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Extraordinary Minds


While reading Mindset, I stumbled across a reference to Howard Gardner’s book, Extraordinary Minds, that intrigued me. It said that “exceptional individuals have ‘a special talent for identifying their own strengths and weaknesses.’” On the basis of that reference, I decided to pick up and study Extraordinary Minds: Portraits of 4 Exceptional Individuals and An Examination of Our Own Extraordinariness. The idea that extraordinary people really are introspective and have a good sense of who they are permeated the book. It was a recurring theme, no matter which of the four great minds Gardner was discussing.

The Extraordinary

Gardner grouped the extraordinary minds he researched into four categories and used four examples to expose how he saw the four categories: Mozart, Freud, Virginia Woolf, and Gandhi. The four categories of extraordinary minds are:

  • Master – An individual who gains complete mastery over one or more domains of accomplishment. They reach the pinnacle of their respective domains.
  • Maker – An individual who creates a new area of study and exploration. They may be a master in a domain – but they create a whole new area or category.
  • Introspector – An individual who explores his or her inner life to new depths including daily experiences, needs and fears, and the operation of their consciousness.
  • Influencer – An individual with the primary goal of influencing other individuals.

Gardner uses Mozart as the prototypical Master, as he effectively mastered several subdomains in music, making it effectively impossible for others to further extend the domains. Freud is the prototypical Maker who created a new area of psychoanalysis. Virginia Woolf is the prototypical Introspector, having written and lamented about the human condition. Gandhi is the prototypical Influencer through his quest for non-violent resistance.

Becoming Extraordinary

It’s good to know who was extraordinary to use them as sign posts for where our lives might go, but if we decide that we want to try to make our own lives more extraordinary, how do we encourage it? Let’s take a look at some of the concepts that Gardner believes lead to being extraordinary.

Building on Gifts with Practice

There’s some level of debate about whether folks are inherently endowed with skills in a certain area or whether they develop skills as they practice. Gardner doesn’t argue that there’s evidence that supports that deliberate practice leads to extraordinary skill. Malcom Gladwell covered this in Outliers, as have many others. If you practice for 10,000 hours – or sometimes quoted as 10 years – in a deliberate way, it’s likely you’ll become a master. Gardner disagrees by saying that if you didn’t have some natural skill you wouldn’t have practiced for 10,000 hours.

In an interesting twist, Gardner quotes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as a contemporary and a colleague. It was relatively straightforward to me to take Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow (see Finding Flow) and say that it’s possible that early experiences allowed extraordinary people to enter flow very easily. This, for me, answers Gardner’s objection that our skills are deterministic, because we get an inclination from our parents. I believe we get a relatively random inclination through conditions being present to create flow – and once the foundation for flow is created, extraordinary individuals simply fall back into the pattern of flow again and again.

Deliberate Practice and Ownership

Whether we are endowed with gifts that we must deliberately practice to hone into mastery or not, it’s clear that deliberate practice is a requirement. However, what is deliberate? To answer this, I need to share from my world.

Many years ago (15) I purchased a Dr. Who pinball machine. It was a sort of gift to myself for getting my “final” home. One of the things about the game that I like is that it’s wildly progressive. You have to do something to get the next thing to light up (or accelerate) and then there’s another, etc. The premise is that there are seven areas of the board and that each of the 7 doctors that you can get make it easier to complete each section. Early on into owning the machine I started deliberately practicing shots. There’s an upper loop that can only be reached (effectively) by a side flipper. Getting the ball to that flipper is in itself a challenge. So I deliberately (and relentlessly) practiced shooting the ball up to the side flipper and then flipping it into the upper loop – over and over again. This is deliberate practice. I was trying to refine one small aspect of this skill. I wanted to be able to complete the upper loop (which, incidentally, controls a playfield multiplier so it’s important to overall scores.) While I was doing this practice, I virtually ignored my overall score.

I certainly can – and do – play for points. I work on just increasing my high score, however, it’s the times that I’m working on specific shots that I know I’m being deliberate about my “practice.” I don’t ever expect to be a pinball wizard, however, it is fun for me to be able to see my goal of developing mastery work on such a small and measurable scale.

In our daily routine we sometimes get into the grind and fail to be cognizant of our experiences. Sometimes our managers beat us down to the point where we just start executing. In an old article titled “Exploring Execution vs. Ownership” I talk about the differences between execution and owning your world. It’s this owning that drives you to deliberate practice. It’s the owning that helps keep us trying to become better. Consider that Daniel Pink in Drive said that we need only three things: mastery, autonomy, and purpose to be motivated. The only way to be a master is to practice deliberately.

Reflecting and our Self-Awareness

The quote that I opened this post with speaks to the ability for extraordinary minds to be self-aware. They’re aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. This was said multiple times in the book and certainly more of the prototypical Introspector, Virginia Woolf, but Gardner points out that all of the extraordinary minds had to reflect on who they were. Gandhi said about himself, “I am an average man with less than an average ability. I admit that I am not sharp intellectually. But I do not mind. There is a limit to the development of the intellect but none of that of the heart.” Mozart said “I am no poet. I cannot distribute phrases with light and shadow; I am not a painter. I am a musician.” Townsend and Cloud indicate in Boundaries that sometimes defining what you aren’t is as important as defining what you are. (However, I’ll suggest that knowing what you are is still more important than what you are not.)

The pinnacle of introspection (in this group), Virginia Woolf, said, “How queer to have so many selves. How bewildering.” This is a strong statement about how deeply she had looked into herself. She didn’t discover a single view of her personhood – she had discovered multiple facets and perspectives on who she was. She looked beyond the pretty veneer and the tired simplifications. I identify greatly with Woolf’s observations as I seek, in some small way, to understand myself. I see that I have multiple facets to my world as well.

I vividly remember some of the responses from folks as they learn that I occasionally do standup comedy. It’s not that I’m good at it, mind you – simply that it’s an aspect of who I am. It surprises people. I have mentioned before that I’m a private pilot, which also generates some odd responses. However, I see all of the facets of my personality, and the core values they express, as interesting parts of the whole me – a whole me that I continue to seek to integrate into a whole picture, like putting together a mosaic.

Reframing Failure

Gardner says that extraordinary people frame their failures in a positive light (sometimes too positively). I’ve mentioned previously about Thomas Edison and his famous quote “We now know a thousand ways not to build a light bulb.” This is something that is key to becoming extraordinary: reframing failures as learning experiences. Every major extraordinary mind that Gardner studied expressed some level of failure. I purchased a Successories motivational poster about Abraham Lincoln and perseverance some time ago for my mom who was at the time struggling with some challenges. It’s bizarre to realize how, arguably our greatest president, was a “failure” at so many things in life. (This doesn’t even mention the fact that his wife was widely regarded as one of the most difficult first ladies in history.) However, like many extraordinary people, Lincoln framed these as setbacks, not as failures.

Recently, a high school friend and I were talking. She was telling me that I never failed. After I fought back the laughter I asked her why she thought that. She was talking about my career and avocations. I had to remind her that I’ve been fired from a job. I’ve had all sorts of setbacks and projects that I’d consider to be failures. It’s not that I haven’t failed. It’s that I’ve not stopped trying to fail – faster and more often. That sounds odd – but in the context of knowing that the only way to hit a homerun is to get more times at bat – I want to try to do more and that means more failures. President Nixon (whose failures are apparent) repeatedly emphasized that a person is never defeated when he loses, but only when he ceases to struggle. Extraordinary minds don’t count failure as defeat, rather just another loss to learn from.

Fathers and Foundations

As I’m writing this on the heels of Father’s Day, I found it particularly interesting that some of the great figures in politics and religion had missing, absent, or ineffectual fathers. They had developed their own “normal” based on their own self-analysis. In some ways this was clearly good. However, in others, such as the case of Bill Clinton, some aspects of normal weren’t desirable. Gardner makes the point that the Extraordinary are not just those who have made great contributions to history, but also those who have done great harm as well. I wouldn’t suggest that any parent should shirk their responsibilities for the possibility of creating an extraordinary child – there’s no way of knowing if this would work or not. Nor would you be able to determine whether the extraordinary would be of the good or bad sort. More than that, however, I think that to dodge that responsibility would be to miss out on one of the greatest gifts of life – connecting with a child.

People or Objects and Creating or Destroying

Gardner asserts that extraordinary minds choose to work with either people or objects, and they choose to work either by creating mastery in an area or by creating new areas. I’ve adapted this last bit slightly into saying that they’re destroying. While this is a rather violent interpretation, some of the ways that we can create new areas is very disruptive. For instance, I live in Indiana, which issued bonds for the development of a canal that was ultimately replaced by railroad tracks – bankrupting the state. The creation of the railroad was a good thing that ultimately destroyed the canal shipping trade. With this change of wording, we can place Gardner’s four ideas into quadrants like this:

So an influencer is about creating with people. The Introspector is about destroying people – or in this case the false masks and views of the Introspector themselves. I believe that introspection is largely about destroying our false selves. The Maker is about destroying the established norms for an area – creating a new normal and a new field of exploration. The Master is creating new perfection with objects. This model is admittedly a bit strained to make it fit, however, ultimately it seems to match the way that the extraordinary minds choose to work – whether consciously or not. It also opens us up to the idea that extraordinary minds – even the good ones – aren’t perfect.

The Pitfalls of the Extraordinary

Even if you’re a Master like Mozart, a Maker like Freud, an Introspector like Woolf, or an Influencer like Gandhi, there are parts of who you are which aren’t perfect – there are ways in which you’re tormented and ways in which you struggle. This is an essential part of the human condition but it seems like extraordinary minds get a double dose of struggle. Here are a few ways how that happens.

A Point Off the Curve

Gardner makes a point that most high-IQ people struggle through their lives. Children with IQs above 180 are not a happy lot. They’re misfits. They don’t have things in common with others their own age. Sometimes they have severe social and emotional problems because they’re isolated not -, in their physical being but in their ability to relate with others. We’re created to connect. Without the connection, we become mentally and emotionally sick. Gandhi struggled with his wife, and his relationship with his son, Harilal, was an unmitigated disaster. Einstein was described in a newspaper headline as “EINSTEIN = GENIUS MINUS NICENESS”. Not exactly the glowing reviews that you would hope to hear about two of the greatest minds in history.

Tortured Existence

Virginia Woolf is the best example of a tortured existence. Mental breakdowns and constant bouts of depression ultimately ended up in Woolf taking her own life – however, she’s not the only one. Mozart was known for the struggle between pleasing his patrons and exploring his musical interests. Gandhi has tortuous failures and agonized over missing his father’s death. It’s painful to realize how torturous their existences were, however, it’s equally torturous to realize that they had people who were close to them that were also tortured through their care for, proximity to, and relationship with these extraordinary minds. Each extraordinary mind kept close confidants, people whom they leaned on to reflect themselves and to provide both intellectual and affective (“I love you unreservedly”) support. Unfortunately the close relationship often caused the extraordinary minds to inflict unintentional and underserved pain on their confidants.

Tearing Down the Monuments

One aspect of the torture that extraordinary folks feel isn’t based on their inner world, but is rather based on how the world sees them. Many extraordinary people are not recognized in their own time. Further, after their great accomplishments they’re often followed by leaders who dismantle – intentionally or unintentionally – the great work done by extraordinary minds. Most of us have seen something that we thought was precious torn down. Perhaps it was a fence that was built, a car that was purchased new and finally had to be hauled away, or something else that we once loved but that someone else didn’t appreciate. Extraordinary minds have the gift of creating things that are great. Churchill lead Britain through one of the toughest times in history only to be replaced shortly after World War II.

There’s a torture in knowing that you’re doing something great that others don’t recognize as such – and there’s a greater torture in seeing your great achievement torn down by someone unable to replicate it.

Effects and Skills

If you became extraordinary in some way, how would you know it? What special skills do extraordinary minds possess that most of us do not? Let’s take a look at a few.

Timing of Disagreements

George C. Marshall, ultimately General Marshall, was known to make his voice heard in times and in places where most others would have expected him to be immediately escorted out of the finely adorned offices he was in. However, he wasn’t. Gardner supposes that it is because Marshall (and other Influencers) have mastered the facts of the matter and can contribute substantially to the resolution. I expect there’s a certain amount of truth to this. I’ve witnessed what happens in a meeting when someone is able to succinctly and directly identify the core problem and provide a simple, straightforward resolution. It’s like someone suddenly evacuated all the air out of the room. Everyone has to pause to see what just happened. I would add, however, that there’s a beauty to this timing – a beauty that is held by those who are courageous about communicating their feelings. Certainly it’s possible that communicating clarity about a problem is the wrong thing to do, however, in my experience it rarely is.

Extraordinary minds, in my opinion, have the clarity to see the situation and, equally clearly, can see when the timing is right to share the clarity they’ve divined.

Courage to Have Others Hold a Mirror

As mentioned above, extraordinary minds have a keen sense of themselves, including both their strengths and their weaknesses. This doesn’t come accidentally. It comes with purpose through reflection and introspection, as well as through having others reflect back to you what they see. Extraordinary people are able to develop a network of confidants that will tell them the truth about their situation – whether or not it’s good to hear. The criticisms leveled by contemporaries and competitors have, at their heart, some level of truth. Extraordinary minds tend to evaluate what is said of them and incorporate into their awareness those bits of truth that are covering the barbs of the javelins that others throw. They invite others to help them see themselves better.

Nobility of It All

To the extraordinary mind, being extraordinary is ordinary and normal. It is funny how, in the mind of an extraordinary person – whether well-known or not – the things they do are normal. And this is normal when viewed from their perspective. Of course someone would save a child from a burning home – because that’s what you do. Of course, you would give your time to help someone move – whether you know them well or not – that’s just what you do. Extraordinary minds have their own distorted sense of their world. While those distortions can be bad – they can also be very good as they seek to be nobler, more just, and more compassionate than the rest of the world really is. You may just notice an extraordinary mind by the fact that they do the extraordinary with the absolute air that it is normal.


Extraordinary Minds seeks to illuminate what we’re capable of as humans and encourage each of us to do what we can to achieve greater things. It does this in two key ways:

  • Big ‘E’ and little ‘e’ – Just because someone isn’t famous or glamorous, doesn’t mean that they’re not extraordinary. Though few of us have the drive to become the kind of Extraordinary like Mozart, Freud, Woolf, or Gandhi, we have in us the capacity to become a Master, a Maker, an Instrospector, or an Influencer.
  • Legacy – If we consistently do the things that we need to do in order to become more extraordinary, we’ll leave a legacy, whether or not anyone ever recognizes us as extraordinary.

Pick up a copy of Extraordinary Minds – and see if you are or can be.