Adam Grant is a relatively young scholar. He teaches at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He focuses on psychology and management. Anyone in the business world knows that Wharton is as famous as Harvard when it comes to business schools. So professionally he is at the top of ladder. However, the great thing about him is he has the ability to do interesting research and write about it in engaging ways for the non-expert. Whenever he writes something, I want to read it.
Recently, he had an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times. It had in intriguing title: “How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off.” Naturally, I jumped right into the reading of the thing. The focus was on the highly gifted child. They are the ones off the chart smart or talented. They are prodigies---so far ahead of their peers it is ridiculous. But where does it end?
Grant puts it pretty simply. “Child prodigies rarely become adult geniuses who change the world.” Instead of fame, they typically fizzle. Grant thinks he has some reasons that explain this. I like the way Grant describes their pilgrimage to normalcy. He says, “What holds them back is that they don’t learn to be original.” Instead of being a creative kid who turns into an adult genius who might make the world different, the kid is not inventive or innovative.
Grant suggests the reason for this. He claims “They strive to earn the approval of their parents and the admiration of their teachers.” The ways in which they are fabulously gifted can be showy, but ultimately nothing is produced. Again, Grant puts it clearly. “But as they perform in Carnegie Hall and become chess champions, something unexpected happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new.”
They may well become leaders in their field. But they are not the ones who figure out how to do things in creative, new ways. Ironically, Grant maintains, “Research suggests the most creative children are the least likely to become the teacher’s pet, and in response, may learn to keep their original ideas to themselves.” Grant then moves to try to explain why the really gifted child may never be creative and the not-so-obvious creative kid becomes the big innovator or one who transforms the world in some fashion.
Grant turns to the parents for part of the explanation. Surprisingly, a key difference was the number of rules parents had for their kids. Generally speaking, highly creative children had far fewer rules from parents. Grant concludes, “Creativity may be hard to nurture, but it’s easy to thwart.” It was simple: “By limiting rules, parents encouraged their children to think for themselves.”
As I have experience in the field on innovation, I find Grant’s perspective makes sense. I can even point to my own experience. While I obviously never would have fit into the gifted child category, I am sure I spent way too much time and effort pleasing both my parents and teachers. I became good, but not great. I thwarted myself. I am not down about that because I also have learned in small ways, at least, to become more innovative.
There is much more to say on this topic, but I want to switch to the spiritual side of the topic. While many may not see any spiritual teaching from this, I immediately made some connections. No one doubts that there have been some spiritual giants throughout history and, even, in our own time. Most adults today think of Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Tutu and others from the 20th century.
I am confident every one of them would not have said they were spiritually gifted young children. Seldom would a young one aspire to be a saint. In fact, I am not even sure what the career path to being a saint would look like. But I also think there are some hints to what normally happens.
A spiritual giant is one who comes to know deep in her or his heart a God who becomes so real to them that they are transformed from an ordinary spiritual person into an extraordinary person. The normally have enough commitment and discipline to see their way into new ways radicalizing the world for God’s sake. Often they work miracles from the humility of their station in life. Seldom do they have the power of the politician or prince.
Their work is divinity, not domination. It is not unusual for them to be misfits in society and, even, in the church. They don’t do rules very well. Rather they have become their own person---often their own person is as a transformed person of God. Indeed through them and their action, God is present in the world and, frequently proclaiming a new kind of world that is not simply a better version of what exists.
It would be easy to acknowledge this, applaud this like we do the athletic prodigy, and then go home. But in the spiritual world each and every one of us ultimately is being called into spiritual greatness. To settle for less is to say no to part or, even, all of God’s call on our lives. Too many of us are the parent of our inner child—thwarting any kind of spiritual genius each of us possesses.