The nail that sticks out gets hammered down

written by Jeffrey Zook, Psy.D.


"The nail that sticks out gets hammered down"

- Japanese proverb


Paul was a kindergartener in the early 1960s. He grew up in an area of California that was on the cusp of enormous economic growth ... and still surrounded by numerous fruit orchards. Paul was inquisitive about the things around him- intense and full of imagination. His mother taught him how to read before he entered school. His father taught him how to use the simple tools found in their garage and how to build things out of wood and metal.

Paul found school difficult from the start. Looking back as an adult, he came to realize that he only wanted to do two things at the age of five: read lots of books and chase butterflies. The school had other ideas for him however and he found this new authority contrary to the childhood freedoms he was used to. He would later describe this authority as coming really close to beating the curiosity out of him. 

In the third grade, Paul was repeatedly suspended from school. He and his best school friend did not find their entertainment in academics, but instead found amusement in creating chaos on campus by designing elaborate pranks to be played on teachers and classmates. The principle decided to separate the two of them in the fourth grade, and by chance, he was placed into a class with a teacher that would change his life.

Paul's teacher recognized his potential and spent extra time with him. She challenged him to excel in his schoolwork, and if she needed to go as far as to bribe him into doing this work, she would. She would also create special projects for him that would push his intellect and Paul soon rediscovered his love for learning. He had advanced scholastically so rapidly that year that when he was tested, the school administrators recommended that he be placed directly into high school. His parents wisely said no. They did allow for him to skip one grade, however.

As an adult, Paul would say that had this teacher not taken an interest in him and guided his energies in the way that she did, he would have ended up in jail. He was 100% sure of that.

So what do we make of the educational system, over fifty years later? The trend has been a push for even more controlled, tranquil, and predicable school environments.

I often encounter children like Paul today. They are brought into my office by parents who have been asked by the school administration to find a way to have their child meet academic requirements or behave in acceptable ways and conform to certain standards. These children tend not to follow all the rules at home and can be difficult to live with at times, so parents may be bringing them in to see me for those reasons as well.

With many of these children, I find that they share several traits. They are spontaneous, imaginative, sensitive, expressive, and enthusiastic. They have boundless energy and a curiosity about the world. They are divergent thinkers, easily bored, and somewhat rebellious. They have been called gifted, quirky, or different.

Traditional classroom environments and school curriculums often do not meet their needs, but that does not mean efforts to accommodate the individual child are not being made. I have met and do know a number of compassionate and remarkable teachers and administrators. They work to enact change where they can. But they also work within a system… and that system does not always function as it might.

As is often the case, the view commonly taken is that it is more acceptable and expedient to attempt to change the child, than to modify the structure surrounding the child. Some look to the mental health industry as an instrument of this change, believing that assorted psychological techniques can help to smooth the edges of a square peg to easier fit a round hole. 

Unfortunately, much of modern psychology is designed to look for pathology and childhood behavior is often examined through that lens. Perhaps a diagnosis of ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, or several other psychological disorders may be given. Treatments are designed and therapy introduced. It is simple to arrange a constellation of symptoms to meet certain diagnostic criteria and give these symptoms a name. The challenge is found in placing those symptoms within the proper framework. This is exactly why a comprehensive evaluation is essential: context. The traits and behaviors of the child must be viewed in the appropriate context. That does not always happen.

Yes, there are several non-traditional educational alternatives available to children and the psychologist can certainly play a role in helping a child to thrive in various environments. But if we are looking to find solutions for children like Paul, one of the most important factors in the formula is this: 

The mentor. 

Now a mentor is someone who can provide guidance and direction to the child's energy. A mentor is someone who inspires and nurtures the child's creativity and curiosity. A mentor can take many forms: a parent, teacher, psychologist, or simply a like-minded adult with similar interests as the child. While society may be asking for conformity, the mentor gives the assurance that it is OK to be different and unconventional.

I do find it somewhat contradictory that a society that would attempt to suppress or restrain many of the core traits found in these children is the same society that encourages and rewards these traits in the adult. These qualities are often found in the inventor, entrepreneur, business leader, artist, and in the most creative among us. Those who excel in these endeavors are unique, out of the ordinary, and visionary. These children should be nurtured and encouraged. They grow to create the very things that allow for us to live healthier and longer lives. They enrich and improve our lives. They contribute to the betterment of society.

Two quotes come to mind, both written by George Bernard Shaw ...

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man"

The second is from a line found in Shaw's play, "Back to Methuselah".

"You see things; and you say, 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say, 'Why not?' "

This defines the fundamental nature of these children. If this spirit remains with them and is not lost along the way, it is how they will continue to make their way through life as an adult.

There really was a boy named Paul who attended kindergarten in the early sixties… who loved to learn… who had difficulty in school… but Paul was not his first name. Paul was his middle name. His first name was Steve. Steven Paul Jobs. Founder of Apple Computer. Inventor and entrepreneur. 


Reference source: Steve Jobs Oral History: Computerworld Honors Program International Archives. April 20th, 1995