BORN OR MADE?
AUGUST 27, 1997
What makes a genius? Howard Gardner considers this question in his book "Extraordinary Minds."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now a Gergen dialogue. David Gergen, editor at large of "U.S. News & World Report," engages Howard Gardner, professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and author of "Extraordinary Minds: Portraits of Four Exceptional Individuals and an Examination of Our Own Extraordinariness."
DAVID GERGEN: Howard, youíve been writing about extraordinary people now for 10 years. Youíre a development psychologist. Why write about extraordinary people?
HOWARD GARDNER, Author, "Extraordinary Minds": First of all because theyíre fascinating. And to be able to study somebody who really has made a difference in the history of the world is a privilege. But I also am trying to do more than just describe individuals. Iím trying to understand the phenomenon of extraordinariness in general. Itís as if I were an anthropologist or a naturalist and I discovered these funny individuals with names like Freud and Marx and Gandhi and Beethoven and Mozart. And I said theyíre not only remarkable, but are there certain patterns that sort of run through all these people and not perhaps can we make everybody into an Einstein. Thatís unlikely. But what can ordinary folks learn from people who really have made a difference in the history of the world?
DAVID GERGEN: Now, in this book you focused on four individuals. You focused on Mozart, on Freud, Virginia Woolf, and also Gandhi. Why these four?
HOWARD GARDNER: Because they are representatives of what I think are the four principal species, you might say, of extraordinariness, carrying the naturalist metaphor forward. Mozart I call a master. He is someone who does brilliantly what other people are doing in a domain, in this case music, but unlike Freud, whom I call a maker, Mozart had no desire really to create new genres, to do stuff that nobody else had done before. He just wanted to do magnificent works of music.
Freud as a maker was always trying to test the limits, always trying to create something new. He went through one discipline after another, never happy until he finally created his own called psychoanalysis. He made the rules. He decided who would be a psychoanalyst. He was much more like a composer like Stravinsky or Schoenberg, who earlier in this century really created wholly new musics, or Elvis or Beatles, if you want to use a popular kind of metaphor. Then there are two other kinds of extraordinariness which have to do with human beings.
One which I call the introspector is someone who really studies his or her own condition as a human being and tries to understand it very deeply. And Virginia Wolf, the novelist, is my introspector because not only did she introspect about what it was like to be a woman, to live in England early in the century, but to my mind, even more impressively, she introspected about what "conscious" is like, what does it mean to be conscious of something?
And her books try to capture what we call this dream of consciousness. And the final extraordinary person, also involved with human beings, but in this case with other human beings, is Gandhi. I call Gandhi an influencer because Gandhi may have spent time thinking about himself, but basically what he was doing was he was trying to change the beliefs and the actions of millions and millions of people, initially in South Africa, then in India, and ultimately he had effects all over the world and in this country in the civil rights movement, in Russia, in China. I think Nelson Mandela is inconceivable without the example of Gandhi and South Africa and India.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, now, as a development psychologist, you obviously look closely at the early years of childhood and what impact they have on an individual. Were extraordinary people born, or are they made?
HOWARD GARDNER: I think the only way in which extraordinary people are born is that some of them had an easy time learning things. Mozart had parents in a milieu which encouraged music-making, but he also learned music very easily. I donít think that I could have been a Mozart. But other than being able to master a domain or an area of expertise relatively quickly, I think extraordinary people are really made. Theyíre made in part by their ambition, in part by their times, in part by luck, and in part by where the particular domain is at a historical moment.
Einstein, for example, came at exactly the right time, when all the assumptions of physics, which had survived for two centuries under Newton were coming into question. Everybody knew it didnít quite work, but he was the guy who could see things in a new way, in part because of what I would say he had a particular blend of intelligence. He was able to think spatially about issues that people had often thought about just mathematically. If Einstein had been born 50 years earlier or 50 years later, itís quite likely he would not have been an outstanding physicist, and certainly would not have been as revolutionary as he was, being--coming into his prime at the beginning of the century.
DAVID GERGEN: One of the interesting points you make is about the classical story about the wound and the bow and how that applies to extraordinary people.
HOWARD GARDNER: All of us have things that go wrong in our lives. Sometimes we have so many things that go wrong that we canít deal with it, and we just give up. Sometimes we shield them out; we ignore them. What people who are extraordinary often do is they have a wound--they have something which is very painfully--either physically, you know, a disease--or psychologically, very, very difficult experiences theyíve gone through--but rather than ignoring them or be defeated by them, they wrestle with them, and they say, well, what can I learn from this.
I think there are three lessons of extraordinary people. And the ones I find actually the most inspiring I call framing. And framing means when something goes wrong--and all of us have things go wrong--can you turn it into an opportunity? Jeanne Monet, the French economist whom I studied in some depth, said, "I regard every defeat as an opportunity." Thatís a prototypical framing thing to do. You donít give up. You say, "What can I learn from this?". And hereís, I think, where the rest of us can really learn from these people, particularly if we are teachers or coaches or talking to ourselves. When things go bad, donít ignore it, donít be defeated by it, say, "What can I learn from it?". You worked closely with Richard Nixon, a very complicated person. I think itís no accident that a book that he wrote early in his career-- "Six Crises"--was a confrontation of what happens when something goes against you. Are you mobilized by it? Do you learn from it?
You make it into a strength, or youíre crippled by it. Nixon, for all his wounds so to speak, knew how to make them into strengths, into great paradox, which historians will be scratching their heads about, itís when things were going the best--in 1972, after he had won everything, thatís when he undid himself.
DAVID GERGEN: He was best dealing with adversity. He had very great trouble dealing with triumph. But Nixon also illustrates, as do these other extraordinary people, the other two lessons. Letís talk just a moment about those.
HOWARD GARDNER: Reflecting and leveraging. Reflecting means spending time thinking about what youíre doing, taking stock, taking walks, taking baths, keeping journals, anything which allows you to have a distance from your enterprise. Leveraging means figuring out what your strengths are and really pushing them. Everybody whom Iíve studied--the twenty-five or thirty extraordinary people--all have areas of amazing weakness. But theyíre not defeated by them. They, instead, say, "Whatís my strength, and whatís the niche that I can better fill than any other niche" and they really pushed those strengths.
And other people can help them with things theyíre not good at. So if you have a combination of reflecting, figuring out your strengths, and pushing them, and when things go badly not giving up but essentially learning from it, being energized, then I certainly think that you, as an individual, or your kids, if youíre thinking about it in terms of teaching or parents are more likely to be at least, you might say, if not capital "e" extraordinary more extraordinary than they would be under other circumstances.
DAVID GERGEN: I wanted to ask you one last point, in addition to those three lessons. All three--all four of the people here in this book seem to become masters of enormous diligence in their fields They worked hard at what they did.
HOWARD GARDNER: One of the things that surprised me when I began to study people is often they come from quite bourgeois backgrounds, ones where their parents may not smother them with love but where work and following a calling is very important, and theyíre not afraid to spend up to 10 years mastering something and then working for 10 more years on a problem. And one thing I worry about a great deal nowadays is between the speed with which things change and the multiplicity of opportunities which even less affluent people have, the notion of sticking to something long enough to really master it, and then to be able to take it the distance so you can become a maker, so you can go beyond it, thatís becoming more elusive. And I think we need to, in a sense, go against the time and create spaces for individuals to spend the time needed to master.
DAVID GERGEN: Dr. Howard Gardner, thank you very much.
HOWARD GARDNER: Thank you, David.