A recent article in The Economist sings the praises of both misfits (defined as people with Asperger’s syndrome, attention-deficit disorder, and dyslexia) and well-rounded “organization men,” arguing that to truly succeed, businesses need both types.
But it was the paragraph at the end of the article was most interesting to me:
More broadly, the replacement of organisation man with disorganisation man is changing the balance of power. Those square pegs may not have an easy time in school. They may be mocked by jocks and ignored at parties. But these days no serious organisation can prosper without them.
Yes, the future belongs to the geeks, but when you’re raising quirky kids, adulthood feels a million years away. And those of us raising boys, who are more likely to receive the labels and diagnoses (troublemaker, ADD, dyslexic, ASD) that are increasingly a badge of genius in adulthood, are left to wonder — how do we help our square pegs survive childhood and the pressure to fit in of the teenage years?
Well, I have good news, and I have bad news. The bad news won’t surprise you at all: Raising your quirky kid (whatever his quirk may be) will be more work than raising the average child. But the good news: All the extra work pays off in the end, and sometimes it does so handsomely.
A few years ago, there was an article in The Atlantic Monthly that discussed the orchid hypothesis. It basically splits children’s temperament into “dandelions” or “orchids”:
These dandelion children — equivalent to our “normal” or “healthy” children, with “resilient” genes — do pretty well almost anywhere, whether raised in the equivalent of a sidewalk crack or a well-tended garden. Ellis and Boyce offer that there are also “orchid” children, who will wilt if ignored or maltreated but bloom spectacularly with greenhouse care.
I also appreciate that this hypothesis acknowledges that just like a company needs both types of genius to survive, so does humankind:
In this view, having both dandelion and orchid kids greatly raises a family’s (and a species’) chance of succeeding, over time and in any given environment. The behavioral diversity provided by these two different types of temperament also supplies precisely what a smart, strong species needs if it is to spread across and dominate a changing world. The many dandelions in a population provide an underlying stability. The less-numerous orchids, meanwhile, may falter in some environments but can excel in those that suit them … Together, the steady dandelions and the mercurial orchids offer an adaptive flexibility that neither can provide alone. Together, they open a path to otherwise unreachable individual and collective achievements.
Of course, this is a generalization — that’s the nature of a hypothesis, after all — and just like no two normal kids are normal in the same way, no two hothouse flowers are challenging in the same way. What works for one child won’t work for the other. As parents, we will make mistakes, and sometimes, despite all of our hard work, our children will “wilt.”
There are no guarantees in parenting. Still.
But I think that this idea, that the children who suffer most from bad environments will also profit the most from good ones, is simple but revolutionary. It redefines the behavioral card our kids have been dealt as not just a problem or vulnerability, but also as potential and possibility.
Isn’t that refreshing?
What do you think of the orchid theory? Does it make sense to you?
If you still need more inspiration as you raise your quirky sons, here are 10 misfits who grew into extremely successful adults.
David Beckham 1 of 10The footballer suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder. He had kept his condition a secret, but is now open about it. He acknowledges that it has influenced both his rigorous training regime and teasing from teammates. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Albert Einstein 2 of 10His name is synonymous with genius, but Einstein suffered early speech delays and was labeled mentally slow by his doctors. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Jamie Oliver 3 of 10He has said about his school years: "People just thought I was thick, it was a struggle, I never really had anyone to help and who could bring out my strengths." He is now a celebrity chef and author and an international advocate for better eating. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
George Orwell 4 of 10The author is widely speculated to have had Asperger's syndrome. He wrote an autobiographical essay about his difficult years at boarding school -- and also wrote the dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Jay Leno 5 of 10He was so bad as school that his teachers encouraged him to quit. He has said of his dyslexia: "My mother told me that I would always have to work twice as hard as the other kids just to get the same grades. It's the same now. I'm not better than anybody else doing this job; I just think maybe I work harder than some." (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Steven Spielberg 6 of 10"It is something that I have had since I was a child," Spielberg explained. "It was not fun to go to elementary school and having other students and teachers not understand my reading problems ... [I have] accommodated my life to the challenges of dyslexia and I feel very proud of that. When you are a child you have to achieve a different balance when you find yourself to be dyslexic." (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Nikola Tesla 7 of 10Inventor and futurist, he had many unusual quirks and obsessions. He alienated himself from other people, loved pigeons, was obsessed with the number 3, and was very sensitive to touch. He also changed the world by developing AC electricity. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Richard Branson 8 of 10The business magnate and head of the Virgin Group has dyslexia and was a poor student. He is a self-made billionaire and the 4th richest citizen of the United Kingdom. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Justin Timberlake 9 of 10The actor, singer and businessman has said, "I have OCD mixed with ADD, you try living with that." We think he has done very well for himself! (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Michael Phelps 10 of 10He began swimming at age 7, partly to provide an outlet for his ADHD. "At age seven, he hated getting his face wet," his mom Debbie has said. "We flipped him over and taught him the backstroke." He has won 16 Olympic medals -- including 8 gold at the Beijing Olympic games. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)