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Why Some Children Grow Up to Be Creative and Others Don’t

posted Mar 4, 2016, 3:14 AM by HSD Principal

            In this New York Times article, Adam Grant (Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania) says that exceptionally precocious children rarely become adult innovators who change the world. Out of more than 2,000 finalists in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search (once called the “Super Bowl of science”) from 1942 to 1994, only eight ended up winning Nobel Prizes. The reason isn’t that they’re nerds, lacking the social and emotional skills to function in the post-school world. The true explanation, says Grant, is that these child prodigies often perform within a narrow range and don’t learn how to cut loose and get creative. “They strive to earn the approval of their parents and the admiration of their teachers,” he says. “But as they perform in Carnegie Hall and become chess champions, something unexpected happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new… They become doctors who heal their patients without fighting to fix the broken medical system or lawyers who defend clients on unfair charges but do not try to transform the laws themselves.” In the words of William Deresiewicz in his recent study of elite universities, they become “excellent sheep.”

            So how can parents and teachers raise children who are truly innovative? “Creativity may be hard to nurture, but it’s easy to thwart,” says Grant. One study found that the parents of children who grew up to be creative had fewer rules – one or none. They tended to emphasize moral values and developing an ethical code over following rules. As a result, their children learned to think for themselves, to sort out their own values, and discover what really interested them. These parents encouraged excellence and achievement, but they also told their children to find “joy in work,” and this seems to have put them on the road to being creative adults.

            It’s true that spending lots of time developing talent and expertise (10,000 hours, according to the idea popularized by Malcolm Gladwell) is important, but Grant introduces three caveats. First, hours and hours of practice can get people into a rut and make them less adaptive to changing conditions. Second, motivation is the key to being willing to put in so many hours practicing the violin or working to solve mathematical problems. The wellspring has to be the person’s passion, which often emerges spontaneously at a young age and is best nurtured by teachers who make the activity enjoyable. Third, studies have shown that creativity seems to be most common in people who have a broad range of interests. “Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience,” says Grant. Creative adults who contribute the most significant innovations to the world aren’t just experts in their field – they tend to also be lovers of poetry, dancing, arts and crafts, magic, or other unrelated fields. Einstein, who played the violin from the age of five and fell in love with Mozart sonatas as a teenager, said, “The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this innovation.”

            “Hear that, Tiger Moms and Lombardi Dads?” Grant concludes. “You can’t program a child to become creative. Try to engineer a certain kind of success, and the best you’ll get is an ambitious robot. If you want your children to bring original ideas into the world, you need to let them pursue their passions, not yours.”


“How to Raise a Creative Child” by Adam Grant in The New York Times, January 31, 2016,


Excerpt taken from Marshall Memo 623, Feb. 9, 2016