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Exceptional and out of bounds

Posted Sep 01 2008 7:19pm

Children with outstanding talents sometimes get rewards and acclaim, but many are overlooked, discounted or unsupported. Adults with exceptional talents can also live on the fringes of recognition and contribution to society, some by choice, but often on account of mainstream discomfort with outsiders.

Even those who are called eccentric may want to live and express themselves as fully as possible, and not be considered too out of bounds to be “acceptable.”

One example of restricting the public recognition of talent was in the Olympics opening ceremony.

Yang Peiyi, Lin Miaoke Singer Yang Peiyi (left), who had the superior voice, was replaced on stage (and therefore kept away from the view of millions of people) by Lin Miaoke, who mimed Peiyi’s recording of “Ode to the Motherland” because Peiyi’s face was considered “not suitable” by a team of Chinese Olympic and political authorities.

Another recent story concerned a 9-year-old Connecticut boy who was “banned from pitching in a little league because he’s too good at it. Jericho Scott throws a blistering fastball that led his team to an 8–0 record. But after parents of some of Scott’s opponents complained that their kids find his pitching both unhittable and frightening, the league has ordered him to stop pitching.” [theweekdaily.com, September 5, 2008 issue]. Later on, as a teen, that kind of athletic prowess would probably be welcomed.

Creative and intelligent kids often find themselves and their friends “on the edge.”

Sandra Tsing Loh Writer, actor and radio host Sandra Tsing Loh (also a physics grad of CalTech) recalled in our interview, “Growing up, in junior high school especially, when I went to Malibu Parks Junior High, where we literally had movie stars going to our school, I mean you were definitely of the ‘nerdy kid’ group, as opposed to the popular kids.

“You were taking cello lessons, and in the Latin Club, and such a geek compared to everyone else. And junior high is a particularly horrible time. But I remember around that time I and my friends, who were totally the nerds, had real fun starting our own little clubs and stuff like that… we looked so geeky, but there’s a joy in our creativity that we’re building, imagining a whole second world where we rule the world and have power.

“I think that’s what makes creative people — the most popular kids in junior high, who won the popularity contests, the beauty contests, zero of them have gone on, I believe, to do anything creative. Except for the few people who were actors, and that’s a whole other story.” [From our interview. The photo is from "Sugar Plum Fairy" - a play written and performed by Loh.]

While being in the “nerdy kid” group has its charms and rewards - other members were definitely my best friends in junior high and high school - there are definite social class issues that impact identity and self-regard. Like that cheerleader who favored the football player over me for the prom.

A more serious problem is how educational and social systems often fail to support and encourage the most talented people.

A TIME magazine article last year noted the U.S. Department of Education presented statistics showing that the highest-achieving students in six other countries scored significantly higher in math than their bright U.S. counterparts.

“Which all suggests we may be squandering a national resource: our best young minds,” wrote the author John Cloud.

He pointed out, “American schools spend more than $8 billion a year educating the mentally retarded. Spending on the gifted isn’t even tabulated in some states, but by the most generous calculation, we spend no more than $800 million on gifted programs. But it can’t make sense to spend 10 times as much to try to bring low-achieving students to mere proficiency as we do to nurture those with the greatest potential.”

From Are We Failing Our Geniuses?, by John Cloud, TIME, Aug. 16, 2007.

One of British neuropsychologist David Weeks’ books is “Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness” - a title that is indicative of mainstream society’s ambivalence about those who are outsiders because of appearance or behavior - a society which has historically relegated people with unappreciated or suspect talents to the fringes of the culture in various ways.

For some, being an unappreciated outsider is deeply painful.

Vincent Van Gogh [1853 - 1890] has been quoted about some of the negative attitudes he experienced: “What am I in the eyes of most people, a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person - somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then - even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody has in his heart.”

But not all of us eccentric people at the fringes are creative or talented, and not all are unhappy. Van Gogh may have suffered from depression and other mental health problems.

Dr. Weeks posits that, far from being aberrant and unhappy, eccentrics he studied “experience much lower levels of stress because they do not feel the need to conform.”

Elijah Wood Actor Elijah Wood (”Lord of the Rings”) embraces it: “I think being different, being against the grain of society, is the greatest thing in the world.”

Another example of someone following their own unique vision is entrepreneur Dean Kamen, who has many inventions to his credit including the Segway transporter. A British newspaper article profiled him as a “visionary oddball” who “still manages to stand out as a true brilliant eccentric.”

[From my article Eccentricity and Creativity.]

Maybe the issue is not whether we live as outsiders or not, but how much we value and find meaning in who we are and what we do, and how much freedom we have in expressing ourselves creatively.

As personal development author Wayne Dyer said, “Freedom means you are unobstructed in living your life as you choose. Anything less is a form of slavery.”

Related page: Eccentricity.

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