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Getting into trouble to find new virtues

Posted Jul 22 2008 8:23pm

Ben FranklinOne of the qualities of many high ability people is divergent thinking (seeGiftedness characteristics.) But that also can mean divergent values and behavior. Einstein was expelled from school (in 1894) for “undermining the authority of his teachers and being a disruptive influence.” [From post:Does school encourage or limit high ability people?]

The bookGifted Grownups: The Mixed Blessings of Extraordinary Potentialby Marylou Kelly Streznewski even declares, “Gifted people are found in jail, just as they are everywhere else. However, they form a disproportionately larger portion of the prison population, perhaps as much as 20 percent… in conrast to the 3 to 5 percent of the general public who are gifted.”

In his article The Felicity of Virtue, Jonathan Haidt (author of The Happiness Hypothesis) talks about some literary and historical “disobediant” people - including Ben Franklin:

[Jonathan Haidt:] The wisdom literature of many cultures essentially says, “Gather round! I have a tonic that will make you happy, healthy, wealthy, and wise! It will get you into heaven, and bring you joy on earth along the way! Just be virtuous!”

Young people are extremely good, though, at rolling their eyes and shutting their ears. Their interests and desires are often at odds with those of adults, and they quickly find ways to pursue their goals and get themselves into trouble, which often becomes character-building adventure.

Huck Finn runs away from his foster mother to raft down the Mississipi with a runaway slave; the young Buddha leaves his father’s palace to begin his spiritual quest in the forest; Luke Skywalker abandons his foster parents to join the galactic rebellion.

All three reject the security and moral guidance offered by adults and set off on their own journeys, journeys that make each into an adult, complete with a set of new virtues. These hard-won virtues are especially admirable to us as readers because they reveal a depth and authenticity of character that we don’t see in the obedient kid who simply accepts the virtues proposed by adults.

In this light, Ben Franklin is supremely admirable.

Born in Boston in 1706, he was apprenticed at the age of twelve to his older brother James, who owned a printing shop. After many disputes with (and beatings by) his brother, he yearned for freedom, but James would not release him from the legal contract of his apprenticeship.

So at the age of seventeen, Ben broke the law and skipped town… He went on to spectacular success in business.. science.. politics.

From articleThe Felicity of Virtue, By Jonathan Haidt.

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