Lin-Manuel Miranda's Gifted Intensity
Emotional intensity's role in giftedness and creativity
Posted Jun 04, 2016
Like so many other fans, I have caught Hamilton fever. I've read the Chernow biography, listened to the soundtrack more times than I'm willing to admit, watched video interviews, tuned in to podcasts, and was lucky enough to see the musical on my birthday this year. While the music and production are addictive enough, just as fascinating is the story of its creator: Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Even before learning that Miranda attended Hunter College's public school for intellectually gifted students, I was struck by his obvious gifted intensity (a trait he shares with the historical Hamilton). Gifted intensity can be easy to see but hard to define and even harder to embrace fully, especially in children. It is often palpable, changing the energy level in a room. It is a need to know and to understand that transcends textbooks and classrooms and grades. One young adult I know, for example, teaches himself advanced-level math, in addition to his other studies, by watching MIT math lectures on YouTube. Not all that unusual, you might say, but he watches them at 2x normal speed, usually while doing something else. He remembers it all and—this is important—thoroughly enjoys and is engaged in the process for its own sake.
Sometimes gifted intensity is channeled into school and traditional learning, but often it manifests in other ways and includes a need to create. Miranda described on 60 Minutes his school experience and the path toward finding his particular lane in life:
"You know, I went to a school where everyone was smarter than me. And I'm not blowin' smoke, I, my, I was surrounded by genius, genius kids. What's interesting about growing up in a culture like that is you go, 'All right, I gotta figure out what my thing is. Because I'm not smarter than these kids. I'm not funnier than half of them, so I better figure out what it is I wanna do and work really hard at that.' And because intellectually I'm treading water to, to be here."
"...I picked a lane and I started running ahead of everybody else. So I, that's the honest answer. It was like, I was like, 'All right THIS.'"
One gift of many schools for gifted students is that intensity of experience is the norm, not the exception. While Lin-Manuel may have felt out of step intellectually with his age peers, he knew there was something out there for him and felt safe to pursue it. Submitting to his intensity made him feel less, not more, out of place.
You can see this intensity in the cast members when they performed at the White House as well as in Miranda's first public performance of what became the musical's first song (see end of post). Gifted intensity is the opposite of blasé. It is nearly always turned on. It is ruled by the child's interests and drives, not the wishes and expectations of parents or society. It has an affective or emotional component, which many people do not expect. And it can be exhausting and confusing for everyone, including the gifted themselves.
Miranda talked to Charlie Rose about the emotional and empathic aspect of writing Hamilton and how the unmatched emotional power and connection of musical theater led him to his career. Far from the robotic nerdy stereotype of super smart kids, emotional intensity is a familiar trait to many teachers and parents.
In a documentary trailer for Rise: The Extraordinary Journey of the Exceptionally and Profoundly Gifted (produced by the Daimon Institute and P. Susan Jackson), one young woman discusses the intensity of her emotions:
"I spent quite a few years in kind of, almost a rejection of my emotions, just because I feel them so strongly. You can't even convey how strong they are, but if you could physically represent them, they'd move mountains."
Here's the tricky part for parents: For the vast majority of gifted children, the world will never know their names. They will not write ground-breaking musicals or find a cure for cancer or win a Pulitzer or MacArthur Foundation genius grant. Creative and intellectual success on a public scale is often seen as a hallmark of giftedness, but it is in no sense a necessary component or even a goal for many gifted students. Most grown-up gifted children's intensity will be invested in day to day work, hobbies, family, and life in general. The goal is to help them understand and embrace their intensity rather than to be ashamed by it.
The important thing is that if your child has the intensity of experience you see in people like Miranda, use that recognition as a way to accept gifted intensity wherever you find it, to nurture it rather than try to hide or subdue it, to help children to understand their intensity—while sometimes challenging even for themselves—as normal. Thinking more, feeling more, seeking more are all normal for them. (As a bonus, parents often discover during this process that their own intensity has been neglected or denied for far too long.)
Having just a few adults who really get and celebrate gifted intensity can make all the difference. When our son was about seven years old, he took a science fiction writing class through a local College for Kids program. The class was taught by a university English professor but was not necessarily meant for intellectually gifted students. When I arrived at the end of the first day, the professor took me aside and said, "Your son is very intense."
Oh, no, I thought, as I braced myself for what would come next.
But he continued, his face breaking into a grin: "It's wonderful."