Friday, August 25, 2006


Colors Delineate One Standard Deviation
(Graphed by Wikipedia)

Wednesday's hardcopy of the International Herald Tribune (Seoul) featured Matthew Gurewitsch's NYT article, "A 14-year-old composer's sophisticated debut" (August 23, 2003), on the young musical prodigy Jay Greenberg, who already has his own CD:

A first CD on a major label is validation a classical composer may never live to see. For Jay Greenberg, the big day has come. Last week, Sony Classical released his 34-minute Symphony No.5, recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra under José Serebrier.
That's quite impressive. Child prodigies fascinate me, perhaps because my older brother Pat was something of a prodigy. According to my mother, Pat was speaking very early, and one of my uncles, who was skeptical upon first hearing that Pat could speak, confirmed that Pat was speaking understandable sentences at 6 months.

My brother has gone on to become quite successful as a "senior vice president and director of Housing, Technology and Planning" for the Federal Home Loan Bank in Topeka, Kansas. I knew that his job often requires him to travel to the East Coast -- sometimes to New York City, sometimes to Washington, D.C. -- to confer with banking officials and legislators, respectively. I just didn't know his precise title until I looked my brother up on the internet. According to the same site, Zoom Information Inc., my brother has done "post-graduate work in finance at Princeton University." Princeton, eh? I didn't know that. My brother did mention to me that he has a masters degree and several credit hours toward a Ph.D., and he's done this without trying very hard even as he's pursued his fulltime banking career.

Pat found his career almost by accident. He and a couple of other dropouts from college left Arkansas for Springfield, Missouri to seek work. They noticed that a local bank was hiring. Pat wasn't interested, but his two friends were. Those two got all serious, prepared for the interview, spruced themselves up, and were heading out the door when Pat decided that he'd tag along and do the interview, too, just for the experience.

He got the job.

At first, he worked as a teller, but his employers recognized his potential before he did and gave him more responsibilities. At some point, they asked him to write a report. Word came back to him that the bank president had been "very impressed" with his report. My brother was surprised because he hadn't put much work into it. He re-read his own report and thought, "No, it's nothing special." But it was far beyond what his co-workers had produced, and the very positive reaction of his employers came as a revelation to him.

He decided to see how far he could go. Good decision, too, for it led him to his current success.

Odd, to think that a whim of the moment landed him his job. Just a chance opportunity. Almost random. But given his chance, he had the intellectual gifts to learn quickly things that I'd never master even after years of study. I sometimes wonder what my brother might be doing if his pronounced mental abilities even as an infant had been supported with education from an early age.

Even the gifted need direction. Gurewitsch's article on the 14-year-old musical prodigy makes the point that even he needs to be taught by the right people:

Whatever Greenberg's symphonies may sound like in his head or in electronic approximations, there are lessons only live musicians in real time can teach him.
Gurewitsch then asks:
How far will Greenberg go? "Some prodigies become better and better," said Serebrier, the first conductor of Greenberg's Fifth Symphony, "and others disappear."
Indeed, that's the danger, as Grady M. Towers notes "three sorts of childhoods and three sorts of adult social adaptations made by the gifted" in "The Outsiders" (Gift of Fire, Issue No. 22, April 1987; hat tip, Dennis Mangan):
The first of these may be called the committed strategy. These individuals were born into upper middle class families, with gifted and well educated parents, and often with gifted siblings. They sometimes even had famous relatives. They attended prestigious colleges, became doctors, lawyers, professors, or joined some other prestigious occupation, and have friends with similar histories. They are the optimally adjusted. They are also the ones most likely to disbelieve that the exceptionally gifted can have serious adjustment problems.

The second kind of social adaptation may be called the marginal strategy. These individuals were typically born into a lower socio-economic class, without gifted parents, gifted siblings, or gifted friends. Often they did not go to college at all, but instead went right to work immediately after high school, or even before. And although they may superficially appear to have made a good adjustment to their work and friends, neither work nor friends can completely engage their attention. They hunger for more intellectual challenge and more real companionship than their social environment can supply. So they resort to leading a double life. They compartmentalize their life into a public sphere and a private sphere. In public they go through the motions of fulfilling their social roles, whatever they are, but in private they pursue goals of their own. They are often omnivorous readers, and sometimes unusually expert amateurs in specialized subjects.


And finally there are the dropouts. These sometimes bizarre individuals were often born into families in which one or more of the parents were not only exceptionally gifted, but exceptionally maladjusted themselves. This is the worst possible social environment that a gifted child can be thrust into. His parents, often driven by egocentric ambitions of their own, may use him to gratify their own needs for accomplishment. He is, to all intents and purposes, not a living human being to them, but a performing animal, or even an experiment.
The gifted composer Greenberg seems to fit the first category, but my brother doesn't seem to fit any of the three. My mother once told me that Pat's IQ had tested at over 160, but she found it unbelievable even though her own IQ was also very high. Now, I'm not especially impressed by high IQ scores, but they do say something about high intelligence despite the fact that some kinds of intelligence escape quantitative measurement. Anyway, having a gifted mother would put Pat in the first category, but being from a lower socio-economic class would put him in the second. He's pretty clearly not the third category despite at one point being a dropout.

In short, my brother doesn't fit any of the three categories, but that shouldn't surprise us since -- as everybody knows -- child prodigies and geniuses are misfits.



At 12:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you heard about Perelman's story lately?

At 12:58 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John, yes, I have, and I should have posted some of it. Thanks for the relevant link.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeff, I don't know where Mom got the 160 idea--I don't recall taking an IQ test at all, at any time. The Princeton reference, while flattering, is incorrect. I have taken graduate finance classes at Washburn University in Topeka.

Anyway, Ann begins treatment tomorrow--targeted chemotherpay to the brain. She only has one "lesion" so that's good news. Please keep her in your thoughts and prayers.


At 3:59 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Pat, thanks for the correction. Who cares about Princeton anyway?

As for undergoing IQ tests, perhaps Mr. Caldwell camoflaged one as a game when you were young.

Anyway, I'll definitely be thinking of you and Ann. I'm still intending to send you an email privately.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you might be interested in a story Wired did last month called "What Kind of Genius Are You?" It's basically a comparison of two styles of creative achievement: the conceptualist variety that hits people when they're young, but exhausts itself early (examples are Picasso and Ezra Pound); and the experimentalist type that's slow to mature and rises "asymptotically" (the article points to Cezanne and Robert Frost here).

At 10:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Nathaniel, that's a good article. I wonder where Milton fits among the conceptualists and the experimentalists. Perhaps some geniuses have both gifts.

Jeffery Hodges

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