Sunday, April 29, 2007

Smart kids and success

Who’s smart and who’s not? How do you tell? What will it mean?

Most people who grew up in the USA were given some kind of standardized intelligence test during high school. In my case, in 1970, the test results determined my placement in classes. We had Phase 1, II, III, IV and a few Phase V classes. The kids with the highest scores were in Phase V. Most kids, they told us, would be Phase III.

We didn’t talk about the kids in Phase I and II.

The scores were supposed to be a secret, but word got out. The guidance counselors told us we were in “percentiles.” Five was the average. Ninth was the highest. First was the lowest. I was a Nine, along with a bunch of other kids.

Our school was populated with children of the professors at UMass, Amherst College, and Hampshire College. So we might have had a smarter-than-average student body. That is, if you believe intelligence is inherited and you also believe college professors – as a group – are more intelligent than average.

If you were an Eight or a Nine, people talked about it. Teachers used it like a club, “So smart, and such a waste . . . .” they would say.

If you were a One or a Two, you kept quiet.

Would you think those tests would be a predictor of future success? Doesn’t it seem like the smarter the kid, the better he’d do? From what I can see, thirty some years later, it didn’t work out that way. It was the Phase IIIs that grew up to rule the world.

Long after high school, I founded my automobile business. In twenty years of caring for Land Rover, Bentley, Rolls Royce, Mercedes and BMW automobiles and their owners, I’ve met a whole lot of successful people. Sure, there are some geeks like me who made it big, but the vast majority of financially successful people are just regular guys, with one important difference.

They knew what they wanted to be when they grew up, at an early age. And they plodded steadily forward in pursuit of that dream. They didn’t give up.

For many, the dream changed or evolved. But they stayed the course, and it paid off.

Does being smarter – as measured on those long ago tests – make it harder to succeed? I think it may. Kids with high test IQs are more likely to study esoteric things – physics or molecular biology, for example. And careers that use that knowledge, while providing a good paycheck, don’t make many millionaires.

Most millionaires are made in very mundane ways, in fact. I know a good many of the most successful people in Western Massachusetts. Here are some of the things they do:
Own office buildings and commercial space
Own a few thousand apartments
Develop real estate
Recycle old automobiles
Manufacture candles
Own a bus company
Own a bunch of motels
Run hospital emergency rooms
Manufacture ice cream
Own and run restaurant chains
Distribute beer and soda

That’s a good cross section of who’s wealthy in America.

What happened to the Phase V kids? I have not kept up with very many, because more of them moved out of the area. Some of the ones I know . . .
Design software
Work in radar engineering
Teach engineering at a college
Invent electronic games
Own software companies
Analyze derivatives on Wall Street.

Good incomes all, but only the last one is financially on a par with the Phase IIIs I listed.

It has taken me many years, and an extensive study of myself and Asperger’s to understand what those Phase IIIs have in addition to determination that made them so successful.

The answer: Above average people skills.

Why don’t we test for that in school?

Why don’t we teach it?

Why indeed?

It IS teachable. I am proof. When I learned about my own Asperger’s, I read what I was doing that set me apart from everyone else. And I changed my behaviors. The result: I became more successful, fast.

Do teachers even know the importance of that? In my school career, which ended at 10th grade, I sure heard plenty about how I’d end up a zero if I didn’t master Math and Science and English. Never once did “social skills” appear on the threat horizon.

I’ll close with this: My friend Steve can’t read or write, at age 50. But he’s a millionaire, because he can run a cash register, he’s friendly, a good talker, and people love him.

Are we teaching the right things in school? Or do we just not teach enough things?

10 comments:

Michelle O'Neil said...

Wow. Great post!

I've heard recently that a lot of big corporations are sending their recruits to etiquette school because their new hires just don't know how to act.

Social skills should definately be added to the general cirriculum, along with non-violent communication techniques.

John Elder Robison said...

I agree about the social skills.\

Is our society at such a state that we need courses in non-violent communication?

Perhaps it is. Kids didn't have guns when I was in school. Schools didn't need metal detectors.

But here is another thought: Kids are violent because they are angry. Many are angry because they have no future, they feel they are nothing, and their parents feel the same way, and take the frustration out on the kids.

If we created more opportinuty for America's increasingly frustrated and lost lower classes, we'd have less violence and crime.

If we created real job opportunities for 18-year-olds in our cities, fewer of them would turn to crack.

kyra said...

i discovered you through drama mama's site. wow! glad i did.

my son has aspergers and we just completed a looooong bout of testing through the school system, required in our state since he just turned 6 and has an IEP (though we homeschool) and, they didn't put it in quite the same terms but i'd say he came back a '9'.

we know he's bright but the social piece is, and has ALWAYS BEEN, more important. these people skills, critical. not just for financial success (our son has a clear career goal--rocket ship pilot AND a clear financial goal--to be a trillionnaire) but for their own personal success. relationships ARE SO KEY.

we're moving to the northampton area soon. are there any great schools that zero in on this for when our guy gets a bit older?

John Elder Robison said...

Kyra, Smith College has a good program for kids, and the Amherst Montessori School is good. Also there's the Hartsbrook school.

But before you spend $10,000 per year on any of them you should look at the Amherst schools. They are very good for public school and there are many resources here around the University and Amherst College.

Drama Mama said...

John,
I loved this post, because my daughter has always had such strong cognitive skills. At a very early age, she compensates for her poor social skills by studying books on relationships and etiquette. She's deconstructing it first, then slowly applying the information. She often cross-references a book she's read when she comes upon a difficult situation for her.
Thanks for this post. I feel confident that she's on a good path.

Ritergal said...

Can we see a video of those wiggling ears? Or at least an animated gif? :-)

Seriously, today's post resonates big time. Beyond what you said, I suspect that the Eights and Nines may have more trouble following that dream because they are good at many things, and have such diverse interests that isolating one powerful dream is unlikely to happen. Such people are often proud to be self-styled "Rennaisance Men" (or women).

That said, it's a crying shame that the skills you advocate are not taught. I know lots of folks who graduated, often with advanced degrees, from the Big Name Schools, and that Big Name has not bought them a cup of coffee in the long run. It's the hacks from State U who have natural savvy who end up running the place.

I'm sending your link to several folks I know who have relatives and loved ones with Asbergers.

Write on!

Holly Kennedy said...

I couldn't agree more.
My sons are average. One has a short temper and it worries me. The other is shy. However, BOTH have good hearts and are highly empathetic to others (something I consider key to them evolving into good people).

And, no, schools sure aren't focusing on the right things these days. At least, I don't believe they are.

Kim Stagliano said...

John, if your book is as informative as this post we're all in for a treat. Schools today teach for the tests - not for the world. It's a shame and a national tragedy.

Anonymous said...

I agree completely with your post. Forget Aspergian or 'normal'. (what truly IS normal, afterall) I had a similar expierience in the fitness environ. I owned a fitness center and got interns to work the floor from the local college. It was always amazing how many 'kids', 20 something's really, could not integrate with people. Not only could they not strike up a conversation on the fly, they had horible listening skills and interaction skills. Those in people busineses know that much of an interaction is non-verbal. How you stand, what and where your eyes are, set of your jaw, forhead expression, hand position....

My question was always what was going on in the homes and schools that these skills are not being A) taught or at least brough to the attention of the young adults. Hell, not to sound like a Stalinesque Dad but my daughter is 7 years old and we play a game already that entails her talking to me about anything (as 7 year olds do ;) ) without using "And Um". She loves practicing the skill and it makes/helps her to be be so much more attentive to her story. It also helps dear old Dad listen too!! The game comes in when one of us misses the offensive diction and it slips by.

It is definetly coming into the work place with EQ books and skill building courses for job interviewing. The problem is that these 'skills' need to be taught from birth. After the fact they become only patch work. My personal sense is that yet again we discover a new 'topic/skill' to teach our kids that we then try to foist off on the teachers and school systems. So now teachers and schools are discipline specialists, subject matter teachers and now etiquette and emotional intelligence teachers. Our future is bleak if we ask teachers to parent and let parents off the hook for everything.

great thoughts John! I love the way you make us think!!

Lili Marlene said...

I agree that social skills are the key to making big money. I do question the ultimate wisdom of putting the acquisition of huge wealth as a main goal in life. I think society is currently assuming that the slice of humanity who have excellent social skills, probably with deficits in systemizing skills, are necessarily happy and functional people. I'd like to see research done into this question.

I believe that the pendulum has swung too far in favour of teaching social and self-help skills in primary schools in Australia. I am currently having to deal with a child who HATES regular school, and is refusing to go to school, but who loves their special classes for intellectually gifted kids. This child has been complaining for 4 years now that their regular classes are not intellectually challenging enough, and I've been complaining for almost as long to teachers and the principal. I've personally and politely asked teachers to give my child appropriate class work. Now things are worse because the child has to put up with classes that centre around self-esteem boosting and social skills lessons, and dietary advice, health education and fitness sessions, with nothing offered to address the child's special needs in academic learning. My child is stuck with a class teacher who thinks her job is to be a psychologist, phys.ed teacher and a dietician, not a damn teacher! This is what happens when females are allowed to dominate a profession!