We Are Not the 3%
The infant brain is an incredible thing.
At our youngest, we are in some ways at our most brilliant -- our brain has more neurons than it will for the remainder of our lives, and the first few years of life bring a period of intense learning. Paired with this intense learning period is what neurologists refer to as neuronal "pruning": the death of unused neurons in the brain and the foregone neuronal paths that the lack of stimulation specific to the cells would have created, had they existed. Neuronal genesis mid-life is a rare occurrence, so the pruning that occurs early in life is in many ways a strong indicator of which cognitive abilities and skills we will be able to master later in life.
The theory of neuronal pruning is related to neuroplasticity, and is one of the most brilliant adaptions of high-level creatures to a complex environment. Basically, the human brain comes equipped with neurons that are prepared to react and adapt to a wide range of environments; whether intellectually or physically rigorous, the human brain is able to shift gears and develop skills as necessary well into adolescence.
Exceptional young people -- prodigies -- are indicative not merely of their own rare and unique mental capacities; they are also a reflection of what their communities and cultures emphasize as worthy pursuits. Mathematics, visual art, music -- the list of creative and analytical prodigies is as long as it is diverse. Generation after generation, human societies tend to elevate the members of its youth that show exceptional promise in areas it deems critical to the health of the species.
Often child prodigies exemplify something familiar to a society -- the pursuit of mathematics, for instance -- in a way that's unfamiliar. Prodigies bring new perspective to parts of culture that have been in development for a long time. While the most brilliant of us often seem to strike out of nowhere -- inexplicable -- it's also observable that waves of development and boundary-pushing often come in waves that seem to embody a kind of intellectual zeitgeist -- the development of calculus by Newton and Leibniz, for instance.
This zeitgeist may appear mystical or oddly coincidental from the outside, but the fact is that most of the boundary-pushing by the brilliant minds among us is far from unscripted. One of the most marked features of many (not all) of the most excellent minds is their desire to contribute to a community that has supported and contributed to the achievement of their goals. These individuals are inextricably linked to their communities. And it is their development within communities that showcases their intelligence. Chris Thile, a notable prodigy in mandolin (for those of you who don't recognize his name, he co-founded what's possibly the only recent famous Bluegrass group since Allison Krauss, Nickel Creek, at the age of 8), would readily divulge that his skill and much of his success is due to his mentors -- a list that includes Mark O' Connor, 7-time Country Music Award and 2-time Grammy winner, who would also readily divulge childhood mentors like Benny Thomasson, Stephane Grappelli.
Prodigies have mentors.
While societies often elevate the intellectual gifted or uniquely talented among us, not all of us can be prodigies. Hardly any of us can be, in fact. Those that can be called "gifted" make up less than 3% of the population -- and this is a number that has shown little to no fluctuation over centuries. But mentors -- and that cultural mirror that shows us what's important to value and not value -- have a strong, if not stronger, influence on those of us who show ordinary talents and ordinary intelligence. We are the ones who push change. We are the ones who define our cohort.
Making the ordinary exceptional
Without mentorship, education, and development -- knowledge passed from generation to generation from the most successful of past generations to the most inquiring of this one -- there would be very little continuity of culture over history. Those who strive to teach us have a permanent impact on the future.
Recent decades have brought no shortage of organizations dedicated to elevating the status and abilities of the demographic that this publication focuses on: women. There is, in fact, a miniature crusade to elevate the status of women almost anywhere you go in the United States. These organizations often suffer from a lack of knowledge or desire to collaborate with one another -- they form a sort of fractal pattern of "I know better"s. And in many ways, it hardly matters -- providing mentors and role models for young women is important, so the proliferation of similarly-minded institutions can hardly be said to have negative impact (however that would be measured, I'm not sure).
But what can be counted -- almost on one hand -- are organizations that both think and act on a global scale. Many of us are familiar with them -- Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Women project , the Third Billion campaign, Women for Women International, and Vital Voices are the major players in this arena. A key indicator for the success of these types of organization is whether they can attain either major corporate or government sponsorship. The largest efforts to empower disenfranchised women globally -- through economic empowerment, leadership and quality of life efforts -- often come backed by management consulting or investment banking firms.
Among these, Vital Voices is a different type of player in the space. Originally stemming from the Vital Voices Democratic Initiative, established in 1997, the Vital Voices Global Partnership was cofounded by former Hillary Clinton aide and chief of staff Melanne Verveer, current Vital Voices President Alyse Nelson, Donna McLarty, Mary Yerrick, and Theresa Loar. Their three central goals are to elevate the status of women by providing aid to improve their quality of living as well as by developing female leaders in small communities worldwide to bring economic prosperity to these communities -- from the inside out.
Change from the inside out
This is a refreshing take on global aid -- a mentorship perspective -- and defies many of the economic contradictions of aid organizations past. The history of inequality and poverty in the world is often something addressed by government organizations that have an inherently non-holistic perspective -- for instance, building affordable housing without providing adequate education to maintain higher standards of living. Bringing construction projects to impoverished areas, for instance, has no long-term impact unless local contractors and local skilled labor is sourced for the project. Vital Voices makes an especial focus on developing human capital alongside other types of capital, so that long-term economic prosperity can be assuredly both organic and sustainable.
I sat down with Vital Voices President, Alyse Nelson, at the recent Women in the World conference in New York City to ask her what impact Vital Voices has been the most rewarding for her. Her answer was a resounding "mentorship."
"Seeing women from their communities come gain mentors -- and the resulting contacts, information and skills that come with them -- is amazing," she told me. "These are women who go back to their home countries, and they're inspired to give back to their communities in ways they never thought possible before."
Leading the organization with bright energy and a canny sense of what will have the biggest possible impact on the world, Alyse is herself a leader. And under her leadership, Vital Voices has grown into an organization with chapters all over the world. She has led the organization to new heights -- both in terms of promoting awareness and impacting change.
One of the biggest ways Vital Voices impacts impoverished communities is their Businesswomen's Networks: with a Middle East and North Africa Businesswomen's Network and an Africa Businesswomen's Network, which have been in place for several years, and more recently a Latin America and the Caribbean Network as well. They have also brought attention to the need for women in politics -- both by training women to participate in the political arena and publishing on the issue (Alyse's book, Vital Voices, which will be released in June).
Without mentors and teachers, most of us would be ill reflections of our culture's values and achievements. Without representative leadership, many of us would go unspoken for. But organizations like Vital Voices are out to change all of that.
Some say that leadership can't be taught -- but it can, apparently, be mentored.
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