Posted on Jan 30, 2018

Extraordinary Minds Summary

Chapters, PDF & Review of Howard Gardner’s Book

Extraordinary Minds: Portraits of 4 Exceptional Individuals and an Examination of Our Own Extraordinariness

Author: Howard Gardner

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Extraordinary individuals stand out in the extent to which they reflect—often explicitly—on the events of their lives, large as well as small.


Looking at how ordinary and extraordinary people develop, think and behave differently. Gardner sees 4 archetypes for extraordinary minds and profiles the quintessential example of each, then draws lessons.

Ordinary vs. Extraordinary Development

Gardner spends a chapter looking at how children ordinarily develop into competent adults, and I won’t go into that here. Standard development psychology.

Gardner then looks at extraordinary development – especially kids with exceptionally high IQs. Not the Terman studies which looked at kids who were just “a lot smarter than average” and could skip a grade or two, but kids who have IQs of over 180.

These kids are generally not well-adjusted, “prone to anxieties and to severe social and emotional problems”, but do better when interacting with other kids like them. These kids “exhibit notable energy, curiosity and focus with reference to domains that interest them … They are persistent learners … Self-propelled and march to their own drummers”

  • He argues that while there is certainly a strong biological influence on children’s intelligence levels, there is much to be said for early training as well as other cultural and developmental factors.
  • He proposes a “5 Experiences A Day” thought the experiment to counter the purely biological approach:
  • Imagine two genetically identical individuals – one who has 5 positive experiences each day and the other has 5 negative. After 5 years, there will be 20k+ experiences that separate these two kids. We would expect a huge difference in how they think and behave.

Extraordinary individuals fail often and sometimes dramatically. Rather than giving up, however, they are challenged to learn from their setbacks and to convert defeats into opportunities.


  • Someone who dominates an existing domain.
  • Mozart and music
  • 5 types of creative mastery
  • Producing permanent works in a genre (Mozart did this)
  • Executing stylized performances (he did this too)
  • Solving recognized problems (Watson and Crick, Wright brothers)
  • Formulating a general framework (Newton)
  • Performances of high stakes

Extraordinary individuals are distinguished less by their impressive “raw powers” than by their ability to identify their strengths and then to exploit them.


  • Someone who innovates and creates a totally new domain.
  • e.g Freud and psychoanalysis
  • Patterns of a Maker
  • grew up in upper middle-class community near the center of intellectual life
  • talented in a range of areas and works diligently to improve
  • family dotes on a child but love often attached to achievement
  • as young adult moves to the center of cultural life – making tentative choice of domain
  • does training, may work with a Master
  • spends lots of time alone, exploring ideas that are foreign to most except for a few confidantes
  • grows dissatisfied with current work, struggles to find the new formulation
  • these new ideas start changing the field, but Maker never rests
  • work can be all consuming, and innovation continues, often at 10 yr marks
  • later work might be more synthetic and general, or totally new area

I see Freud as energized by three motivations: pleasure in classifying, lust for problem solving, passion for system building.


  • Someone who deeply explores his/her inner mind/thoughts/feelings/experiences.
  • e.g. Woolf and writing
  • I find this chapter less focused and frankly less interesting
  • Discussions of madness and creativity and how introspectors must learn to communicate

Discover your difference—the asynchrony with which you have been blessed or cursed—and make the most of it.


  • Someone whose primary goal is influencing other individuals.
  • e.g Gandhi and social change
  • harder to separate makers from influencers as both change the way individuals function
  • Influencers act directly on people, makers influence domain directly, people indirectly
  • Patterns of Influencer (looking at 11 leaders like FDR, Margaret Mead, Oppenheimer)
  • a wide range of childhood experiences (some poor, others wealthier,
  • most dislike school and seem talented but “lost”
  • generally, favor verbal intelligence – esp spoken, but also written
  • understand themselves, and other people well and ask fundamental questions about life
  • most striking feature is the willingness to challenge authority and take risks, often at an early age
  • often cut their teeth on local circles of friends and schoolmates which quickly expand
  • often crave different experiences, travel to new cultures
  • during childhood, many lost or have absent parents
  • w/o strong male figure, create their own set of norms and overall personal ideology
  • no need to master a traditional domain or technical skill
  • Do spend 10+ years understanding politics or journalism/military/business
  • Above all, influencers are storytellers who weave their personal narrative with the story of their movements
  • must defeat the existing stories with counterstories
  • stories must be simple yet compel heterogenous populations to come together (often by creating a “them” to fight)


Key takeaways

Gardner sees three key elements to extraordinariness


  • we cannot assume that lessons from experience will automatically dawn on us
  • must reflect: regular conscious consideration of events of daily life in light of long-term aspirations
  • Seek feedback, esp from Masters, but always subject input to own critical judgment
  • Editors Note: I have since started a daily journal and a “lessons” journal that I fill with things to remember and lessons to take from my current experiences and found it quite interesting

e.g  Mozart wrote tons of letters to friends, Freud was constantly thinking about his aspirations and the success/failures he encountered, Gandhi took daily walks, meditated, had strategy sessions, wrote lots of essays, books.


  • We are all different from others in certain ways, but we must identify and use those points of difference
  • the capacity of certain individuals to ignore areas of weakness and figure out how to use strengths to gain competitive advantage

e.g. Freud was bad at math and logical reasoning, so created new field of psychoanalysis to leverage strengths of language and organizational abilities

e.g. Gandhi did not worry that he was a bad student or didn’t have authority within existing gov’t but used strengths of personal awareness, understanding Indian people’s psyche to create a revolution


  • capacity to construe experiences in a way that is positive and allows one to draw apt lessons
  • it’s not so much seeing the bright side of a set back as the learning opportunity it offers
  • if this approach to life becomes an ingrained habit, the cumulative effect can be enormous

e.g Freud was faced with constant setbacks with his theory’s acceptance, Gandhi absorbed many difficulties and criticisms and was able to convince his followers that they were triumphant even in moments of apparent defeat

If you aren’t impressed by this trio of features, imagine someone who never reflected, didn’t really use their strengths effectively, allowed their weaknesses to thwart their efforts, got discouraged by failures that they didn’t learn from.


Gardner ends with the point that society (esp Educators) must look for signs of extraordinariness in young people, esp. Makers and Influencers and support their growth to ensure that they will be humane and moral beings whose powerful effect on society ends up being positive, rather than negative.


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