Chapter 4 Summary

The Trouble With Geniuses (Part 2)

Gladwell describes the background of Chris Langan, who has an IQ of 195 and is considered the smartest man in America. Chris grew up incredibly poor with a working mother and a drunken father. When he went to college, he dropped out. Since then, he has not achieved success in traditional terms. Gladwell contrasts this with Robert Oppenheimer, one of the crucial designers of the nuclear bomb; he, too, was brilliant, but he came from a wealthy family, had a degree from Harvard, and was very successful. Gladwell contrasts Langan with Oppenheimer to ask what was the critical difference between these two geniuses? Part of the answer came in Chapter 3, where Gladwell discussed the “threshold effect” of intelligence: intelligence has a threshold; after that, real-life skills need to kick into gear to help someone succeed. Langan was poorly equipped with those real-world skills, whereas Oppenheimer had the tools necessary to succeed. Gladwell asks why that was.

Gladwell summarizes an interesting study done by a sociologist named Annette Lareau, who followed third graders around in their home settings, analyzing the different parenting styles exhibited. Her conclusions were quite simple: there were only two parenting styles, and the difference between them was explained only in terms of the income levels of the parents. Parents who were upper middle class and wealthy demonstrated a “concerted cultivation” style in which they felt it was their job to help foster, develop, and aid their children’s talents and success. They also emphasized their children’s independence and helped them navigate real-world situations. On the other hand, lower classes tended to exhibit a parenting style Lareau called “accomplishment of natural growth” in which they were hands-off and had the attitude that their children would grow and develop naturally on their own. They did not teach their children how to take initiative and get what they wanted in the world.

That difference in parenting styles seems to explain the differences between Langan and Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer came from a wealthy family who supported all his activities; Langan did not.

Gladwell goes back to the Terman study he referred to previously. Of all of the genius students Terman studied, there was only one determining factor in whether their intelligence would equate to real-world success: their socioeconomic upbringing. Gladwell concludes that when looking at successful people, we can attribute their success to sheer genius and luck all we want; however, leaving out their background and upbringing paints an incomplete picture.