June 2, 2014

"It is natural to believe that the just-pubescent children on the mathletic podium next to you are the best, the ones who really matter."

"And for the most part, my fellow child stars and I have done very well. But the older I get..."
... the more I see how many brilliant people in the world weren't Doogie Howser-like prodigies; didn't shine in Math Olympiad; didn't go to the inner circle of elite colleges. I'm embarrassed that I didn't understand at 13 that it would be this way. But when they keep telling you you're the best, you start to believe you're the best.

One of the most painful aspects of teaching mathematics is seeing my students damaged by the cult of the genius....

47 comments:

David said...

Good article.

Shorter version: Smart is overrated.

All part of my lifelong quarrel with "experts."

Carol said...

I sniff a little fake humility. But it is sad to see kids decide they just can't do math - either you get it or you don't - when so much of high school and lower division math is accessible and learnable by ordinary humans. And anyone who has to take freshman Physics knows ya gotta have it or you're not going very far.

Larry J said...

But the older I get, the more I see how many brilliant people in the world weren't Doogie Howser-like prodigies; didn't shine in Math Olympiad; didn't go to the inner circle of elite colleges. I'm embarrassed that I didn't understand at 13 that it would be this way. But when they keep telling you you're the best, you start to believe you're the best.

Many people currently running the government (elected and bureaucrats alike) were told they were the "best and brightest." Unfortunately for all of us, they believed it and went on to make an incredible mess of things.

madAsHell said...

We need to print more first place ribbons.

madAsHell said...

It is natural to believe that the guy in fishnet stockings at Home Depot has no idea how that hammer works.

The Crack Emcee said...

"The cult of the genius" never bothered me. But living with people who think genius must suffer?

That's sucked donkey dicks,...

raf said...

I think the justifiable reason to gather the prodigies together in their own group is to keep them from believing in their individual specialness. Leaving them in with the general population may help develop social skills (or not) but it also risks teaching that they can coast through life on sheer talent. I know. I scored 700+ on both math and verbal SATs. It took me more than a decade to realize that persistence and effort are more important.

MadisonMan said...

Hooray for UW-Madison Professors. I have to say, though, that I always think of Monty Python when I see the title of her book: How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

I have a child who, like me, is quite gifted in math, but school I think got in the way of his talent. I recall very well in 2nd grade he was always being asked to explain how he got the answer -- that was the fad then, to have the students explain; I'm sure it was some lame D.Ed's (who probably insists on being called Dr.) thesis that being able to explain things help foster understanding. However, for a kid who didn't like to talk, really, having to explain something he couldn't explain was agony and it was easier for him just to stop doing math (He'd get a math problem, look off into space, then write down the right answer -- who knows how he did it in his head). The teacher, to her credit (he had a superb teacher in 2nd grade), was very apologetic and tried to downplay this required part of the classroom.

So this kid won't be a math major -- hooray! -- but he still maintains a great grasp of math. Maybe I should be happy that the Schools did get in the way of a math career :)

lgv said...

The reason one "sees many brilliant people" is based on their accomplishments, not on their innate mental capabilities. Intelligence does not equate to accomplishment. No one cares what your SAT scores after you get into college. No one cares what your GPA was after you start your career. The least productive employee I ever had was an MBA from an Ivy league school that was far more brilliant than I.

Anonymous said...

Read the comments there, very interesting stories. Bright and bipolar: sometimes the egg cracks.

Matt Sablan said...

It doesn't get better; there's a very elitist attitude among people who got the best opportunities. I still have people I know who scoff at the idea that someone "without even an associate's degree!" might have opinions worth listening to.

Conserve Liberty said...

But don't you see? Everything is about Credentials. 1 in 10,000 has one. The rest of us must do as they tell us.

The credentialed elite start the sorting process very early.

Anonymous said...

Commenting on the Wrong Post Drunk Guy says:

Sure, I'm a little drunk, but that doesn't mean I don't have a point to make. I like to collect the loose hair women leave behind and catalog them in notebooks. Such as: Ash-Blonde hair from back of Starbucks chair, thirty-ish, green skirt, boots, 5/27/2013 or Brunette hair from jacket hung over seat at Guild Cinema, young twenties, open-toed shoes, nice breasts (tight t-shirt) 9/23/2012. I have hundreds of hairs in my collection, carefully displayed in a small plastic bag and notated, and each one is a memory waiting there to be re-experienced; sometimes I can smell their shampoo scent months later. I like to think of it as a continuing sociological research project, I was good at those things in school. I think it is wrong for you to comment on things you really don't know about.

glenn said...

You think the students are damaged? Try running a business with employees who can't do basic math.

William said...

Not a problem I've ever had to face. Still everyone eventually has to come to terms with their insignificance. Early promise tends to erode and not evolve, but Mozart happened.

The Crack Emcee said...

"Smart is overrated."

No, the power of being outnumbered by stupid is underrated.

MadisonMan said...

(why did I use the her pronoun?)

Fernandistein said...

Shorter version: Smart is overrated.

Not really:

"Profoundly gifted children are 10+ times more likely than merely gifted children to, e.g., earn a patent or gain tenure at a top research university. They are at least several times more likely to earn exceptionally high incomes."

B said...

Creativity and intelligence aren't perfectly correlated.

The Crack Emcee said...

Crabs in a bucket,...

MikeR said...

Yeah - I was one of these, though not one of the top ones. I won county math competitions when I was a kid. I had a perfect GPA at Caltech.
But I disagree strongly with the author's conclusions. By the end of my undergraduate career, I was sick of doing math, for exactly the reason he knocks: it was clear to me that I wasn't going to make an important contribution. Too much of mathematics - along with a lot of other science - is made up of very bright people who aren't quite bright enough and/or driven enough to really do anything important. I could produce useful work - but I knew that some of my peers could reproduce my doctorate in an afternoon if they ever cared about it. I was going to be the one who filled in the gaps that they left behind.
To me it was obvious that it made more sense to go try and do something valuable in a field where I could shine, than to try to make an incremental contribution that no one really needed.

Alex said...

Smart is overrated

Said by dumb people all the time to justify their envy & hatred of successful smart people.

n.n said...

Matthew Sablan:

Competent individuals will evaluate ideas on their merits, irrespective of their source and associations. Unfortunately, the cult of arrogance often sabotages personal growth and socialization, which poses an obstacle to development and success. The ability to curb one's ego, and demonstrate a deference to others, is acquired with maturity.

mccullough said...

This is true in athletics and arts as well.

Your peers will continue to get better and their determination is stronger than your self-congratulation.

Walter S. said...

Jordan Ellenberg is a good person to listen to on this subject. He writes from experience and wisdom. (So do raf, lgv, and glenn!)

There is a positive element in the cult of genius. Notice what Ellenberg says: "In third grade, I commuted to the local junior high to take geometry." Everyone benefits when people with that kind of talent are allowed to develop it as fast as they can. Don't treat them as young gods, and don't imagine that they are the only people who matter. But clear away the the barriers and put them in contact with teachers who can help them.

This is true at least for mathematics and music. For some other subjects, maybe talent should emerge in parallel with broader experience.

Gahrie said...

I rarely get to teach math...but math teachers get something other teachers usually don't. I call it the "Einstein moment". That's the look in someone's eyes when something clicks, and they finally understand the math concept they have been struggling with. I've never gotten that look while teaching English or History.

Gahrie said...

I recall very well in 2nd grade he was always being asked to explain how he got the answer -- that was the fad then, to have the students explain;

It still is..the fad is called Common Core now....

Writ Small said...

"Shorter version: Smart is overrated."

I would say rather that smart is necessary but not sufficient. It correlates perhaps more strongly with success than the other variables like drive, creativity and charisma.

If you could easily measure, say drive, you'd find that on average the most successful folks have more drive, but that not all very driven people are successful - exactly the same result as with smart.

All the best desserts have sugar, but sugar is not enough.

jr565 said...

You’re the best!
Around!
Nothing’s gonna ever keep you down
You’re the Best!
Around!
Nothing’s gonna ever keep you down
You’re the Best!
Around!
Nothing’s gonna ever keep you dow-ow-ow-ho-how-ho-own

Also, genius is overrated. I know plenty of geniuses who end up working at menial jobs or jobs that don't fulfill. They are also emotional idiots.

It's not genius so much as constant nose to the grindstone that usually gets success. And then there's the Mozarts who are geniuses and also do excel as children and then adults.

David in Cal said...

I wasn't a genius, but I was pretty darn good at math. I think I was harmed by going through normal classes in school. I developed lazy habits. When I reached the point where math became hard for me, as we all do sooner or later, I didn't work hard enough.
David in Cal

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Anonymous said...

Ellenberg spends 50 percent of this article reminiscing / humble bragging about his childhood genius and two paragraphs making his actual point.

GATE always had lectures and packets on this topic, but that doesn't mean anyone listens.

Almost everything is done in teams now, so the romantic ideal of the isolated genius is harder to realize even under the most favorable conditions.

Mountain Maven said...

STEM programs in college are designed to push out alot of talented students in the name of "excellence" to enhance the prestige of the college departments and profs. Then we wonder why we don't have more STEM grads.

Rusty said...

My neice can't decide whether to be an actuary or go on for her phd in math.
For her, life would be dull if she couldn't do math.
She taught herself algebra and geometry in grade school, by middle school she was teaching hersef calculus.

halojones-fan said...

"Shorter version: Smart is overrated."

Not really.

What the article is saying, when you look at it, is "we shouldn't be lauding the exceptional; we should celebrate the mundane, because what do the so-called exceptional ones really do? Nothing, when you look at it! Instead of wasting our resources inflating the egoes of overachievers, we should be spending that time and effort on the ones who need it the most--the poor, the underpriveleged, the disadvantaged."

The article is an apologia for the thinking behind "you didn't build that".

Aunty Trump said...

"No, the power of being outnumbered by stupid is underrated."

Good one.

carrie said...

But some employers, like EPIC, do ask applicants for the ACT and SAT scores.

Freeman Hunt said...

This is one reason to homeschool a kid like that. At home people won't be telling him he's a genius all the time.

Gahrie said...

Crabs in a bucket,...

oh the irony...it burns!

You do realize that is exactly the biggest problem facing the Black community in the United States today, right?

wildswan said...

I know a super super smart kid who was talking clearly at eighteen months about bridge building and such. Construction was his interest like all my nephews but he was advanced - trust me, I know. The kids around him who are four years older didn't even know he was smart because they didn't know what he was talking about. They just saw he still wore diapers and that's what they used to mention to him. It's hard to see that. I can't be the belligerent aunt making nasty but satisfying remarks. That just won't help because these very smart kids have a lifelong problem (as this article is pointing out) and they have to learn to handle it.

Big Mike said...

I think his point is that early smarts are not the sole indicator of later success. Some people are early prodigies, and for some other folks the "aha!" comes later in life. The basic problem is to structure education so that the early prodigies are not so turned off that they leave the field entirely, while allowing later entry to those who just haven't had the right connection snap into place.

Conserve Liberty said...

But some employers, like EPIC, do ask applicants for the ACT and SAT scores.

A billionaire privater minvestor I know through community service won't interview anyone who didn't score 1600 on the SAT. He says there are enough of those around to serve as the first-stage filter.

Lately he's hiring failed hedge fund geeks and front men. Thet hate coming to dull St. Louis, but what're you gonna do?

The Godfather said...

Until I went to college, I was used to being the smartest kid in the class. Then I went to -- well, I hesitate to mention the name, because the last time I did on this blog, someone accused me of boasting. So let's say it was a university in New England on the banks of the Charles River, and it's not MIT or BU.

Anyway, I found very quickly that I was not anywhere near the smartest person in the room, and eventually I concluded that if I wanted to succeed in life, I would have to work my ass off.

I have known a lot of smart people in my life. I don't think I've ever met any prodigies. I question whether being a prodigy is really that important in terms of where you end up. Maybe in math, but that wasn't my strength anyway.

The Cracker Emcee Refulgent said...

This reminds me of the schlubs who try to denigrate the more successful by saying they're "book smart" as opposed to "street smart". And then they bring them their appetizer or wash their car.

John Lynch said...

So... half of those studied made less than $80k/year.

Doesn't seem like smarts scales with income- the top 1% of smart people are not the people at the top 1% of incomes. Being that intelligent will probably guarantee a good middle, or upper-middle, career. It doesn't guarantee a million-dollar income. Maybe something else is at work, hmmm?

The huge number of smart people who pile into academia is probably a waste, in terms of productivity. It's not clear to me that a super-smart math teacher is going to make more of a difference than a merely smart math teacher. Even if the difference is great the number of students one teacher can reach is limited.

As the author points out, most breakthroughs aren't going to be made by geniuses.

It seems to me that getting things done is about hard work and persistence, and that the super-smart are probably coasting because they can. If you can get everything you need handed to you, why work hard? Why not pursue a career that's enjoyable rather than one that's necessary?

Kirk Parker said...

Freeman,

Exactly! They'll give him/her plenty of affection, hopefully, but also say things like "Hurry up and finish your homework, then go mow the lawn"!

MarkD said...

Parris Island taught me that intelligence wasn't everything.