The Outsiders

May 30, 2008

Grady Towers wrote an article in 1987 called “The Outsiders” (republished here), which 20 years later is still relevant.

Towers raises several questions that I’d like to explore in more detail. I’ll cover one of the interesting ones in this post.

One of the problems faced by all gifted persons is learning to focus their efforts for prolonged periods of time. Since so much comes easily to them, they may never acquire the self-discipline necessary to use their gifts to the fullest. Hollingworth describes how the habit begins.

Where the gifted child drifts in the school unrecognized, working chronically below his capacity (even though young for his grade), he receives daily practice in habits of idleness and daydreaming. His abilities never receive the stimulus of genuine challenge, and the situation tends to form in him the expectation of an effortless existence [3, p. 258].

This is a serious problem for gifted children, including my own.

I avoided it by being curious and irrational. I bet against the status quo by doing poorly in school in favor of the subjects that interested me, and it so happens that I won the bet. But you won’t. No one can expect to win a bet whose expected value is negative, so it’s silly to make that your policy.

Still, it does seem that the status quo doesn’t work for us. My advice is different depending on your age:

To Young People

If you are a young person of high intelligence who wants to conquer this creeping blasé, I suggest doing some of what I did and not doing other parts. Like I said, it’s not in your best interests to fully bet against the school system. Instead, play it.

Worst case scenario, slog through your classes doing the minimum to keep a B average. Meanwhile, pursue your passions. Do something monumentally difficult — bonus points if it looks good on a college application.

Alternately, make it your goal to manipulate the situation such that you can set up a non traditional educational setting for yourself, that will allow you pursue your passions while getting educational credit for doing so. You can do this in a number of ways, including Existential home schooling, or a special arrangement swith the school district or individual teachers.

It’s a difficult social engineering problem, but you’re a genius, you’ll figure it out.

At the end of the process, if you must, go to a top school for the most difficult subject you can imagine, or don’t go to school at all.

To Adults

I think you may have it worse. You may be the slightly dysfunctional product of a school system that failed you. At this point I think you should find a difficult problem of some social importance, and make that your obsession. I know it may be difficult for you to work and obsess separately, so I suggest you work as little as possible, and try to live with some austerity. Alternately, set a reasonable time period and develop a plan to become independently wealthy, which really isn’t that difficult.

The effect of finding a difficult problem to obsess over is that you will train your mind to be curious. If you have a tangible issue to solve, you will be forced to learn about it and tinker with solutions. The act of learning, which has been largely stolen from you by a lifetime of rote memorization and negative affect toward the educational machine, will become second nature when you put it in a practical, interesting context. I have no doubt you find something interesting and know a great deal about it, but I bet it’s not of practical value.

People with your affliction have the minutia of the fictional Star Trek universe emblazoned on their short term memory. They know everything about a particular genus of organisms like birds or dinosaurs. They memorize hollywood movies complete with scripts, actors, and meta information.

These are the rabid flailings of an idle mind with more horse power than it has information to process. If a mind like that can be trained to focus on problems of difficulty and importance, instead of wasted as a repository for disconnected taxonomies, the possibilities are endless.

You will live a happier life if you are engaged in a meaningful pursuit, and if that pursuit helps others as well, all the better.