No genes in genius

28th September 2007 at 01:00
Forget grade-A genes, neglect or abuse are the roots of exceptional achievement, says Oliver James.

Although it's highly improbable you will teach (or, alas, be the parent of) a star performer in any sphere, it is of more than passing interest to consider what causes exceptional achievement.

While there are mythical stories of geniuses who emerge from completely talentless but loving parents, they are just that: myths. The best evidence suggests that exceptional adult achievement is usually a response to childhood adversity to more or less severe neglect or abuse not the result of genes.

One of the most remarkable facts in social science is that one in three of the highest achieving adults lost a parent before the age of 14 (this is nearly double the proportion of children in the general population who lost parents in the days before modern medicine, now it's 8 per cent). This is true of American presidents and British prime ministers, famous dictators and the great writers (especially poets) and scientists of the past. It applies to the top 600 entries in the American and British encyclopaedias of biography.

Of course, just the loss of a parent on its own is not enough to create a Hitler (but name almost any dictator and they will have experienced bereavement) or a Darwin.

It's also more common among the mentally ill and the criminal (who tend to overlap: a gobsmacking 80 per cent of convicted criminals have a mental illness).

The kind of care the child gets both before and after the loss is crucial. Channelling the despair and anger it evokes into fanatically hard work and ruthless pursuit of success is much more likely if the surviving parent is disciplined and ambitious for the child.

Freud wrote that "a man who has been the indisputable favourite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of conqueror". In accord with this, George Washington felt that he was "very close" to his mother and Josef Stalin stated that as a child he was "close to only one person: my mother". However, it will also have been significant that both reported their mothers to have been exceptionally competent and disciplined as well.

Other kinds of adversity also affect unusual achievement, with the parents more likely to have been perfectionist, demanding and over-controlling (think the Williams sisters or David Beckham). Love is conditional on performance and the child becomes fixated upon fulfilling parental goals. Backed by the parental taskmaster, teachers and bosses become the goal-setters. Storming academic performances are common but so are depression or low self-esteem (and in girls, eating disorders). In adulthood, the setting of incredibly high standards is done by themselves, the self's goals becoming fused with those of parents.

What may set the most exceptional adult achievers apart is the sense that they were special to one or other of their parents, creating a feeling that the child was marked out for great things in later life. The mothers of these youngsters are particularly likely to have been intelligent, disciplined women who insisted on their child being the same, but then lots are like that. To get a genius, you need a cocktail with all the ingredients, including adversity.

Some readers may regard this as a grimly negative explanation and, indeed, it may be that a small proportion scale the heights not driven by inner demons. From happy, stable homes, they could have an intrinsic fascination with their work and excel at it because they have managed to hang on to the playfulness of childhood and poured this into their chosen profession.

But I have not met any examples of this, having interviewed some 60 famous people and 20 chief executives. And when you think about it, that's hardly surprising. What mentally healthy, emotionally mature person would want to work 70 hours a week for years on end, craving ever harder challenges? I suspect that it is nearly always people who are compensating for feelings of helplessness and despair that date back to childhood.

Oliver James is a child clinical psychologist and author of Affluenza How to be successful and stay sane and They F**** You Up How to survive family life.


Loss and genius: Eisenstadt, M. et al, Parental Loss and Achievement (International Universities Press, Inc)

Criminals and mental illness: Singleton, N. et al, 1998, Psychiatric Morbidity among Prisoners in England and Wales (HMSO)

Adverse outcomes of loss: chapter by Albert, R. S. in Albert, R.S., 1983, Genius and Eminence (Routledge)

Overcontrolling, parental perfectionism: pp 61-71, James, O.W.. 2007, They F*** You Up (Marlowe)

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