Earlier this year I posted a link to an excerpt from a 60 Minutes show featuring Jacob Barnett. When Jake was two, and was diagnosed with autism, he seemed to be retreating into an internal world where his parents felt they couldn’t reach him. He’s now a graduate student in theoretical physics.  In his mother’s new book, she tells the detailed version of the story that aired on 60 Minutes.  As the popular summary of Jake’s story goes, his parents refused to believe that he’d never learn to walk or read. They followed many of the prescribed therapy regimens, but they also let him explore the things that seemed to fascinate him, though they didn’t exactly understand what those things were or what they would come to.  His mom, Kristine, writes in the book:

One morning when I walked into the kitchen to refill my coffee cup, the scene before me took my breath away.  Jake had run different-colored yarn all around the kitchen – crisscrossing through the refrigerator handle and around the garbage pail, the table and chair legs, the cabinet pulls, and the knobs of the stove.  The result was a series of brilliantly colored, intricate, overlapping webs.  Using yards of yarn, he had created not a terrible, tangled mess, but a design of complexity, beauty, and sophistication. …It must have seemed a little crazy to let him take over the house in this way.  Some days it was even impossible to get into my kitchen.  But his intricate designs were spectacular to look at, and when the sun streamed through the windows, the shadows they threw moved and changed as the day progressed, involving the whole room in a complex play of light and dark.  These creations were evidence to me that my little boy was in there, busy working on something magnificent.  They gave me a way in, a glimpse into his private world and his extraordinary mind.

The Spark

Jake’s parents could have ignored his fascination with light and shadows as a passing attraction or whim – they could have shut down his access to yarn and insisted that he instead spend all of his time working on his therapies – but they didn’t.  Of the many parts to the Barnetts’ story that can offer inspiration and insight to families with children who are struggling, I think this one may be the most compelling.  Their child was enthralled with things (like this work he was doing with the yarn) that they didn’t at all understand, things that could easily be deemed superfluous, a waste of time, an obsession, little more than a mess.  (And in fact such things often are, by parents and other adults.) The Barnetts were tempted to believe what professionals were telling them about their child – that they couldn’t hope for much from him. But what they decided to believe instead was that whatever Jake was up to in his mind could be the key to reconnecting with him and to helping him find a way to be with them in the social world.

We tend to dismiss many child-chosen pursuits as frivolous, cute, or passing. What if instead we took these things seriously the way the Barnetts did, even when kids aren’t retreating the way Jake was?  We wouldn’t all end up with pint-sized physicists as this family did, but we’d make it possible for a much wider range of potential to emerge and for more kids to feel as though they’ve got something worthwhile to offer, from the very beginning.

Jake’s example

I just watched this 60 Minutes story on Jacob Barnett, the 14 year-old student at Purdue University who’s been attracting attention for his exceptional abilities in math and science, particularly physics. It’s just generally inspiring and delightful to watch Jake in action, but the part of this story that got my attention begins about six minutes in:

Morley Safer: Just before his second birthday, Jake began to regress; stopped speaking and making eye contact.  After consulting with several doctors, the diagnosis was autism.

Michael Barnett, Jacob’s dad: We went through speech therapy, physical therapy, developmental therapy, occupational therapy; therapists came to the home…

Kristine Barnett, Jacob’s mom: He was going further and further from our world into a world of his own and I really was just baffled as to how we were going to get him back out of that world.

Morley Safer: And how did you get him back, out of that world?

Kristine Barnett: We realized that Jacob was not happy unless he was doing something he loved.

Morley Safer: Which even as a three year-old was math and science.  His parents say the more he focused on the subjects he loved, the more he began to communicate. 

Kristine Barnett: You could just see him just relax.  You could just see him feel like ‘Thank goodness we’re not working on something that I can’t do today.”

I’m inspired by the way Jacob’s mom talks about what happened when he was two.  She says that her son was “going further and further into a world of his own,” and that they wanted to get him back.  It seems like it would have been easy to worry that supporting Jake’s ventures into the depths of abstract mathematical thought would have pushed him further into the “world” they sought to bring him back from.  But the Barnetts trusted that those things that brought Jake the most peace and contentment were the key to maintaining connection with him. They reorganized his life around what was already engaging and fascinating to him, and eased up on pushing him to do the things that seemed to be shutting him down.

As it turned out, having permission to give his attention to the pursuits that called to him seems to have made it possible for Jake to find (or regain) avenues for communication and other social interaction.  From the sound of it, the family continued to work with him on speaking and engaging with others, but those things were no longer the center of attention.  Communication skills were reassigned – instead of taking center stage, they were given the chance to support the complex intellectual work Jake craved.

The Barnetts are quick to acknowledge that Jake is one person and it doesn’t work to generalize their experience to all or even any other children with autism diagnoses.  But they do encourage parents of any child who appears to be struggling to do just what they did – to look for the spark of contentment and delight in the child – and build around that spark.  Not every child makes it as obvious as Jake did where that spark lies, but I haven’t met a child yet who didn’t have one.

The future of smart hiring

Yesterday’s post about the two NASA engineers reminded me of the excerpt from Stuart Brown’s book Play which I’ve mentioned a few times before.  (Here’s a link to the most recent mention.) Brown tells the story of how the managers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (the lab behind the Mars landing) noticed in the late 90s that graduates of top engineering schools were often unable to solve the kind of problems JPL needed them to solve.  The hiring managers started asking candidates how they spent their childhoods, looking for those who’d done a lot of tinkering, taking apart, fixing, building… playing.  If Brown has his dates right, this JPL realization came before Steltzner and Ferdowsi were hired.

It can seem, given the competitive job market and the competitive college admissions realm,  as though it doesn’t matter to employers whether or not you can actually do the work they need you to do, as long as you have the right alma mater and the right grades.  But employers who really want to do the best possible work are changing their ways, which means it’s no longer a good idea to forsake genuine inquiry, investigation, and relevant training for the sake of toeing the academic line.  Like I said yesterday, the Curiosity guys didn’t make it to the control room just by building things out of blocks and gazing up at the stars.  But the fact that they were driven by their connection with these experiences not only made it possible for them to conquer the obstacles that surely came up in the course of their training and education, it also made them appealing candidates for the extremely complicated work they were interested in doing.

The guys who landed Curiosity

Since the rover Curiosity landed on Mars in August, two of the engineers involved in the project have been getting lots of attention in the press.

Adam Steltzner, who was in charge of the actual landing, has been telling the story of his unorthodox path to accomplishment in the aerospace field.  According to Steltzner, he wasn’t much of a student in high school, so he stopped going.  A few years later he was driving home at night and got to wondering why the stars he could see were in different positions in the sky from how they’d appeared earlier in the evening.  Soon after, he attempted to enroll in an astronomy class at the local community college but found that the class had a physics prerequisite. Steltzner had struggled with basic high school math, so one might imagine that the prerequisite would have ended his quest for an astronomy education.  In fact, it was the beginning of his ascent to tremendous success as a scholar in and as a practical contributor to aerospace engineering.  His alma mater captured the phenomenon this way: “Steltzner quickly experienced the epiphany that has transformed many lives before his: What people resist doing by rote and requirement, they’ll cheerfully embrace through passion and curiosity.”

Steltzner’s colleague Bobak Ferdowsi, the flight director on the Curiosity mission, traveled a less circuitous route to his occupation, but his success as an engineer also seems to have begun as Steltzner’s did, with a fascination with science and space.  He told it this way to WIRED: “I always loved science fiction, I used to love to draw spaceships. Another thing that helped me as a kid was that I played with Legos constantly. I’m sure a lot of kids do, but for me it was not only being creative but being able to build the thing that you’ve imagined. It’s hands-on engineering. We actually use Legos here at work sometimes – more in the early part of the mission – when we’re trying to make a quick 3-D model of something. Legos are one of the reasons I ended up where I am.”

These two would not likely be as successful as they are without the rigorous academic training they’ve received.  But for both of them the prelude to that academic training was critical.  Academics alone was not enough to engage Steltzner.  He needed context and inspiration before it felt worth it to apply himself sufficiently to the study of the field in which he’d go on not only to succeed but to innovate. And from the sound of it, Ferdowsi didn’t struggle as Steltzner did, but he makes it clear that the Legos and the spaceships of his youth were instrumental.  His context and inspiration just came earlier than Steltzner’s did.

The role of the sky and the Legos in Steltzner and Ferdowsi’s accomplishments might seem like grounds for a mandate of stargazing or building.

But these guys aren’t saying “Thank goodness someone made me learn this stuff.” They’re saying “This is what fascinated me. Then I went after it.”

When we start spending our energy and other resources supporting young people in finding their own fascinations – their own versions of the stars or the Legos – rather than only on convincing them how important it is to read and write and calculate early, we’ll end up not only with lots more accomplished and knowledgeable people in every field, but also with more proficient readers, writers, and mathematicians. For so many of us, maybe even most of us, the context makes all the difference.

How much room you get

A few months ago I read a short essay by a classical pianist about creating a recording of his performance of a piece of music.  At one point in the story he mentions that the positioning of the microphone relative to the piano is important.  It affects the roundness of the sound, he says, and “how much room you get versus how much piano.” I’d never thought about it quite that way before, that of course a recording includes the surroundings as well as the object of the recording.

I was reminded of this handful of words the other day when I heard someone mention a behavioral diagnosis frequently given to young children.  I have spent enough time with a wide enough range of children with various diagnoses to know that there are very real symptoms and challenges associated with particular combinations of neurological organization and chemistry, so I do not dismiss any such diagnoses out of hand.  But I think the musician’s query about how much piano and how much room can serve us in choosing how we’ll relate to and assess a child’s behavior.  We could ask ourselves “How much is the child and how much is the room?”

It seems to be easiest and most common to head right for all-child, no room.  That assessment, locating all of a child’s performance inside his or her skin, puts us in a comfortable helping position.  We can focus all of our efforts on fixing the child’s problem.  Another simple one is all-room, no child.  This one is clean in the opposite way, vilifying the environment and absolving the child.

In my experience it’s almost always much much more complicated and intricate than either of those two possible assessments.  Just as you can’t have the sound of an instrument without the space and conditions in which you play it, you can’t have behavior without the parameters of physical space in which it occurs, the demands made on and expectations of the person doing the behaving, the words spoken to him or her before and during, and myriad other conditions and contributing factors.

When I’ve made this point before, I’ve received frustrated and even outraged exclamations that I’m failing to recognize the plights of children, that my suggestion that we be careful to include the impact of a child’s surroundings implies that I think that kids aren’t actually struggling.

And I have seen many cases in which behavioral diagnoses are assigned because the diagnosed children are behaving inconveniently, not because the children are actually struggling.  But in fact I think it’s just as important, maybe more important, to the children who are actually struggling that we consider every factor in our efforts to support them.  That we are careful to disentangle to the furthest extent possible the elements of difficulty that are inherent to a specific human organism from those that are introduced from outside the confines of the organism.

Only once we’ve asked ourselves how much of what we’re seeing is the child and how much of it is the room can we actually begin the work of tackling any truly inherent struggle.

Table, brother, geography

I’ve been doing some grappling lately with the notion of genius, and in the course of it came across Matthew Syed’s Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success.  I’m only several pages in, and I’m not sure yet how or if the book is substantially different from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, but Syed’s account of and commentary on his success as a table tennis player does what none of Gladwell’s examples do, because he tells the story in the first person.  (Now that I think of it, it’s been long enough since I read Outliers that I’m not sure Gladwell doesn’t tell his own story; either way it’s not one of the prominent lengthy examples in the book the way Syed’s is.)

More soon on genius, potential, etc., but in the meantime, I recommend having a look at the table tennis story from Syed if you’re interested.  (You can start with the free sample at amazon; it’s a good lengthy one that includes the whole section I’m talking about here.)


Yesterday one of the 10 year-olds I know told me that his younger brother can stay up much later than he can. And he didn’t mean by odd parental decree; he just gets too tired even when he’s allowed to stay up longer, while his brother could keep reading on and on into the night.

Over and over I’m reminded that there are myriad ways like this in which we’re different from each other, no matter how similar our experience or genetic makeup.  And it’s easy to imagine that if we had more latitude to live the differences we might realize more of our actual potential.

I’ve been reading Till Roenneberg’s book about chronotypes. The book is about internal physiological clocks and how individuals have different sleep needs.  Roenneberg suggests that we’d be wise to stop forcing the same schedule on everyone.  He points out that 9-5 is not at all the only work schedule available, and the school hours we mandate for young people and their learning doesn’t bring the best out in many of them.

The little guy marveling at his brother’s talent for staying up late doesn’t know it, but later on if all goes according to tradition, he’ll be the one who’s commended for his sleep habits, while his (also) brilliant little brother may well have to struggle to get his mind to work during other people’s hours.

There’s certainly value in finding a way to function in the social world as it is.  But it’s costly to try to force-fit one’s self (or someone else’s self).  The world is getting more flexible not less in options and configurations for work and livelihood.  It’s the perfect time to stretch our conceptions of how it might be possible for each person to figure out what works best for them and then find ways to reconcile that with the societal structures they need and choose to engage with.


On my way out to water the tomatoes this morning I heard the unmistakable sound of an electric sander coming from across the street – the steady mid-range pitch of the thing spinning before it makes contact with a surface, the shift up to a wobbly whine when it touches, the drop when it rounds a corner or slips off an edge.  There are several handy folks in the neighborhood, so this sort of noise is not unusual and many of us recognize by ear the variation from saw to sander to shop-vac.

When I actually emerged from the house I discovered that what I’d heard was not an actual sander but a three year-old neighbor imitating a sander.  He and his brother were sanding a birdhouse manually, and he was adding the soundtrack, presumably to make it feel more like they were using the power tool their dad would. Or maybe he was just doing it for fun, because he could.

Even as I stood there watching him do it, I had trouble believing it wasn’t actually a sander.  He was that good at it.  It was like he was singing.  Which, of course, he was.  Not singing a song, but singing.  He’d figured out how to match exactly the wandering pitch and tone of the machine, he’d chosen a duration for each level, and he’d decided where the loop would start again.

When I talk to parents about what their children could do when they were very young, they almost always have a story about something quirky and unexpected like this.   The things kids do with astonishing skill and commitment, without being told and without being taught, the ones that seem odd, that another person might never have thought or been inspired to do, can be just the ones to lead us to their specific genius.

Their own devices

It’s tough to use this phrase without getting derailed by the obvious pun or irony available given the various portable game consoles, MP3 players, and smartphones that populate many a modern child’s existence.  But I still often find it asking for my attention when I see young people at work on whatever is truly their own; when they’re left to what are actually their own devices –the mechanisms that operate in their minds and internal worlds, made visible in what they create and share with their speaking, drawing, singing, building, imagining, and other art and craft.

Yesterday I saw a series of drawings penned by a nine year-old I know.  One of what I would call this child’s own devices is a knack for telling terrifically dramatic and often ironic stories on paper, with spare line drawings and few words.  At first my eye was tempted to wince at the size and shape of her lettering.  And it would be easy to mistake what she’d drawn and written for an unsophisticated product for someone her age.  It would be easy to worry that she’s behind.

But the plots of these stories, the behavior of the characters, and the choice of words in the dialogue betray their author and illustrator’s wisdom and knowledge.  More than once as I was looking over the body of work I heard myself saying “I’ve never seen that done before.”

Kids’ own devices are often of this nature – a surprising and subtle confluence of the distinct neurological wiring they arrive with and the things they’ve seen and heard along the way that shape and inspire them.  When we’re distracted by how well they are or aren’t forming their letters or whether or not they can remember, quickly, the difference between 17 and nine, we can miss their best stuff.

Which is a shame, because it’s much easier to practice your letters once you find reason to do so, or devise a strategy for managing calculation, than it is to reclaim an authentically original and unique way of responding to the world after it’s been pushed aside or snuffed out all together.

Smart as Springsteen

I read a profile of Bruce Springsteen the other day in which his manager, Jon Landau, says that Springsteen “is the smartest person I’ve ever known – not the most informed or the most educated – but the smartest. If you are ever confronted with a situation – a practical matter, an artistic problem – his read of the people involved is exquisite.  He is way ahead.”

What I like about this comment from Landau is that his assessment grows out of the context of Springsteen’s work.  The “situations” he’s talking about are those that a musician or other artist faces.  They’re not general.  And what Landau sees as Springsteen’s brilliance – the way he responds to and navigates such situations – is presumably the combined result of what was always true of him, from the time he was very young and began his work as a musician, and what he has experienced in the course of a lifetime spent mastering a craft.  Landau observes Springsteen’s intellect in the context of the work he was drawn to and then dedicated himself to.

What if we were to do this for everyone, even (or maybe especially), young children?  If we were to watch to see what they were up to, in which contexts they shone brightest and seemed most at ease, and built our conceptions of them from there?

Lots more of them would seem lots smarter.  Not the kind of smart we just tell kids they are no matter what, to boost their confidence when their school performance is flagging.  The kind of smart we can point out evidence of, the kind they can believe us about because it’s got context; it pertains to whatever life work they’ve already embarked upon, not the slippery ladder of arbitrary mandate.

And the thing about people, of any age, is that the way we seem to those who are watching has a big impact on the way we see ourselves.  So when more kids start seeming smart to us, more kids will start seeming smart to themselves.