Sometimes I meet the most interesting people.
I don’t know what it is about me that attracts other people to tell me their stories, but I’m some sort of story magnet. Even before I wrote stories for a living and interviewed people on TV, they’ve been sharing their trials and tribulations with me. I’m fascinated with how people “become” themselves; the experiences, events, and relationships that have brought them to where they are now.
Such is the case, when I recently met Kelton Kostis and interviewed him for my TV show. That name may seem familiar to you, he was recently in the news for earning a Master’s degree in Cybersecurity at age 14. Yes, you read that correctly, age 14.
What I had read about him was basically the facts with a little commentary on the side. It was a bare-bone story about his accomplishment; coming no where near satisfying my curiosity!
At 16 months, Kelton could read and communicate using sign language. At the age of three, he was diagnosed as being ‘profoundly gifted.’ In fact, his examiner told his parents George and Marla, that people would doubt his test scores because he was above the 99.9th percentile, meaning he is in the top 0.1% percent of the smartest people on earth, at age three!
To be honest, I expected Kelton to be a little bit like Sheldon from Big Bang Theory; genius with little to no social skills, perhaps arrogant and condescending. He wasn’t any of those things. He was polite, quite sociable, and had a great sense of humour. In fact, he was even a little humbled by all the media attention.
Although the subject content of his Master’s degree came easy to him, what he did struggle with was the discussions on the online forum boards. When asked how he could relate a certain situation to his own work experience, he was at a loss. He didn’t have any work experience to reflect on since he started his Bachelor degree at 9 and graduated with a Masters by the time he was 14, so he had to improvise. He also commented that learning time management, self-discipline and reflection took more effort to learn than the content. I told him that was all part and parcel to a post-secondary education - we all struggle with it. But I also remembered that he was only 14…
What I really wanted to know about Kelton was his own awareness of his giftedness. Did he know that he processed the world differently than most people? He does. He knew that as a toddler being able to read novels to older kids wasn’t commonplace. Luckily, Kelton’s mother is also gifted so she knew what needed to happen to keep Kelton busy, interested, and engaged.
Over the course of a few conversations, some before, some during and some after the taping of my show, I felt a strange bond to Kelton, he resonated with me. You see, I’m a pretty smart cookie myself. I also have a Master’s degree with a 4.0 GPA (the highest Grade-Point-Average possible). I too have always had an innate awareness that I processed the world very differently than everyone else, partly due to my intelligence, and partly due to ADHD.
So just like Kelton, I understand what it means when both he and his mother Marla say he just seems to learn by osmosis. His brain can put incomplete ideas and concepts together quickly, filling in the missing information. His mother thinks he has a photographic memory, but Kelton isn’t as convinced as she is. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not.
I also asked the question I thought I knew the answer to: were you ever bullied for being so smart? To my surprise he answered no. Kelton has never thought of his giftedness as something that makes him any better or worse than anyone else. He and his friends treat each other as equals.
Unlike Kelton, I was teased relentlessly about being smart as a child. I can remember deliberately failing tests in high school just to gain the approval of my friends. I thought being smart was something to be ashamed of, so I hid it. I spent most of my life dumbing it down to fit in.
Kelton, on the other hand, is celebrating his intelligence. He has pursued it enthusiastically. His mother home-schooled him starting in grade two when it was evident that he was bored at school. He then initiated and pursued topics which interested him. Mom took a step back during his Master’s degree and left all responsibility to Kelton. In our interview, he was sure to point out that his parents did not push him through, denying him a ‘regular’ life in pursuit of academics, which is what most people assume.
What people don’t understand is that everyone needs some sort of mental stimulation, whether it’s through academics, sports, music, art, Netflix or something else. Everyone needs a challenge, and the better you are at something, the harder you seek to be challenged (think of young children in competitive sports). If he hadn’t been continuously challenged academically, he would have floundered out of boredom.
Kelton is pursuing what he loves to do - cybersecurity. He’s following his passion, and that’s admirable no matter how old you are. After finishing his Master’s degree, he’s now looking forward to the next challenge, working. Learning something and using it in a practical context are two entirely different things and he’s eager to get started using his knowledge.
So back to my question, does Kelton know he processes the world differently than other people? Of course, he does. But what’s most intriguing to me is how he handles that self-awareness. He isn’t ashamed of his intelligence, he doesn’t use it as a weapon to belittle others, and he doesn’t let it affect his status within social relationships. I’ve met, talked to, and worked with a lot of youth, and I can tell you that Kelton is about one of the most impressive 14 year-olds I’ve ever met. I don’t deny that a lot of that comes from good parenting and a positive encouraging environment, but in the end, it’s Kelton who decides how he uses his gifts. He’s polite, well-spoken, funny, articulate, self-aware, a little bit naive, quiet, confident, self-assured, mature and yes, even a little bit humble.
As I mentioned in the intro, I’m fascinated with how people “become” themselves, and this time, I’ll admit, I’m interested, intrigued and excited about who Kelton decides to become. I, for one will be following up on Kelton’s success with anticipation, cheering from the sidelines.