Summary: Chapter Four: The Trouble with Geniuses, Part 2
Chris Langan’s mother had four children, all from different fathers. Her first husband died in Mexico, the second was murdered, the third committed suicide, and the fourth was an abusive alcoholic. Langan says he has never met someone who grew up as impoverished as he and his brothers did. Attending Reed College, in Oregon, on a scholarship, he felt as though he did not belong with the rest of the students. When his mother neglected to fill out the financial aid forms, he lost his scholarship and dropped out. According to Langan, the school just did not care about their students. Later, Langan attended Montana State University in Bozeman but he dropped out when a dean refused Langan’s request to adjust his class schedule because of car trouble. He still has intellectual interests and has been working on a treatise called the “Cognitive Theoretic Model of the Universe.” When asked if, hypothetically, he would take a position at Harvard, he acknowledges the benefit of an environment with so much intellectual energy, but he worries about a lack of intellectual freedom.
Gladwell points out the oddity of Langan’s experiences. Most colleges, especially small ones, try to accommodate student needs. Smart people take positions at places like Harvard instead of in the private sector precisely for the added intellectual freedom. Gladwell contrasts Langan’s story with Robert Oppenheimer’s. While at Cambridge, Oppenheimer became frustrated with his tutor and tried to poison him. After negotiations with the school administration, Oppenheimer was put on probation and assigned to a psychiatrist. Whereas Langan dropped out after his mother failed to fill out paperwork, Oppenheimer managed to stay in college after trying to kill someone. Later, Oppenheimer convinced General Leslie Groves to make Oppenheimer the scientific director of the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer had the ability to persuade people, where Langan did not.
Psychologist Robert Sternberg calls the ability to persuade someone “practical intelligence.” It involves knowing what to say, how to say it, and when. It requires an ability to read situations. Individuals can have either practical or analytical intelligence, or in the case of Oppenheimer, both. To understand where one obtains practical intelligence, Gladwell refers to a study conducted by Annette Lareau.
Lareau observed parenting strategies in both Black and white families from different socioeconomic strata. She found two distinct strategies: “concerted cultivation” and “accomplishment of natural growth.” Concerted cultivation, most common in middle-class and wealthier families, is defined by parents’ active promotion of their children’s talents and interests. Accomplishment of natural growth, most common in working-class or impoverished families, is defined by parents’ lack of interest or interaction in their children’s free time. Concerted cultivation, writes Gladwell, encourages children to seek opportunities for growth and to advocate for themselves. Accomplishment of natural growth leaves children unprepared to shape their environment for their own benefit. Concerted cultivation fosters an attitude better suited for success in the modern world.
Oppenheimer was raised by affluent parents who sent him to a progressive private school and took an active interest in his hobbies. By contrast, Chris Langan’s brother Mark states that as children, they learned to resent authority. Mark, too, was unable to obtain financial aid, because he had no knowledge of how the system worked. If Chris Langan had been raised in a family that valued education, he probably would have had more success.
Once the Termites reached working adulthood, Terman grouped 730 of the males into three categories, based on their levels of success. The top 20 percent were upper-class professionals, while the bottom 20 percent had low-paying jobs or were unemployed. After analyzing the differences between the groups, Terman found that the bottom 20 percent came almost entirely from the lowest social and economic classes. What they lacked was “a community around them that prepared them properly for the world.”
Chris Langan lives on a horse farm in Missouri, where he still writes. He is happily married and continues to read physics and philosophy. While he has spent decades on his writing, almost none of it has ever been published. Langan admits he has not tried to contact publishers or found an agent—and does not plan to. Chris Langan did not have the support necessary to meet success. Gladwell points that no one ever makes it alone, regardless of if they are successful musicians, athletes, tech billionaires, or geniuses.
Analysis: Chapter Four: The Trouble with Geniuses, Part 2
Family background plays a crucial role in an individual’s success. While a genius like Chris Langan should thrive on a college campus, he drops out. Langan doesn’t struggle with academics, but with paperwork, procedures, and environment. Gladwell’s characterization of Langan almost makes him seem like two separate characters: a confident, genius game show contestant versus a child from a poor and troubled family. Langan may be a true outlier in the sense that he doesn’t seem to fit in academia or the working-class world. Langan’s story is ironic. His brilliant mind should propel him to success. However, his story also perfectly proves Gladwell’s point that brainpower alone does not lead to success. The author delves deeper into the irony of Langan’s situation by comparing him to Robert Oppenheimer, who worked on the nuclear bomb during World War II. Like Langan, Oppenheimer possesses great intelligence. Unlike Langan, Oppenheimer has an understanding that allows him to navigate the world effectively. Oppenheimer knows how to combat challenges, where Langan gets bested by a financial aid problem and class schedule. Oppenheimer’s family background gave him the confidence to deal with authority while Langan’s upbringing created a distrust of authority. Without a family background that encourages success, intelligence is not enough.
The power of persuasion is an important factor that drives success. Gladwell notes that the power of persuasion is practical intelligence. He contrasts practical intelligence with analytical ability, noting that just because a person is smart does not mean they have practical intelligence. These two types of knowledge are not necessarily coeval. He reinforces this point with a return to the comparison of Langan and Oppenheimer. Both men are exceedingly intelligent, but Langan lacks the social savvy of practical intelligence. Gladwell suggests that individuals gain practical intelligence skills from their families, discussing a study by sociologist Annette Lareau to prove his point. Children from wealthier families learn how to interact with society in a way that drives achievement. Successful people have the power of persuasion and can convince others to see things from their point of view.
Success, then, depends on more than individual effort. Gladwell builds this argument by detailing the differences between Oppenheimer’s upbringing and Langan’s. Oppenheimer lived in an upper-class neighborhood with myriad advantages. He learned how to negotiate and stand up for himself. Langan’s family moved from place to place, struggling for jobs, money, food, and clothes, and Langan learned that he couldn’t rely on others. Gladwell's consideration of the Termites' success or struggles as adults supports his assertion that success is more than an individual effort; Gladwell states, “In the end, only one thing mattered: family background.” Terman’s findings and Gladwell’s conclusion do not mean that talented individuals from lower social and economic classes cannot have successful futures. To succeed, everyone needs help along the way, if not from family, then from a supportive community. Individuals do not achieve success solely on their own.