Like so many other fans, I have caught Hamilton fever. I’ve read the Chernow biography, listened to the soundtrack dozens and dozens of times, watched video interviews, tuned in to podcasts, and am (im)patiently waiting to see the musical in person next month. And while the music and production are addictive enough, just as fascinating is the story of its creator: Lin-Manuel Miranda.
For many years, much of my writing and speaking work was about the lives of gifted children: who they are (which is difficult to describe in words), common myths and misperceptions, what makes them feel and act differently from their age peers, the challenges they pose for parents and teachers, and, most important, the intensity many of them experience every single day. I taught at an elementary school for highly and profoundly gifted children for a time and also served on the board of directors for SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted).
Even before learning on 60 Minutes that Lin-Manuel Miranda attended Hunter College’s public school for intellectually gifted students, I recognized in him the intensity inherent in many gifted learners. This 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 gifted 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 the process.
Sometimes gifted intensity is channeled into school and traditional learning, but often it manifests in other ways and includes a need to create. Lin-Manuel 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.'” ~ Lin-Manuel Miranda
The gift of the kind of school that Miranda attended is that intensity of experience is the norm, not the exception. While he 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 when Miranda and other cast members performed recently at the White House and in his longer interview with Charlie Rose (included later in this 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.
The following documentary trailer for Rise: The Extraordinary Journey of the Exceptionally and Profoundly Gifted (produced by the Daimon Institute and P. Susan Jackson) includes one young woman explaining 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.”
In an interview with Charlie Rose, below, Miranda talks about the emotional and empathic aspect of writing Hamilton:
Here’s the tricky part for parents: The vast majority of gifted children will not write ground-breaking musicals or find a cure for cancer or win a 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. 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 Lin-Manuel 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 hidden 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, James Hazard, but was not necessarily meant for intellectually gifted students. When I arrived at the end of the first day, Professor Hazard 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.”