Ask A Genius 355 – Listen Up! Perfectionism, Fucking Up, and College Admissions
March 22, 2018
[Beginning of recorded material]
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, perfectionism is a standard or classic trait of gifted and talented youth. You experienced that. What were your pivotal moments of perfectionism?
Rosner: I may have been more perfectionistic, but what I experience more than that were times I felt short of perfection and I fucked up. Beginning with at least first grade, where the teacher called in my parents, who have been told by my kindergarten teacher year before, that I was a genius based on an IQ test.
Because I could already read, which was unusual for that era. The first-grade teacher showed my parents an incomplete assignment that said, “If I were on Columbus’s ship, I would,” and that’s where I stopped because I realized I didn’t know crap about how it would be if I were a sailor with Columbus.
I was six years old. Maybe, I was perfectionistic, but I all of a sudden quit; I quit writing because I realized that nothing I wrote would be at all accurate because I have zero knowledge of what it was like to travel with Columbus.
But apparently at six years old, I was already underperforming and because my parents had left me with a scary old babysitter and had gone on a trip to New York for a week. My dad owned a dress store.
He goes to New York about five times a year to pick out clothing for the store because there was no internet yet. You had to do it in person and take a look at the clothing and once or twice a year my mom would go with him and when they came back from their trip I was turning in circles and chanting to God.
And that plus my screwing up in school earned me, I don’t know, nine months or a year with my personal psychiatrist. And, there was a pattern throughout my elementary career, which was a year of performing in school, and a year messing up.
In fourth grade, we found a dirty book on the playground or the teacher found a dirty book on the playground. It was missing its cover, but she didn’t realize it was dirty – so she brought it in and put it on her desk and we found it.
Then we spent much of that year or some of that year reading the dirty book and discovering how we get boners. It was also the year that we worked on being good at making fake farts. It was the year after a guy whose dad was a doctor told us how babies were made, so we were distracted by all that.
I don’t know that I screwed up that much, but apparently, it was enough that when I got a teacher who understood me, Ms. Jones, in fifth grade. Everybody was happy and I performed for her. She gave me – this was an era where special attention was not that big of a thing or even virtually non-existent – extra attention.
Everybody did the same work at the same pace. Ms. Jones was the rare teacher who got real work out of me because she gave me challenging work to do. I looked out because she moved from fifth to sixth grade the same year I did, so I get to have her for two years in a row.
I moved on to junior high school. I tried hard. All three years at junior high school I tried hard and did okay except for in PE class and French class where Ms. Davis, the French teacher, didn’t like you if you were popular.
Even if you’re only trying to be popular, I was far short of popular, but I wanted to be popular, and I wasn’t entirely serious in class, so she would give B’s and those were not good because I want straight A’s so I can more easily get into Harvard.
So, I would have gotten into Harvard. A student body president; my SAT scores were the highest in school; my grades were excellent; I was from Colorado, which made me geographically diverse. They didn’t call it that back then, but the deal was if you are from a state that didn’t send that many applicants, then your odds were good.
Back then, Harvard let in 20% of applicants compared to about 5% now, so given everything I had going for me I would have gotten in. I freaked out because I was still a virgin. I never had anything like a girlfriend. I wanted a girlfriend.
If I couldn’t get a girlfriend at my little school, then I was totally unable to get a girlfriend in Harvard where everyone was rich or a Kennedy or came from a prep school. I would be one more smart kid from a high school among everybody who has been the smartest kid in his or her high school.
I thought I would be lonely and miserable, so I decided to break into my school. This is still my senior year in high school when everything fell apart. I went from virtually all As to a bunch of Fs. I broke into my high school, stole my transcript and went back to high school.
That was the second senior year and I wanted to get a girlfriend. Because I had two families, parents got divorced when I was zero years old; each started a new family. I was going to switch families. I switched families. I went back to high school in a new town, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
I didn’t get a girlfriend. I was no better at getting a girlfriend. My new non-nerd persona, which I modeled on (Vinnie Barbarino) the John Travolta character on Welcome Back Kotte; that lasted about 12 weeks.
Then I dropped out of high school and instead of going to Harvard, I went to the University of Colorado. My hometown school where I screwed up big time. I didn’t take CU seriously at all. I treated it as the cheapest place for me to live.
It was tuition plus room on board back in 1979 was 15 or 16 hundred dollars for the semester. That was all you could eat. At that time, I was eating seven or eight meals a day because I was trying to bulk-up, because that if I was big and muscley, I could get a girlfriend.
Alright, so, I had things in reverse, when the time I should have been big and muscley was in high school when I should have gone after football, but in college, everyone was trying to be smart at the time when I was trying to be Barbarino.
The perfectionism that drives and haunts a lot of gifted talented kids; it isn’t the end of the world if you fall short of perfection and there’re worst things in life than fucking up, especially at a fairly young age where it can lead to a new perspective.
Charles Darwin was a fuck up. He was wandering aimlessly through life. He didn’t want to be a pastor. He wasn’t great at school. Not sure whether his parents wanted him to be a doctor at one point, but anyway, nothing was for him, so they hooked him up with this ridiculous “do nothing” assignment for a position as a paid companion to a ship’s captain.
He got depressed on long sea voyages. Now, this was Fitzroy, the Captain of Beagle and Darwin was…his family paid for him to go on this five-year voyage and hang out with the captain, talking with him to be the ship’s naturalist, which he did a good job at.
Five-year journey around the world. He came up with a theory of evolution, so is one of the great thinkers of all of history. It’s a nice consequence in part because he had to give himself a different experiential background that most people of the time didn’t have or couldn’t experience.
Five years of seeing the entire world, seeing all these geological formations that convinced him the world was fantastically old. He saw all the speciation on this plot of this island and all because he was a fuck up who couldn’t figure out what he wanted to do.
Einstein has been presented as a fuck up. It’s part of his myth. When you look at his actual academic history, he was a good student. Leaving school, he had troubles with certain professors because he didn’t probably work that hard or paid that much attention, so he didn’t strike people as sufficiently smart.
I don’t know. Whatever they thought a young scientist should be like, he wasn’t. Mostly, it was the Jews that may have pissed off some people, but he did a little bit of fucking up, not as much as the myth would have it. He knocked up his girlfriend, later his wife out of wedlock.
They had a kid that they may have been so messed up that they may have left it in the orphanage or gave it up for adoption. Anyway, they had a disappearing kid. So, Einstein was a screw up in some way.
Newton wasn’t as much a screw up as the recipient of his mom screwing up and the horrible situation of the time. Newton’s dad died early. He was less than ten years old. Because when Newton was ten or so, his mom marries a new guy.
They didn’t have time for Newton in the house, so they gave him away to the local pastor or something. So, Newton got booted out of his house when he was ten and spent a few years living with an entirely different family until his family could take him back.
So, this probably didn’t do wonders for his disposition. He was notoriously a prick for his whole life. So, I don’t know; the point I’m trying to get at is that it feels good to perform in school and if you can do that it will get you all sorts of opportunities.
Or to perform in other areas, if you have landed a solid apprenticeship, say you are still in high school but you’re helping out in a lab someplace, all that stuff is awesome. But, falling short of perfection isn’t the worst thing in the world, you can see it even in what colleges look for.
My wife and I have been involved in college admissions for a while now. My wife works in the admissions office of a high school, so we see how it all works. Every year, we hear horror stories about how the kid with the perfect SAT scores, the grade point of like 4.7 on a 4 scale.
Even with the grades, extracurricular activities, and the high SAT scores from all the SAT classes, that kid doesn’t get into Stanford or Harvard because the admission rate is so low for selected colleges now that even with perfect credentials; you are not assured getting in.
The people try to come in with all sorts of hooks, traveling to impoverished countries to build houses or to help administer medical care. It’s getting into even mathematically, where it can make you look like you have canned experience.
It can be too designed to look good to admissions people. But, the deal is, nothing is going to give you a hundred percent chance of getting into a selected college. Unless, you succeeded at such a crazy thing, such as you’re basically a celebrity because of your achievement level.
You’re a nationally ranked athlete in addition to having excellent grades. That will get you in a selected school. Apparently, if you are a successful film actor, famous, that will get you in there along with excellent grades.
Or if your parents are going to give millions of bucks to the school, apparently like the Trumps…Apparently, his grades on tests weren’t that great, but his parents still donated. They are real estate moguls. They donated like 1.6 million (USD) to Harvard Medical School.
That helped him ease his way into Harvard. But short of that, all of the highest achieving students all over the world are applying to ten or twelve or more schools, a bunch of Ivies, Stanford, George Washington University, Bard, and so on, but our kid that went through this process and applied overseas to Oxford.
She applied to a zillion schools. You hear the stories. Stories of the kid who is perfect and doesn’t get into any of the Ivies. This is perhaps because, a couple reasons: one, it’s easier now to apply to a bunch of colleges because there are computer-based applications.
The selective school still requires an individualized application, but some of the less than highest, less than most selected, school are slightly less selective or slightly easier to apply to because of computer application.
That’s reason one so kids about twenty years ago will apply to two or three or four schools and that doesn’t happen with the high achieving kids. The ten thousand or fifteen thousand of those high achieving kids around the country each year.
Now, those kids don’t apply to 2 or 4 but up to ten or more schools. Some places keep track of how many schools have been applied to and then record for one year. A year or two ago some lunatic kid applied to forty-four schools.
And because people are applying to three or four or five times many more schools, each school gets five times as many application; instead of admitting 20% of applicants, they admit 5% of applicants.
And nobody can be sure of getting into any one school. The second reason is that since the time that I was in school and now; there has been a modification where everybody in America decided – parents across America – parenting became a burden.
When I was growing up, people liked kids, lived in the same house with the kid, did some parenting stuff with and for them, but nobody saw parenting as a job. The word didn’t even exist. You trusted your instinct as a person with kids and to get you and your kid through; you trusted the local schools, the public schools.
It’s getting roughly through the eighties, and increasingly till now; people began to take parenting seriously, which includes cherishing and nurturing the gifted. So, now, there are thousands of gifted kids who are appreciated and underserved by whatever their situation is.
But there are now tens of thousands of kids who are given special attention for being gifted and that means that those kids are given special treatment. If you are a gifted kid and if you are listening to this, now, everyone gets special attention and special prodding to take a zillion AP courses.
There is an appreciated and nurtured gifted kid who is likely going to apply to a gazillion colleges, highly selected colleges. There are, like a said, over ten thousand of these super student’s every year, but like the Ivies, most of the Ivies, only Cornell has a decent size.
Cornell now may admit three or four thousand students to each class. Look it up, but the Ivies; a Harvard, Princeton, Yale only admits about 1600 students a year. That means if you are one of the 10,000, you better have a hook in addition to fantastic grades or test scores.
With our kid, we went through the process. We could see, as the process went on, because, the college admissions process takes a year of solid processing – probably another close to a year of getting ready to do everything and by the end of it.
I have a rough sense where our kid was in terms of all the kids in the country. In terms of where her credentials ranked her roughly upon the high achievement kids, I could predict what school she would get into and what school she wouldn’t based on where I ranked her and the class size of each school.
Which, it was good to have an understanding so that there was completely freaking out because I was ninety-nine point nine something percent certain that she would get into at least George Washington.
Because George Washington has a big class size, I was confident; and George Washington doesn’t necessarily attract one hundred percent, unlike the Ivies. It doesn’t necessarily attract a hundred percent of the top students in the country.
So, I could see by doing the math that she would get in there and some other schools. So, I was probably the least freaked out member of your immediate family during that period. But, to get back to the point, these annual crops of students who are trying to be as perfect as possible to survive the ridiculous current admissions don’t need to be perfect.
Perfection won’t save you unless it’s some weird hyper perfection which means you are among the top two dozen percent in the country in some field, like movies, apps, or Olympic gymnastics or anything.
You’re an Olympic level athlete and have perfect grades; you will probably get into a highly selected school, but short of that it’s not the worst thing to take a look at, not what you want to do professionally.
But also what you might want to experience in terms of going on a goofier adventure, growing up and going to high school in the seventies, it wasn’t a serious time. The whole country was going a little nuts; it was the disco era much of it.
We had Vietnam. We had Watergate. America had lost confidence in its institutions and plus we were in the middle of the sexual revolution. And, people, a little bit older than I was when I was in high school, were in the discos banging the hell out of each other, eventually causing the herpes epidemic.
You went to bars if you were in your twenties. A lot of people went to bars, pick each other up, bang each other, gave each other herpes; yes, so, by the late seventies, there was a herpes epidemic, by the early eighties the AIDS crisis had started.
The people didn’t understand what was going on with that, but it was starting to be understood that during the seventies before herpes/AIDS, the idea was that humanity had finally broken free of ultimate strengths.
That everybody was going to be having as much sex as they wanted now in the new modern world and also an assumption that went with that was that everybody was into sex and that it was natural that everybody was having a lot of sex.
Then gays came along and Nancy Reagan started people to say, “No”; the children of hippies of the sixties generation. A lot of them were not of high school age and were growing up in families where the parents were still fuck ups.
They never entirely recovered from being hippies or you didn’t have to be a hippie to have a hard time recovering from the 60s and the 70s. So, you had a conservative wave of young people who were who were not as interesting as seventies people in going nuts.
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American Television Writer
Scott Douglas Jacobsen
Editor-in-Chief, In-Sight Publishing
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