or a society such as Mensa.

Small towns or small suburban neighborhoods can be especially deadly for the social life of a brilliant young adult. If your social circle is limited to a few hundred people, you may be the only one who appreciates Renaissance poetry, or can understand calculus, or who has your own microscope. Who can you talk to? You become an Outsider, keeping camouflaged when with others, living inside your mind because that's the only safe place. Think Calvin in Calvin and Hobbes.

Towers stated, "the point of this article is not that there's some special hazard to having an exceptional IQ: There's not. The point is that the danger lies in having an exceptional IQ in an environment completely lacking in intellectual peers. It's the isolation that does the damage, not the IQ itself."

Here is a synopsis of the last 65 years of a gifted life (my own):
  • Knew the ABC's very early, and began learning to read at age 3.
  • Enrolled in a private grade school at age 5, because my (fortunately intelligent) parents could see I was "ready". Public school wouldn't take someone so young.
  • Tested in grade 2. Not told the result. Rumors around the school of "the kid that aced the IQ test" led to a second test. Only my parents were told the score was "somewhere above 170".
  • That same year, Dad quit playing chess with me because he couldn't win. Curiously, I didn't improve in chess thereafter, and haven't played since high school.
  • Enrolled in public school in grade 4. Always passed, but a B- student in most subjects. The mantra from teachers and parents: "We know you can do better. Why don't you try?"
  • The above mantra was repeated, almost daily, until the middle of grade 10.
  • Grade 10 was begun at Lakewood High in Ohio, a gang-controlled school. Being too honest for my own good, I was soon crossways with every gang. I was at the point of making a serious case to my parents to be moved to another school, when they said we'd be moving to Sandusky, some 60 miles away. I contrived to miss the next few days of school, and it may have saved my life.
  • At SHS, which served the whole region, the English teacher basically saved my mind. I'd missed the first month, and they were just completing English 6400 (the current edition is English 3200), a book of programmed instruction in grammar and syntax. Mr. Couch gave me a copy, showed me how it worked, and suggested I try a few of the exercises to get the hang of it. I finished it over a weekend: if you do each "frame" correctly, you only need to do about 800 of the 6,400 frames. All the rest are for remediation.
  • Mr. Couch was smart enough to know "more of the same" would be no challenge, so he found creative ways to give me added challenges in class, and pressed me to join the drama club, a fantastic experience! He seems to have spread the word. Mr. Schneider in Chemistry, Mr. Brown in Biology, and several other teachers did their best to stay ahead of me and keep me interested.
  • An example: Mr. Brown found I had a microscope at home and liked to take pictures through it. He hired me to take pix of all his prepared slides, onto Kodachrome, so he could project the pictures instead of using the balky, frustrating projecting microscope in class. Without the extra efforts of these teachers, I would never have attempted college. But I had good grades those years, in contrast to grades up to 9.
  • Let's move a little faster. I started college at 17. I could learn like a house afire, but was emotionally unready. My grades were 0.1 GPA above flunking out. Dropped out and worked in a defense industry company as an optical and vacuum technician. While there, I learned FORTRAN.
  • I returned to school after 2 years, but changed majors (and I still don't know what I want to be after I grow up) a couple times, finally graduating in Geology at age 24. After the "attitude adjustment" of working, I got a GPA of 3.7.
  • By the time I graduated, I was in the church life in which I remain, one that values the life of the mind, while emphasizing spiritual progress even more. Jobs were hard to find in the early 1970s, so I worked warehouse jobs, then took a great job as a machinist at the Cal Tech Physics shop. At Cal Tech, even the machinists are very bright! I didn't have to hide that I had interests besides work and wasn't interested in falling asleep in front of a TV showing sports. Of course, my boss was a genius. He was a good friend of Dick Feynman. We got along well.
  • In 1974 I got an engineering job, and married the next year (we'll have our 38th anniversary this summer).
  • After four years, I realized my job was a dead end without more education. I left for graduate school in 1978.
  • I am not at liberty to discuss why the PhD I earned was not conferred. Still a bit naive and overly honest at age 35, I didn't realize how deeply I offended a few powerful persons by proving them wrong by my research. I left with only a MS in Geological Engineering.
  • Having used FORTRAN whenever possible, during 1978 until I left the graduate school I was a professor of Computer Science, teaching the beginning programming classes. This combination with Geology got me a job at an oil company.
  • Within a year or so I gravitated to a "skunk works", a group of super-programmers, the kind that outperform ordinary professional computer programmers by a factor of 10 to 100. I fit right in! Not just a friend or two, a peer or two, here or there, but a whole big office with 20 of them! I am still close friends with some of them. I wrote simulation software for exploration geologists.
  • In the mid 1990s I transferred to the parent corporation. I'll just talk about the middle four years of the past 18. I had a supervisor who is a great guy but a very poor manager. In particular, he didn't know what to do with me. By that time I'd learned to hide just how much I could do, to avoid "test pilot's curse" (superhuman performance today becomes tomorrow's standard). I rejected projects that I knew would simply rot my brains. I got a series of poor yearly reviews. Yet, the projects that I was doing, nobody else could do; nobody else could even understand. He moved on, as managers do after 3-5 years; I had outlasted him!
  • My final several years were much more conducive to good work and a satisfying life. I had a boss who is as nerdy as I am, made several good friends who also value the interior life, and became a sort of elder statesman to the whole group. I retired on my own terms, and I'm building a moderately busy "retirement career" on Uncle Sam's payroll.
Reading back over that, it doesn't seem like I suffered very much. I know others who suffered more. Remember the school years, though: at least 7 years of daily rebukes because I "wasn't trying". That had to have a damaging effect. I think there wasn't an adult I met in the 1950s who knew how to recognize life-threatening boredom in a school child! I was sent to a shrink at age 12, who determined I was "in a shell". These days, they'd more accurately diagnose chronic depression. Having half a dozen great teachers in grades 10-12 was better than any prescription antidepressant! And having some good, brilliant friends at this time of my life is a tonic worth its weight in rubies!!

Well, where is this going? This is quite a long introduction to a book review! I've been reading Gifted Grownups: The Mixed Blessings of Extraordinary Potential by Marylou Kelly Streznewski. The book was published in 1999, and my (also very gifted) brother gave it to me a few years later. It got buried in a pile of "stuff" before I finished it, and I just found it last week. So I read it, and found myself saying again and again, "Yes!" Marylou knows of what she writes, being gifted herself.

And now I don't know what to write about her wonderful book! She writes that giftedness is not tied to IQ. Instead it is an attitude. Sure, speed of thinking is a necessary component, but not all fast thinkers are scientists: a great football quarterback has to think as quickly as an astrophysicist. A major component is breadth of interest. I don't just mean the college freshman who can't choose a major because "I want to major in all of them!". I think of a judge who took guitar lessons from me. On his own, in a few years, he'd taught himself some rather challenging finger picking techniques, even quicker than I had learned them. It's a pity he was too busy in the courtroom to keep up with the lessons. A student like him, I'd teach for free! It is great just to have someone talented to jam with.

The gifted are creative. There's the young man who got an F on a physics test: the question was how to measure the height of a building with a barometer. His answer was to drop the barometer off the side and time its fall. He got the correct answer, but an F for "wrong method". He went to a faculty meeting, where he described three other ways to measure the building's height, without using the barometer as a barometer. His teacher was directed to give him an A. My dad used to give a mechanical test to army inductees. Simple things like how to brace a ladder so it won't fall. He loved the question, "State five uses for a brick." He said that alone could usually single out the ones worth sending for further training.

The gifted learn that the world hates them. In their case, paranoia is perfectly justified. So they develop protective coloration. This is particularly hard on smart girls. They suffer if they aren't "nice" enough, or if they do something (other than cook or clean) better than a boy. In my last year as a geology undergraduate, one young woman and I blew the curve. On most tests I got "the A" and she got "the B". She was hated more than I.

A theme of the book is that we are wasting a ton of talent. I remember the early 1970s when PhD's were flipping burgers at food wagons and us lowly "college graduates" were making boxes in warehouses or schlepping goods at the dock as stevedores (shipping containers were not yet in wide use). Now that was a waste of talent! But the point is well taken. Teachers who feel threatened by a smart student usually drive the kid back inside his or her mind, or when asked for "more" give more of the same, rather than more challenging assignments. Parents may beat a kid who mouths off, and the smarter a kid is, the more he has to say! (Girls learn this one quicker than boys) Interviewers look for applicants who are "overqualified" and will not hire them. Bosses who are threatened by a smart employee are much too prone to say, "My way or the highway." Who knows how many opportunities are lost because the person who knows the answer is bullied into keeping quiet?

In a late chapter, "Young in Mind: The Later Years", it sorta seems most gifted folks have to wait for retirement to enjoy a fuller range of their abilities. Sadly, for too many of them, it is too late. The self-protective habits of a lifetime become unbreakable.

I know what I'm going to do with this book. A woman recently hired at my (former) company has the brightest mind I've touched in a long time. She has very young children. She needs it! It can help her for herself, and help her raise kids that the world doesn't run down like so much sparkly road kill.

*Triple Nine Society, or TNS, also called "the Thousand", is apparently defunct. A web page titled "Virtual Triple Nine" hasn't been updated since 2000. It is or was a society a step above Mensa. Membership required an IQ of at least 148. One Westerner in 1,000 scores at this level; the IQ tests found in the U.S. and Europe are much less valid for people raised in Eastern, Middle Eastern, and African cultures. I was a member of TNS between 1985 and 1992. I later joined ISPE, another notch higher in selectivity. I left it some years ago. I prefer friends I can reach out and touch, and now I have that.

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