Lin-Manuel Miranda: Grown-up gifted kid

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.

By John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (https://www.macfound.org/fellows/941/) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
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.”


A slightly updated version of this post appears at Psychology Today. Header image photo: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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23 thoughts on “Lin-Manuel Miranda: Grown-up gifted kid

  1. Thank you for this! This focuses on the part that even highly gifted parents have difficulty with and may forget (when dealing with it in their children) is so often an aspect of giftedness.

    • Thank you, Steph! I know you are enjoying waiting for Hamilton as much as I am. 🙂 I hope to bump into you in person one of these days–haven’t been on the conference circuit for awhile.

    • Thank you, Marianne! Your words mean a lot to me. We are literally postponing replacing our bedroom windows for a year in order to see Hamilton. What’s another winter of rattling glass panes (that we have tolerated for over 20 years) compared with being in the room where it happens? At least that’s the story we are telling ourselves and we’re sticking to it. 🙂

  2. Love the interview with Charlie Rose, Lisa. Lin-Manuel Miranda is such a great example of a gifted kid. How thrilling to see the show! Definitely worth another year of rattling glass.

    • Paula, thanks! Those windows can keep rattling away. 🙂 I agree that Miranda is like so many gifted kids (of all ages) that I know. It’s the first thing I noticed about him.

  3. Had seen a clip from the Rose interview, but watching the whole thing was amazing. I dare anyone to watch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s passionate, articulate nonstop talk about what he found in Hamilton’s story and how he set out to bring it alive and still think “the gifted” are just like everybody else with a little more practice. Alexander Hamilton, too, was such a one, of course! I’m seeing the show next January–. Of course theatre has been my family’s world, but this is what it can bring in brilliance and intensity that makes people give their whole lives to it!

    • Yes! Isn’t his personal energy amazing? Something I wanted to add to the post but couldn’t quite figure out how to do so is that we (as in society) are more accepting of intensity in someone who has made it big (perhaps because we think they have earned that acceptance with success?), and we can use that recognition of intensity to accept it in others, too, whose names will never be widely known but whose intensity is every bit as real–rather than make the argument that intensity should someone lead to fame and fortune. I’m still not expressing my thoughts well on that. I was also struck that Miranda has a combination of talent, work, temperament (including love of applause), and family support that almost magically come together to allow him to do what he does. I can’t get enough of it. 🙂

  4. Just had a text conversation with my oldest daughter about our spirituality that sets us apart..The intensity makes it difficult to engage when others don’t understand us..you captured the difference between Gifted and others so well here. It is a challenge, sometimes a blessing, often a burden. Awesome though when you see it manifested on stage like this phenomenal actor has done!! Thanks again, Lisa, you ALWAYS do it just right..I’m your own intensely Gifted way…

  5. Lisa, there’s so much wisdom in this piece! I shared it and within just a few hours people thanked me simply for re-posting it. Parents of these intense kids and young adults (many of whom are still feeling their way toward *something*) are finding it enormously supportive of their experience. Thanks for writing this!

    • You have no idea how much this means to me, Jane. It’s much easier to think clearly about this issue after our children are grown, I think (or maybe that’s just me 🙂 ).

  6. Lisa- this is the exact article I wanted to write after seeing Hamilton (though you said it better than I ever could) – THANK YOU for putting this into words – Can’t wait to see what you write after seeing it! PS If you want to see how the gifted/intense apple does not fall far from the proverbial tree, check out his wedding video (I think it’s called Vanessa’s Wedding Surprise) – THAT’S a whole other article!

  7. What a great article! This so aptly captures what I want for my son- I want him to be surrounded by great people who inspire him to be his best. Somewhere where he can be accepted. I am just now learning how intense I am and that it’s not normal. I just thought other people were better at controlling it and I was failing miserably. I was a gifted kid, and never thought to research what that meant until it occurred to me that my son most likely is gifted. Thank you for this!

    • Tiffany, your comment was such as great way to start my morning! That’s exactly what I was hoping to be able to do with the post. Wishing you and your son much joy in discovering your intensity.

  8. I agree with Tiffany — great post! I had an *intensely* personal reaction to it, thinking about my own experiences and those of my kids. To those who don’t understand, the intensity you describe can be intimidating or seem self-indulgent. The right people, however, help you embrace your intensity and that’s an amazing gift!

    • Thank you, Tiffany! I’m sorry I missed this comment until now. “To those who don’t understand, the intensity you describe can be intimidating or seem self-indulgent.” Yes! That’s it exactly.

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