1. Gladwell begins the third chapter with the story of Chris Langan. Langan’s IQ is 195 (that’s thirty percent higher than Albert Einstein’s). He is a “celebrity outlier.” He’s invited onto game shows, interviewed for magazines, and even been the subject of a feature length documentary. Langan learned to speak when he was only six months old, and his prodigious intelligence continued to make itself known throughout his childhood and adolescence. As an adult, he speaks about complex ideas so fluently, so confidently, with no hesitation, that his intelligence is evident as soon as he utters even a few sentences.
The story Gladwell tells us about Christopher Langan is a familiar story about prodigies, children with seemingly innate genius. Gladwell uses this setup to strengthen the argument he will make later that Langan’s success involved much more than just the “gifts” of a child prodigy.
2. Gladwell turns his attention to a mid-20th century psychology professor at Stanford University named Lewis Terman. Terman was interested in intelligence testing, and became invested in the idea of seeking out young geniuses (where a “genius” is someone with an IQ around 150 or above) and tracking their lives, careers, and achievements. He interviewed and selected roughly 1500 kids from all over the country with exceptionally high IQs. These subjects would become known as the Termites, and this study would become one of the most famous in history.
This view of intelligence—as though it is something that exists from the beginning, ensuring success and acclaim from the very start—drove Lewis Terman to perform his famous experiment. This experiment will prove to be incredibly useful to Gladwell’s argument and to the project of debunking popular narratives about the relationship between intelligence and success.
Terman believed IQ was of central importance to achievement and attainment. He thus hypothesized that when the Termites grew up they would become great—they would be policy makers, Nobel laureates, famous professors, or great artists. And Terman’s ideas shape a lot of contemporary educational policy: we have special programs for “gifted” students and standardized intelligence tests are used by universities and major companies when selecting from a huge pool of qualified applicants.
Gladwell is careful to point out that the idea that intelligence and success are closely linked has a huge effect on educational and employment policies in America especially. The American education system relies heavily on standardized testing, and we tend to provide “gifted” children with extra opportunities to learn because we believe that intelligence and success are so deeply linked.
As a culture, we often speak of geniuses as though they are the ultimate outlier—if you are possessed of extraordinary intelligence, nothing can possibly hold you back. But, as has we have already seen, our cultural understanding of success and genius is misguided. And as it turned out, Terman was wrong about his Termites, and that he was wrong about the relationship between genius and success.
3. The relationship between success and IQ had been studied often, especially in recent years. A high IQ does generally correspond to higher achievement, but there is a catch: once a person’s IQ is above 120, the direct relationship between success and IQ ceases to exist. Someone with an IQ of 125 isn’t any less likely to win a Nobel prize than someone with an IQ of 170. In other words, IQ has a threshold. If you are smart enough, you can have as much success as anyone else who is smart enough. Gladwell clarifies with an analogy: Basketball players generally need to be tall. But a player who is 6’8” is not necessarily better than a player who is 6’5”. Once a basketball player is tall enough (say the “threshold” is about 6’0” or 6’1”), other things begin to matter. He is tall, but is he fast? agile? good under pressure?
Gladwell begins to build his argument against the notion that genius correlates with success by showing how the difference in levels of success attained by those with IQs between 125 and 185 is minimal. We don’t often think of genius in terms of thresholds like this—we tend to think that smarter is better, and that people with higher IQs will achieve greater heights of success accordingly. This point about thresholds is Gladwell’s first stand against ideas like Terman’s.
4. Gladwell illustrates this point by drawing his readers attention to a different kind of intelligence testing. The IQ test usually asks participants to look at a question and choose the correct answer out of a handful of answers: they “converge” on the solution. But a different kind of testing is called “divergence” testing, which involves asking a participant to, for example, list all of the uses he or she can think of for a brick, or a bed sheet. It just so happens that, at one British high school, the student with the highest IQ came up with the least number of ways to use a brick and a bed sheet, while students with lower IQs demonstrated remarkable versatility and creativity in their responses. Perhaps this is why a high IQ doesn’t guarantee a Nobel prize. You may be smart enough, but not creative enough, to achieve that level of recognition.
Gladwell is also sure to make the important point that “intelligence” (as measured by the IQ test) is of a very specific kind. The IQ test cannot measure a person’s creativity, their ability to shift gears intellectually with ease and dexterity, their ability to think creatively. And it has already been demonstrated that just because someone has a high IQ does not mean that these other kinds of intelligence are present. This is one reason that someone with an IQ of 125 is just as likely to win a Nobel prize as someone with an IQ of 185—because other kinds of intelligence matter.
5. This was a crucial point that Terman failed to recognize. His child geniuses did not turn out the way he imagined they would. Many were successful, but many were not. Most led normal middle-class lives, and none of them became famous for anything. And in fact, two children he had rejected because their IQs were two low went on to win Nobel prizes. The lesson learned by Terman, and by the greater psychological community, was that to say person is a genius is not to say very much at all. In order to predict whether someone will become a true outlier, we have to know more.
The results of Terman’s experiment confirm everything that Gladwell has suggested in this chapter: though Terman selected the “smartest” children, they did not go on to become the most successful adults. He set out to show that IQ is the most definitive predictor of success; what he did prove was that many of our ideas about intelligence and success were misguided or just plain wrong. If intelligence can’t predict success, what can? Gladwell explores the answer to that question in Chapter 4.