What society seems to favor in young people — obedience, popularity, good school behavior, robust mental health, plus good grades and test scores — doesn’t necessarily build on their inborn strengths. In fact the very things we define as problems are vital aspects of human diversity. Suppressing them hinders a young person’s full development into who they are.
Here’s some of the science behind kids who go their own way.
Eleven-year-old Bill was defiant and got into heated shouting matches with his parents. By the time he was 12 years old, things had gotten so bad he was in counseling for his behavior. He told his counselor, “I’m at war with my parents over who is in control.”
Plenty of us broke the rules growing up and didn’t go on to earn billions as Bill Gates did, but there may be something to defiance. In 2008, researchers got in touch with nearly 750 participants from a 1968 study. In the original study these participants had been sixth graders who’d had their intelligence, attitudes, and behavior assessed. Now the participants were in their 50’s. The researchers looked for personality traits correlated with success. They controlled for IQ, household income, level of education, and other factors. They found one particular childhood characteristic predictive of those who went on to become high achievers in adulthood — rule-breaking and defiance of parental authority.
Other studies amplify these findings, showing that teens who were truant from school, who cheated, shoplifted, or displayed other anti-social behaviors (although not serious crimes) were more likely to go on to found their own companies.
We don’t know for sure why there’s such a strong correlation between youthful defiance and adult success, but it we do know traits that make strong-willed kids seem “difficult” — things like persistence, non-conformity, boldness, confidence, intense interests, and independence- — are the same traits that in adulthood characterize leaders in business, governance, athletics, and entertainment. Strong-willed kids want to find out for themselves rather than be told, and this not only helps them resist peer pressure, it can help them think beyond conventional thinking to new ways of doing things. Like Bill Gates.
Stefani wasn’t popular. According to the book Doable, she was teased, called “ugly” and “weird,” and could barely face going to school. Stefani was so desperate to transform herself from a “voluptuous little Italian girl” to a “skinny little ballerina” that she became bulimic in high school, stopping only when her vocal chords started to become damaged.
Lady Gaga is now one of the best-selling musicians of all time. Unpopularity doesn’t mean we’re likely to top the charts in 20 countries, but popular kids with loads of friends aren’t actually happier than those with just a single really close friend. Kids with larger, less intimate social networks worry, even obsess about their status, influence, and power. Instead of having close relationships, they often have many people to manage. Popularity, especially in girls’ high pressure online lives, can feel more like managing one’s self-image than being truly known to one’s friends. Studies indicate kids with few, but close friends, even one best friend, grow up to have less depression, less anxiety, and higher self-worth.
How popularity may be gained is another concern. Research shows teens (especially young teens) often try to look and act more mature than they are in order to gain peer approval, what researchers call pseudomature behavior. This can include early use of drugs and alcohol, smoking, sex, and late partying. This often works short-term to boost their popularity. Long-term pseudomature behavior is linked to a greater likelihood of serious problems in adulthood including difficulties with close relationships, substance abuse issues, and criminal behavior. And overall, it turns out those who aren’t the “cool” kids in school are more likely to be personally and professionally competent as adults.
Michelle was a handful in grade school. “I could not sit down long enough to study and to learn,” she says. She was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD. Although she still struggled, she learned to work harder and work differently. Michelle Carter is now an Olympic champion holding the American record in women’s shot put.
Sally Shaywitz, co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, says there’s a strong connection between dyslexia and success. Although fewer than 10 percent of the U.S. population is believed to have the disorder, a study found more than a third of entrepreneurs identified themselves as dyslexic. It’s thought struggling to get by in a reading world helps people develop skills like problem-solving and perseverance. It also gives them experience with failure early on, teaching them to take more calculated risks and see opportunities where others don’t.
Dyslexics may have other strengths as well. Dr. Gail Saltz, author of The Power of Different, explains in a CNN interview that there’s a good probability people with dyslexia are more likely to have an enhanced aptitude for visual-spatial relations. “It has to do with the wiring that makes it difficult for (a person) to read and do things in a very particular way. That same wiring permits a certain kind of ability in (a person’s) peripheral vision and processing and visual-spatial processing and pattern recognition.”
Many studies have found a link between dyslexia and creativity. Comparing scores on Torrance’s Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) between young students with dyslexia to those of normative TTCT samples indicated children with dyslexia were significantly better at generating many ideas and more original ideas.
Comparing scores on the WCR (widening, connecting and reorganizing) Creativity Test between middle school students with and without dyslexia showed students with dyslexia were better able to carry out unusual combinations of ideas. (What researchers strangely called “the peculiar cognitive functioning of people with learning disabilities.”)
And after years of seeing an association between dyslexia and remarkable artistic creativity, a school of art and design funded research to study the link. Admission to the school was extremely demanding, meaning student vocation choice relied on talent and not compensation for failure in conventional academics. Lead researcher Beverley Steffart found the student body intellectually at the top 10 percent of the population, yet three-quarters of students overall were found to have some form of dyslexia. In an interview with the Independent she said, “My research so far seems to show that there does seem to be a `trade- off’ between being able to see the world in this wonderfully vivid and three-dimensional way, and an inability to cope with the written word either through reading or writing.” “
Thomas G. West points out in his book In The Mind’s Eye that dyslexic people often have the gift of thinking in three dimensions, easily able to rotate an image in their minds or visualize every detail of a completed project. He write, “historically, some of the most original thinkers in fields ranging from physical science and mathematics to politics and poetry have relieved heavily on visual modes of thought. Some of these same thinkers, however, have shown evidence of a striking range of difficulties in their early schooling including problems with reading, speaking, spelling, calculation, and memory.” He notes such early learning difficulties plagued Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Auguste Rodin, Leonardo da Vinci, William James, William Butler Yeats, and many others. “Many of these individuals may have achieved success or even greatness not in spite of but because of their apparent disabilities. They may have been so much in touch with their visual-spatial, nonverbal, right-hemisphere modes of thought that they have had difficulty in doing orderly, sequential, verbal-mathematical, left-hemisphere tasks in a culture where left-hemisphere capabilities are so highly valued.”
At 14, David was bored and reclusive. He spent most of his free time in his bedroom on the computer. His mother, a science teacher, didn’t push him to pay more attention to his classes at the Bronx High School of Science. Instead she suggested he drop out to homeschool so he could learn what he wanted to learn. After that, David didn’t pursue traditional academic subjects or go on to college. By the time he was 17 he was living alone in Tokyo, writing software, and providing tech help for a parenting blog.
He didn’t like writing as much as the blog required, so when he had a two-week gap in contracts he worked with a friend to set up a tumblelogging platform. In 2013, David Karp sold Tumblr to Yahoo for 1.1 billion. Many of us homeschool and haven’t come up with a lucrative innovation, but we do know the emphasis on high grades and test scores isn’t a formula for success.
As education reformer Alfie Kohn explains, “Research has repeatedly classified kids on the basis of whether they tend to be deep or shallow thinkers, and, for elementary, middle, and high school students, a positive correlation has been found between shallow thinking and how well kids do on standardized tests. So an individual student’s high test scores are not usually a good sign.”
Research also links higher grade point averages to less innovative or creative work overall. What’s being tested is has so little to do with the adaptable, creative, critical thinking necessary for today’s world that employers like Google, Apple, IBM, Bank of America don’t emphasize grades, test scores, even college degrees the most important criteria in the hiring process. Actually, studies show that high test scores in school don’t necessarily predict any of several hundred measures of adult maturity and competence. Increasing test scores, however, were found to be directly related to interpersonal immaturity.
We’ve known this for a long time. Back in 1985, the research seeking to link academic success with later success was examined. It was appropriated titled, “Do grades and tests predict adult accomplishment?” The conclusion? Not really. Grades and test scores only do a good job of forecasting a student’s future grades and scores. They do not necessarily correlate with later accomplishment in such areas as social leadership, the arts, or sciences. And they are not good predictors of success in career advancement, handling real life problems, or maintaining positive relationships.
That’s true in other parts of the world as well. Students in China who achieve the highest scores on college entrance exams have been found to achieve less in life after school than those who scored lower. All this test pressure, to decrease a child’s chances of success!
Another boy named David struggled with anxiety and compulsions. His repertoire of tics included rocking, counting his steps, and hitting himself on the head. Teachers were particularly frustrated by his urge to lick light switches. David was also witty and a close observer of people. He dropped out of college, did odd jobs, and dabbled in art throughout his 20’s, finally finishing an art degree in his early 30’s. When he was invited to read one of his humorous essays on NPR, David Sedaris’ career took off. He’s now the author of nine bestselling books and his speaking tours sell out each time he travels.
In an article titled “Misdiagnosis of the Gifted,” Lynne Azpeitia and Mary Rocamora explain that gifted, talented, and creative people “… exhibit greater intensity and increased levels of emotional, imaginational, intellectual, sensual and psychomotor excitability and that this is a normal pattern of development.” These attributes, however, are often misunderstood and mislabeled by teachers, parents, and therapists as mental health disorders. They may try all sorts of interventions in hopes of normalizing what are essentially symptoms of an exceptional individual.
As Ms. Azpeitia and Ms. Rocamora go on to explain, “For the gifted, inner conflict is a developmental rather than a degenerative sign, because it drives the gifted person forward to replace current ways of thinking and being with those of higher level development. This type of positive disintegration is characterized by an intensified inner tension between what one is and what one could be. This dynamic tension is what fuels the creative person’s complex inner life and provides the impetus for growth and development.”
All sorts of studies have found links between creativity and mood disorders like anxiety, depression, and compulsions. One such study followed participants in the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop. For ten years researchers tracked 30 participants in the program along with 30 people matched in age and IQ who didn’t work in creative fields. Close to 30 percent of the control group reported some form of mental illness. In contrast, 80 percent of the writers suffered from some form of mental illness.
According to neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, author of The Creating Brain, creative people are often skeptical of authority and prefer to make up their own minds. They are more drawn to questions than answers, and may find rituals help them cope with ambiguity. Feelings of alienation, fear, and depression are common and can themselves drive even greater creativity.
We talking about a different kind of genius.
Mathematician Eric Weinstein says conventional educational gets in the way of genius. Genius is associated with high-variance, and such variance is often found in people who are diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD, and other differences. Dr. Weinstein says they aren’t suited to conventional educational systems, and explains,
“If you look at the learning disabled population they very often are the most intellectual, accomplished members of society… These are the individuals who are going to cure cancer. These are the people who are going to create new multi-billion dollar industries… How much genius is squandered by muting the strengths of these populations?”
Standardized expectations don’t allow us to see that our differences are a necessary part of who we are. That isn’t to minimize the difficulties people experience as they struggle to grow up and find their way, but it can help us to accept each person as a unique constellation of traits, abilities, and inclinations. Instead of emphasizing what we perceive as a young person’s weaknesses, we can build on their strengths. Instead of forcing them to “make up” for what we think they’re missing we can let them explore what enchants them. Instead of insisting on one narrow path to adult success we can throw the definition of success open to what each person makes of it.