Tuesday, February 16, 2016

From High School Drop-Out to Harvard Professor

At the age of 18, Todd Rose was told that with his 0.9 GPA and lengthy records of suspensions and behavioral misconducts, that there was no way he would graduate. So he dropped out. With a pregnant girlfriend and not many other choices, he worked in a grocery store for $4.25 an hour and subsisted off of welfare checks. Today, Todd Rose stands as a pioneering researcher and director of the Mind, Brain, and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. How did he get there? And, more importantly, what does his story say about the human capacity for potential? Could there be this kind of hope for all of us? 

In his book Square Peg: My Story and What It Means for Raising Innovators, Visionaries, and Out-of-the-Box Thinkers, Rose writes, "Through it all, I can't help but marvel at how little I, myself, have changed, even as the way I'm perceived has been transformed by this new set of circumstances. In my Ivy League enclave, my high school impertinence is seen as wit. What used to be my lack of respect for authority is now viewed as iconoclastic insight. My lack of inhibition is now interpreted as creativity." He discusses the problem that in society today, only one type of thinker or creator is generally considered a success - the academic person that goes through the proper channels and "fits the mold," so to speak. If all other types of people are judged based on this one type of intelligence, this is at a great disservice to our society who is losing out on the countless other creative people who did not fit the mold. The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould once poignantly said, "I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein's brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweat shops." Or in unproductive classrooms and workplaces, for that matter. 

Todd now works in a field called complex systems, the study of how different parts of a system influence one another in order to produce various outcomes. In other words, how the same parts of a whole can have massively different results. Two children that grow up in the same town, with the same teachers, even in the same family, can end up with two entirely different rates success in their personal and professional lives. This is a great reminder that behavior and outcomes are complicated. Behavior isn't something that someone "has" or "does" per se, but rather something that emerges from a combination of genetics, past experience, and immediate environment or context.

So how is Todd's work useful to any of us? Todd's work and research is dedicated to shifting the paradigm away from the "myth of average" to prove that there is no standard or average person, but that each person has unique talents and insights that are incredible untapped resources for the benefit of society. His nonprofit organization Center For  Individual Opportunity focuses on "transforming our social institutions (such as schools and workplaces) in ways that will nurture potential, expand talent, and ensure the promise of opportunity in modern society," a creative solution to our creative problem. 


  1. I guess I should have read the blogs first! Spaghetti anyone?

  2. I find it fascinating how we as a society seem to have created a certain standard for what is considered to be knowledge. Todd Ross's story shows that not everyone fits inside the box, and that it can be so easy to push those who do not work inside the mold off to the side. Ross's journey is an incredible one, and it proves that there is no right way of finding success.

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  4. Hi Ana,
    I thought this post was really interesting and relates very well to what Frank Gehry achieved. Being able to look past conventional routes and express what feels natural. I think a main roadblock to helping people go out and try to use their natural talents in a "non-cookie cutter" way is the risk factor with it. Not conforming and doing what is proven to present us with an above average life is very comforting. I think Todd Rose's Center For Individual Opportunity is a phenomenal start to begin changing this system. Family and peer influences may be a strong factor in making people think conforming to conventional methods of success is a good thing. On the other hand, having an outside resource to influence and speak with will be a good start to changing the long held mentality. Overall, I think society would be best if people realized what they were best at and could pursue it.


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