How a Special Ed Student Became an Ivy League Professor
Magazine / How a Special Education Student Became an Ivy League Professor

How a Special Education Student Became an Ivy League Professor

How a Special Education Student Became an Ivy League Professor


  • The difference between obsessive and harmonious passion
  • Why expressing your truest self matters
  • How to use life’s deepest questions to guide your path

Scott Barry Kaufman is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, the scientific director of The Imagination Institute, and the author of Ungifted and Wired to CreateMichael Gervais is a high performance psychologist working closely with sports MVP’s, internationally acclaimed artists, and Fortune 25 CEO’s. He recently hosted Scott on the Finding Mastery podcast, where Scott explained that growing up, he was labeled a slow thinker with a learning disability. He then tells the story of how, with a late blooming of confidence and determination, he began to excel in school, and one day became a brilliant leader in his field.

Michael: You’ve got a crisp point of view in the field of psychology, but before we get into that, take us back to when you were younger. I want to get context for how you’ve come to understand psychology so well.

Scott: When I was growing up, the first three years of my life I was almost deaf. I had a lot of fluid in my ears, and it was very hard for me to hear things. I developed a learning disability called central auditory processing disorder. I couldn’t process auditory input in real time, so I would hear something, and then I would have to play it back in my head, and then understand what the person said. It looked like I was slow. The kids thought I was dumb, the teachers thought I was dumb, [even] I thought I was dumb.

Michael: How old were you when this was going on?

Scott: First ten years of my life. After I got an ear operation, it took a couple years to understand how to process input. I repeated third grade, I was labeled a “slow learner” and was bullied a lot. Bullying was a big part of my early childhood until ninth grade. I was actually kept in special education till ninth grade.

I wasn’t college-bound at all, but this special ed teacher believed in me. She took me aside and was just like, “Why are you here? You seem bright to me.” I was like, “What? No one has ever said that.” She inspired me to see what I was capable of, and man, that set off this big spark. I quit special ed overnight and signed up for every advanced class I could take.

Michael: You grew up feeling dumb, thinking you’re dumb, and having your community think you’re dumb? And those are the formative years.

Scott: Oh absolutely, my self-esteem was like nothing. No competency, no sense of efficacy. I had no identity.

From fourth grade on, I felt like I was capable of much more intellectual challenges, but I just felt like, who was I to question anyone?

Michael: Because you were beat up, literally beat up.

Scott: Yeah, and I acted out in my own ways. I became the class clown, so I started to be popular in middle school. I was really cheeky; I’d try to make everyone laugh.

Michael: You would use that social skill [to] deflect from the real issue.

Scott: For sure, as well as to regain some sense of power or control, what’s called “locus of control” in psychology. I also did computer hacking. I created this beeper that you could put up to the phone, and you could get free phone calls. It was illegal, [so] I hope no one is going to arrest me for it now.

“There is this basic need for feeling competent and like you matter in this world.”

Michael: A theme that keeps coming up for me is desperation and inspiration, the toggling of those two concepts for world-class performers and people making a dent either globally or in their industry. There is some darker something, some sort of complicated experience that happens for many [when they were] younger.

Scott: That is so interesting. Angela Duckworth included my story in her book, [Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance] as an example of grit because I tried to find the way out. Both she and I have this thing where if someone tells us we can’t do something, it actually motivates us to prove them wrong.

Her freshman year at Harvard, she was not doing well in this chemistry class, and they were like, “You know, you might want to drop this class.” She immediately went to the registrar and changed her major to chemistry. [When] they told me I was learning disabled, I immediately signed up for honors classes. Was I desperate? I felt I was inspired because I was desperate to show people that I was capable.

Michael: I heard this when I did some work in heavyweight boxing. I would ask coaches, “Do you want an athlete to come in fighting for inspiration or from desperation?” 100% of them [said] desperation, because it’s too hard [otherwise]. If we map that thought onto world-leading performers, I’d love to think that we came from inspiration, but I haven’t found it yet

Let’s go back to the story that you were just sharing with Angela Duckworth: “Okay, you [say I] can’t do something? Well, I’m going to go sign up.” Is that external motivation, or internal?

Scott: Great question. There are some fascinating cases where the boundary between those two things does seem to break down. It was clearly internal in the sense that there was this huge need within me that was unmet. When we have these basic needs, like the need for competence, that are so grossly unmet, our system naturally goes into repair mode, and one way it goes into that mode is to motivate us to do certain actions. But then I think there’s also an external motivation aspect [in] the sense that my drive was to have these external metrics of success.

The motivation [of] my 20s was to prove to people that I was smart by collecting obviously smart things. Like, “Oh, I went to University of Cambridge and I got a master’s degree.” [It] sounds pretentious, and people may hate you, but at least they think you’re smart. It gets empty though. When I hit my 30s, I reached a point where I’m like, “How much more do I need to prove it?”

Michael: Let’s go back to the moment where somebody said to you, “You can’t.” You said, “Oh really?” That’s what I want to sort out. Is it really just an external spark that gets us going and anchors to the internal, and then that’s what becomes sustainable?

Scott: Angela and I were trying to figure that out. Is it a personality trait? Are we narcissists? Is it as simple as, “Did someone just threaten my ego?” It’s not nice to have your ego threatened. There’s a component of self-protection, but I think there’s more going on there.

People in Public Library

There is this basic need for feeling competent and like you matter in this world. It was like I was not allowed to express that, [so] there was truly intrinsic motivation to become competent in something. I almost didn’t care what it was.

The story is that I signed up for everything, and I didn’t do well in everything of course. But I signed up for the school orchestra and I said, “At the start of the school year, I’m going to join your orchestra.” And the conductor said, “What do you play?” I said, “I don’t play anything yet.” So I practiced about eight hours a day the summer right after I got out of special ed, and by the start of the school year, I even beat someone who had been playing cello since elementary school. Senior year of high school, I ended up winning the all-department music award. I ended up second cellist of the school orchestra. It took a lot of sacrifices, [but] I was motivated to become a master. I wanted to show, “I’m worthy of being in this world.”

Michael: Are you going into self-determination theory when you’re talking about those basic needs, or is that something else?

Scott: I very much like self-determination theory. I am influenced by the same people they’re influenced by, which is ultimately Abraham Maslow.

Michael: Who are the theorists and philosophers that influenced your thinking the most?

Scott: When I started off in this field, it was those who were coming up with new theories of intelligence. Like Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence, Robert Sternberg had creative practical and analytical intelligence. Those were my original intellectual heavyweights, but in recent years I’ve formed a really great connection to Maslow and his ideas. I’ve been going through his unpublished personal journals, his unpublished articles and letters.

Michael: Maslow is great for self-actualization and the hierarchy of needs, really wonderful. Who else?

Scott: Well, I’m really into the humanistic thinkers and the existential philosophers.

Michael: Carl Rogers.

Scott: Exactly. Rollo May is very underrated as a thinker, a thinker who brought the existential philosophers to America.

Michael: Explain that to people.

Scott: Sure, there’s this notion, this idea of being. What is being? What does it mean to have the essence of a person? What does it mean to exist?

Michael: It’s a central question. What does it mean to be human? Like why am I here, who am I? The rabbit hole of some of the greatest thinkers is deep.

Scott: It gets really deep. Self-actualization, becoming fully human, your real self, those were all things that they were talking about.

“I find myself gradually caring a lot less about what others think of me as long as I’m being authentic to myself.”

There is this audio track I heard of Maslow from 1968. He said, “People keep predicting what the world is going to be like in the year 2000, and they talk about all these economic models and critical models.” He said, “Nobody is talking about what the future of the soul is going to be. Unless we really plumb the depths of what it means to be human, we’re going to have serious issues with politics in the future.” I was like, “Dude, you get it.”

Michael: Let’s go back now. How did you survive the years when you were socially ostracized? How did you treat yourself, and then how did you move through [it]?

Scott: Well, I wanted to do it for a long time. It took this person to just see beyond the label of “learning disabled.” She was applying Carl Rogers’ principles. She looked at the totality of me, the person, and she said, “Why are you here?” I went, “Why am I here?” I was like, “Wait a minute, you’re giving me an excuse to actually question this? Awesome.” I told my parents and everyone, “I’m not going to report back to special ed.” This has never happened before in my school district.

There was a big meeting, and there was nothing in the rule book for this, [so] they let me out on a trial basis. They said, “We’ll let you out, but if you don’t do well, you’re coming back in.” I was like, “Thanks for that vote of confidence, guys.” I immediately went from a straight C student to a straight A student, all the way through the rest of high school.

Michael: Then how did you take the step?

Scott: I mean I felt like I could do a lot more, but I was too shy to say anything. I was severely introverted before ninth grade, so I internalized pretty much everything. I’m also extremely sensitive to expectations of me. If I’m in a room and I feel like people might not like me, I am really good at acting in ways where they really don’t like me. If I’m in a room and I feel like people are expecting something good out of me, my best self comes out automatically.

It was a teacher who for the first time in all of school was like, “You know, I think I see something greater within you.” Whatever sensitivity I had it was like, “Wow, that’s all I needed.” All it took was one person to believe in me, and then I hit the ground running.

Michael: Go now to day one in the new experience, the new school. I’m mapping that onto me trying something new. Can you teach me how to be better and more effective, teach all of us to own that space, to go from Cs to As in new territory?

Scott: It’s about believing in yourself. It was a mindset shift. My mindset before was like, “Okay, I’m going to take this untimed test and no one expects anything.” [Then later,] “I am going to show them, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to do well.” I overstudied for every test, I learned strategies to overcome my anxiety. It’s not like my anxiety went away overnight, but I found that if I over-prepared, I wasn’t anxious on the day of the test.

Michael: I’m hearing that and I’m getting two pictures. One is like, “Yeah, he was really working.” Then the other picture is like there’s an inner torment that was still guiding that. Was it tormenting?

Students in class.

Scott: I think that element was there to some degree because a lot of it became obsessive. We talk in positive psychology about the difference between obsessive passion and harmonious passion. I would say that a lot of that was driven by obsessive passion, which is not conducive to well-being, whereas now I think I’m driven a lot more by harmonious passion.

Michael: How did that switch? It’s rare when you have the experience of it changing.

Scott: You realize at a certain point that you don’t have to work that hard. You really don’t have to. You can actually get better returns on your investment by having a more harmonious life, by having supportive relationships. There are other things in your life that support the work indirectly.

Michael: When there’s a sense of harmony, the amplification of output is noticeable, and the experience is wonderful as well. You’re suggesting that it just came from a thought? “You know what, this is kind of crazy. I’d like more harmony.”

Scott: Little by little I’ve been chipping away at the obsession. Like Carl Rogers would say, “Becoming human is not the designation, it’s the process.” [There’s a form of] acceptance [via] my own internal coherent set of values. Am I being true to them? Am I being true to my own internal code? Then there’s a form of self-esteem that is driven by external factors, like the awards you win, whether or not your colleagues like you, whether or not you get enough likes on Facebook. I find myself gradually caring a lot less about what others think of me as long as I’m being authentic to myself. In my 20s I would always be like, “What does this person think of me? Did I say something [such] that maybe they won’t like me as much anymore?” Now it’s shifted to more like, “Am I okay with what I said?” If I’m okay with that, even if they don’t like me for saying it, then I’m okay with it. Does that makes sense?

Michael: I think you and I are on this insatiable path to express authenticity, and to do that, I have to invest in the craft and invest in the being. Being and becoming, the intersection between those two is complicated, and I don’t know a better way to understand it than saying, “I’ve got to get really good at the thing that I do, so that I can express outside of me what makes sense inside of me.”

If I’m sloppy as a painter, I’ll never be able to demonstrate the beauty that I feel or the hostility that I feel. I’ve got to become great at matching the internal experience to the external communication, whether it’s paint, song, words, whatever. There’s a freedom that comes from it.

Scott: I love the way you described that. A lot of it is about, what are your goals? What kind of life do you want to live? A lot of people spend their whole lives striving for happiness, [like] you could spend your whole life striving for medals. If you commit yourself to being, if you’re like, “You know what? I’m going to commit my life to becoming who I actually am,” then that brings along with it a whole set of ways of living, including owning your actions. You’re owning [them] because [they are] you.

Michael: That’s right. If we don’t get really clear on and write down the words that matter most to us to guide us, it becomes this internal hamster wheel spinning. Like, “Am I on course? I’m not sure…” Once we write it down, it becomes really clear.

“It’s all a desperate need to matter in this world. Until we really understand that, we’re going to keep fighting.”

When you drill it all down, what is the thing that you understand the most?

Scott: I feel like we all really want to matter. Everyone I meet, there are individual differences but we’re all these imperfect people playing out these internal conflicts and dramas. It’s all a desperate need to matter in this world. Until we really understand that, we’re going to keep fighting. Once you understand that, you can look at a dimension of a person that is actually much more similar to you than you want to admit.

Creativity is a vulnerable place, because you’re bringing into being something that didn’t exist, and a lot of people do not like change.

Michael: Is that research-based or just an observation?

Scott: It’s research-based. Some people like change more than others, that’s for sure, but hopefully there are enough people on the planet that can support you. What do you focus on, your friends and family or the people criticizing you on a blog?

Michael: I often say to athletes and performers on the world stage that they’re not prepared to do social media. I say, “Publish if you need to keep your brand or whatever, but don’t read.” They start to experience such freedom. They’re like, “Oh my God, I’m not burdened by somebody saying I’m stupid or ugly or whatever.”

Scott: You nailed it.

Michael: Can you give me one strategy that you use to train calm or confidence, or maybe even goal-setting?

Scott: I think that what gets undervalued is undirected behavior, or spontaneous cognition. A kind of meditation called “open monitoring meditation” is undirected, where you’re not returning to your breath, but you’re really sitting there and looking at the thought pattern. What are your daydreams? Where are they going? What are the themes? What are the aspects of that cognition that you want to keep? What are the ones you don’t want to keep? I find that a lot of my goals emerge from listening to my non-directed cognition.

Michael: How about finishing this statement: Success is…

Scott: Success is learning. Success is personal growth. I define success as, “I’ve grown as a whole person, my existence has somehow been benefited by an experience.”


This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full version, click here.

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