Some Thoughts on "Cradles of Eminence: Childhoods of More Than 700 Famous Men and Women"

As an investor interested in leadership development and as a father of two small children, I am fascinated by how the childhood environment and, more specifically, the relationship with one’s close family members, can have a long-lasting impact on character development. Coincidentally, I was reading "Cradles of Eminence" as Ian posted his article Nurturing the Intelligent Fanatic in our Children.

Cradles of Eminence was written by the married couple Victor and Mildred Goertzel, a unique study on this fascinating topic. Initially published in 1964, the book contains interesting insights about childhood development, based on the authors’ review of thousands of books and biographies on 400 famous individuals in the US and abroad[1]. In later editions the sample was extended to include more than 700 eminent people. The list of individuals, whose childhoods are described in the book, covers a heterogeneous sample of personalities across a wide range of human achievements. Some were generally very much admired such as Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, William James Mayo, Andrew Carnegie, Marcel Proust, Pablo Picasso, Louis Armstrong and Mother Teresa, while others of course have not been judged so favourably by history such as Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin. After all, even today, not all eminent people are necessarily “intelligent fanatics” … and more importantly not all famous individuals who are well-regarded today, will be viewed positively in the future, say ten or twenty years from now – another good reason to remain humble about our own opinion about others.

The Goertzels’ book is original in its content and ambitious in its goals. In fact, the sample may not be large enough to draw any definitive conclusions about children education and it is important to keep in mind that the authors’ interpretations are based on biographies, not direct interviews. Nevertheless, one must appreciate the zealous effort put in by the Goertzels in collecting insights and anecdotes from thousands of books that offer plenty of material to reflect on, for both parents and teachers. Since many of the eminent people, in the early stages of their life were not perceived to be particularly talented (and in many cases went through very difficult and complicated childhoods), the book shows us that it is hard to make any prediction about how a specific child or teenager will develop over time. As an example of this, below you will find a few paragraphs from the book describing three eminent people at a young age. Try to assess the chances of any of them achieving any kind of success in their lifetime. At the end of this post, you will find out who they are.

Case 1. Girl, age sixteen, orphaned, willed to custody of grandmother, who was separated from alcoholic husband, now deceased. Mother rejects the homely child, who has been proven to lie and steal sweets. Girl swallowed a penny to attract attention at age five. Father was fond of child. Child lived in a fantasy world as the mistress of father’s household for years. Four young uncles and aunts in household cannot be managed by grandmother, who is widowed. Young uncle drinks; has left home without telling the grandmother his destination. Aunt emotional over love affair, locks self in room. Grandmother resolves to be more strict with children since she feels she has failed with own children. Dresses granddaughter oddly. Refuses to let her have playmates, puts her in a back brace to keep back straight. Does not send her to grade school. Aunt on paternal side of family crippled; uncle asthmatic.

Case 2. Boy, senior year secondary school, has obtained certificate from physician stating that nervous breakdown makes it necessary for him to leave school for six months. Boy not a good all-around student; has no friends, teachers find him a problem, spoke late, father ashamed of son’s lack of athletic ability, poor adjustment to school. Boy has odd mannerisms, makes up own religion, chants hymns to himself, parents regard him as “different.

Case 3. Boy, age 6; head large at birth. Thought to have brain fever. Three siblings died before his birth. Mother does not agree with relatives and neighbours that child is probably abnormal. Child sent to school – diagnosed as mentally ill by teacher. Mother is angry – withdraws child from school says she will teach him herself.

Going back to the book’s content, it is sometimes quite difficult to follow the text since the authors describe the childhood of many individuals born in different epochs and geographies, without clearly explaining each time what a specific individual is famous for. In fact, each chapter includes an extensive number of childhoods, which in one way or another reflect the specific theme treated in the chapter. The book is in fact organised by chapters with thought-provoking titles, such as:

  • Homes that Respect Learning and Achievement
  • Opinionated Parents
  • Failure-Prone Fathers
  • Dominating Mothers, but Few Dominating Fathers
  • Children with Handicaps
  • Dislike of School and School Teachers
  • Creative Children as School Problems

The above chapter titles may raise your curiosity to read the book … and many of you will probably want to know what are the key takeaways from the book. As many other writings, which stand the test of time, Cradles of Eminence does a better job at stimulating interesting questions in the reader rather than providing definitive answers. Personally, I found the following conclusions by the authors of the book to be quite fascinating:

  • Most of these children had at least one ambitious parent who was striving and driving.
  • Many of them grew up surrounded by books and an intellectually stimulating environment – in fact fewer than 10% of the parents failed to show a strong love of learning.
  • 3 out of 4 of the children were troubled (due to poverty, broken home environment, physical handicaps, rejecting, over possessive, estranged or dominating parents, etc).

Half of the parents were opinionated about a controversial subject, i.e. they held unconventional opinions that were shocking, even antagonistic, to others
Many of the parents – especially mothers – dominated their children’s lives
As children, few liked school, and still fewer liked their teachers (often they did not rebel against their parents, but against the world outside of their family)
Nearly half of the fathers were subject to traumatic hardships in their business or professional careers

In conclusion, I think it is very hard to assess if a particular child or teenager is “destined for success”, and, frankly, it is probably less important than most people think. What is far more relevant for parents (and of course teachers) is to show unconditional loving and support regardless of the perceived talent or intelligence and providing children with the right growth mindset and resilience to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of life. Most of the eminent children described in the book in fact had at least one of the parents who was particularly caring towards them and, even the ones who were not so fortunate, found someone among the wider circle of relatives, friends and teachers/mentors who believed in them and helped them in one way or another. Thinking about the topic of parenting and dealing with children’s mistakes, I would like to quote Ron Friedman’s article about billionaire entrepreneur Sara Blakely, inventor of Spanx:

Some parents are content asking their children, “Did you have a good day?” or “What did you learn at school?” Not at the Blakely household. The question Sara and her brother had to answer night after night was this: “What did you fail at today?” When there was no failure to report, Blakely’s father would express disappointment.

This approach may be a bit extreme and maybe not suited to every child, but still worth thinking about considering how social media today often lead us to over celebrate success. The stories in Cradles of Eminence show how the uncertain (and sometimes “muddy”) journey towards personal development is often far more interesting that the final outcome.

Finally, as promised, the following are the names of the children described above:

Case 1: Eleanor Roosevelt
Case 2: Albert Einstein
Case 3: Thomas Edison

Other interesting links on the topic of childhood education:

Supernormal: The Untold Story of Adversity and Resilience – a book about how adversity and resilience are sometimes the not-so-well-known key drivers behind the extraordinary success of some people.

Marva Collins (60 Minutes) – the US teacher who by setting up in the 1970s her own preparatory school in Chicago showed how even children coming from very challenging environments (some of them were even considered “retarded”…) can achieve very ambitious goals if you provide them with a the right growth mindset , as described in Carol Dweck’s book. Unfortunately, as indicated by this article, Marva Collins’ school was closed in 2008.

How Elon Musk’s built Ad Astra School – a school initially thought out for his children with no grade and focused on problem-solving … sounds like an interesting experiment in education, although not easy to scale.

[1] In later editions of the book, the sample was extended to more than 700 eminent people.

Here are a few other articles you would enjoy:

Nurturing the Intelligent Fanatic in our Children

Intelligent Fanatics Case Study – John Gomes

Does Childhood Adversity Give You an Advantage in Adulthood?

What Does Culture Smell Like?

Intelligent Fanatics Think Beyond Their Lifetime

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Living in the Present