As Whiz Kids Grow Up : Do exceptional children become exceptional adults? Not always. Sometimes there are a few bumps along the way.
At 11, Richard Dekmejian was fluent in five languages: French, English, Arabic, Armenian and Turkish. But that wasn’t what got people talking.
At 12, he became a minor hero in his hometown of Aleppo, Syria, after he whipped up his own crystal radio set from wire, stone and an English-language how-to book. It was 1945, and anyone who owned a radio in Aleppo had to be very rich or very smart.
At 16, Dekmejian was sent to the United States to live with uncles and study at Los Angeles City College.
That’s when the whiz kid became a fizz kid.
Dekmejian recalls the adjustment “from Syria to the Sunset Strip” was tough. He flunked his first course in political science--a subject he now teaches at USC. After his failure at LACC, he dropped out of school and worked as a carpet cleaner. It was the first of several “declines” he experienced while learning how to manage his extraordinary abilities.
Today Dekmejian is a celebrity scholar whose academic specialties are leadership and terrorism. Whenever there’s a crisis in the Middle East or the former Soviet Union, you can find him being interviewed on CNN and quoted in the country’s top newspapers. But the charismatic Dekmejian admits intellectual pursuits overshadowed his family relationships much of the time--and he is filled with guilt.
Experts say it could have been much worse. Although we typically expect brilliant lives from brilliant people, it’s not unusual for child prodigies to becomes adults who experience problems common to all of us: an inability to have truly intimate relationships or hang onto satisfying jobs or be pleased with their achievements. And that brain power may compound the problems if intellect takes precedence over everything else.
“You sometimes hear being gifted referred to as ‘an invisible handicap,’ ” says Laura Katz Hathaway, who was identified as a gifted child and is now the national gifted children’s resource coordinator for MENSA of America, the high IQ society.
“When you’re in the top 1% or 2% of intellectually gifted people, you often have difficulties just in finding other people like yourself,” observes Philadelphia psychologist Suzanne Schneider, a therapist specializing in gifted children and adults. “If these people don’t receive emotional support as they’re growing up, they can turn into mental giants and emotional cripples.”
Schneider cites a gifted, highly successful client who went into therapy because he thought something was absent from his life.
“What was missing was emotional intimacy. He was so competitive in his relationships that he was unable to relate to people in an emotional manner. This particularly happens with male super-achievers and can sometimes happens with female super-achievers.”
Dekmejian, the father of three grown children, agrees: “You tend to be self-centered if you don’t watch yourself and you don’t pay attention to your family and children. In retrospect, I would do it very differently. I feel guilty about that. Once you get inspired, you can go crazy. I sometimes go until 2, 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. Then I can’t sleep because I’m still thinking about things.”
After the boy wonder dropped out of LACC and completed a stint in the U.S. Army, he tried school again, enrolling at the University of Connecticut at 24 and eventually winding up with a doctoral degree from Columbia University.
Since then, Dekmejian has worked as a consultant to numerous departments of the U.S. government and written three books (translated into Arabic and Persian).
“Periodically, I still get down,” says the 58-year-old professor, “but I know how to deal with it now--through hard work, meditation and prayer.”
Rick Rosner, a 32-year-old bouncer with the words “Born to Do Math” tattooed on his foot, has handled the difficulties of being gifted another way. A self-described example of the “crash and burn” school of over-achievement, he has found a measure of solace--at the gym.
“I was a wimpy, indoor-type kid,” recalls the now muscle-bound Rosner. Now, in addition to working as a bouncer at the Sagebrush Cantina in Calabasas and Mom’s in Brentwood, he occasionally gets jobs as a nude model or stripper.
Rosner has used his intelligence (he’s a member of the Mega Society, an elite organization for people who score at least 176 on an IQ test) in some rather unconventional ways:
“Since I was a geek and bad at junior high phys ed, I’d always be put on the bleachers with the other geeks,” he says. “But instead of watching the game, I’d watch the junior high girls. To stop myself from becoming sexually excited, I’d do powers of two in my head. I’d get up to two to the 25th power and beyond. I’d be into the billions. I could also do pi out to 105 digits, which is pathetically nerdy.”
When he was growing up in Colorado, “he wasn’t very athletic and he’d read like three novels a day,” says Ray Kahn, Rosner’s half-brother. “I think he flunked calculus four or five times because he didn’t write things down. He just gave them the correct answers and they thought he was cheating.”
Rosner graduated from high school in 1978 and attended college off and on for eight years.
Jacqui Goeldner, one of his former high school teachers, says the problem was that he’d sign up for class but “thought he knew more than the professor.”
Rosner wrote for MTV in New York and moved to California when his wife changed jobs. He says writing offers here haven’t panned out.
Though he’s working on a book--"but who knows when I’ll finish it"--Rosner is the first to admit he doesn’t have a career in which he can apply his unique gifts. But he seems to be happy anyway.
“I’m somebody whose potential doesn’t necessarily look like it’s going to be realized, though I’m still optimistic about myself,” he says. “And when it comes to the things I am doing, I’m at the top of my profession at catching people with fake IDs. I’ve caught close to 5,000 people (in six years). It’s my guess that I’m the best in history.”
By contrast, former whiz kid Eugene Volokh plays down his achievements. He didn’t even want it reported that he recently graduated first in his class at the UCLA School of Law.
An immigrant from the former Soviet Union, he started taking classes at UCLA part time when he was 10. He went full time as a sophomore at 12, the same year he co-founded a successful computer software company with his father.
At 15, Volokh received his B.S. from UCLA. Then, after spending six more years developing the software firm, he decided to go to law school.
Anticipating an eventual career as a law professor, he’s been working as a clerk for U.S. Appellate Court Judge Alex Kozinski. After a year there, he’s scheduled to spend another year clerking for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
If you ask Volokh if he’s experienced any downside to being super-smart, he makes it clear he doesn’t care for the question.
“I don’t like the underlying assumption that there are smart people and dumb people and that talking to a dumb person would somehow be pointless,” he responds, matter of factly.
“I think anybody who takes those assumptions seriously is stuck up and silly at the same time.
“Everyone’s got their problems,” he acknowledges. “You can be anywhere along that (intelligence) spectrum and have a lot of problems or have a few problems. I’ve been blessed with utterly wonderful parents, who really helped me in an incredible number of ways.”
He doesn’t think that having been what he calls “an unholy terror” in his younger days had anything to do with his mental abilities. And he doesn’t consider it a problem--at least not his.
“That wasn’t my problem,” Volokh insists. “That was the problem of the people around me . . . You don’t have to be intelligent to be particularly obnoxious as a kid. I was a little bit too much to take, but it has nothing to do with being academically advanced.”
It’s not hard to understand why experts have a hard time analyzing and classifying whiz kids such as Volokh.
“Highly gifted people are all over the place. How they turn out depends a lot on what their childhood experiences are,” says psychologist Schneider. “If they are nurtured and have emotional support to understand other people’s reactions to them and if they are helped to understand that their deviance is in a worthwhile direction, that can be helpful.”
In the course of completing a doctoral dissertation on the experiences and psychotherapeutic needs of gifted adolescents and adults, Schneider found little scientific research on how whiz kids turn out in later years. The best known study was started in 1921 at Stanford University by the late Lewis Terman, a psychology professor who tracked 1,528 gifted school children.
Terman concluded that intellectually gifted children generally turn out to be productive, successful adults, but experts such as Schneider believe that Terman’s process for selecting children weeded out subjects who were underachievers or demonstrated serious difficulties.
She suspects that if Terman had used a more random selection process, he might have seen certain patterns among the gifted--like the tendency to be too demanding of themselves.
Harsh self-judgment is a problem that people of all levels of intelligence experience, but experts say it can be acute for those with exceptional abilities. They sometimes feel a pressure to make a really “important” contribution to the world because they’ve been blessed with so much.
Jeff Ward certainly did. He is the 40-year-old founder of the Mega Society, which has about 35 members.
As a child, Ward amazed people with his abilities to play backgammon in his head and draw maps of the entire world from memory. Today, the divorced father of two children works as a tax consultant in San Diego.
“This field does allow me to use the kinds of abilities I have,” he says. “We’re talking about the federal income tax system, which almost no one seems to be able to understand. I’m able to grasp it better than most anybody.”
Ward suspects he’s had his fair share of problems “just like anybody else” but nothing major in terms of psychological adjustment. For a while, he worried that he should be making a more significant contribution to society, but not for long.
“At some point, I just said to hell with that,” he remembers. “I’ve got to satisfy myself first of all.”