The older I get the more it strikes me how impossible it is to predict life success. I have known people who were blessed from the start with just about every ability imaginable, and yet who never realized the potential that was evident from an early age and became very embittered by their failure to do so. Often times they were tripped up by a single character flaw.
On the other hand, I have known others born with few obvious talents who nevertheless focused on a single point of strength to become veritable wellsprings of productivity.
I don't mean just to reiterate the cliché that many people who were mediocre students grow up to earn far more money than more academically gifted contemporaries. Even in disciplines that seem to put the greatest emphasis on a certain type of abstract intelligence, such as Talmudic learning, early precocity and illuishkeit are very imperfect predictors of long-range success,. The only thing that certain intellectual qualities predict is a greater likelihood of an easy time in school, especially in the early years.
In the long run, however, the very same intellectual abilities that allow a young boy to sail through cheder with ease can constitute a form of trap. Someone to whom things come very easily in school may never develop the skills to deal with frustration or learn to keep plugging away when the initial illumination is lacking. When they first confront material that does not lend itself to being absorbed quickly – and everybody eventually reaches that point in learning (each according to his level) – they will not have the zitsfleish to put in the hours and even days that may be necessary to unravel a sugya.
As a young man in Grodno Yeshiva, when Rabbi Yisroel Zev Gustman heard that he was being described as an ilui (genius) he grew furious: "This is illuyishkeit?" he protested, pointing at himself. "This is my life blood!" Whatever qualities made him worthy of being a member of Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grozinski's beis din before he was twenty, Rabbi Gustman felt, had nothing to do with natural endowments but with the willingness to stay up all night clarifying a sugya.
In teaching Talmud as well, abstract brilliance can sometimes be as much of a hindrance as a help. Often the ilui intuitively grasps the first two or three steps in the chain of reasoning, without even realizing that he has done so. As a consequence, he may lose his talmidim from the start, without any comprehension of what is problematic for them. Many talmidim grow more from hearing a shiur from someone who himself had to painstakingly work through the topic from the very beginning.
Abstract intelligence is only one of many qualities that can for one person be the key to success in learning, or life, in general, for that matter, and for another a trap. Yichus is another. For some, the knowledge that they are bearers of a particular name serves to keep them on the straight and narrow. They imbibe from an early age the view that there are certain things that one just doesn't do if one is a so-and-so. For others, a prestigious name is a form of license, as if one need never concern oneself with the opinion of others because one's superior qualities are vouchsafed in the name.
And for still others, yichus is a pure burden. Even if they possess the extraordinary abilities that gave rise to the yichus in the first place, they may suffer their entire lives from the heightened expectations that go with the name in ways that can become quite paralyzing.
In other cases, success in life depends on a host of factors that cannot be anticipated in youth. I have mentioned before a letter from a father in Bnei Brak to his daughter on the eve of her chasanah. He tells his daughter that as he looks back on his friends from yeshiva days, he sees that the greatest predictor of their eventual growth in learning was not their reputation for lomdus as bochurim but rather the quality of their marriages.
While I cannot attest to the empirical validity of this observation, it rings true. Yet the quality of a marriage certainly has nothing to do with those intellectual qualities likely to win the most fulsome praise in youth. Nor can it be predicted from an early age.
What follows for parents from the impossibility of predicting success or failure in life, however that is measured? First, we should never lose sight of the siyata d'shmaya that is needed and of the importance of our constant tefillos. If our children have been blessed with those talents for which children are most likely to be praised, we have no reason to smugly assume that their futures are assured and that we may sit back as parents. And perhaps more important, if they do not possess those talents in abundance, there is no reason to despair. No matter where our children are holding at any given moment, it isn't over until it's over.
And finally, we have to give more emphasis to often overlooked qualities that frequently prove as important as abstract intelligence in determining one's productivity in life. Seder (order) is one such quality. Someone once entered the Kelm beis midrash and heard the Alter delivering what the visitor assumed was a hesped. It turned out, however, that the Alter was lamenting two galoshes that had not been placed properly together in the cloak room. The Alter firmly believed that by acquiring the habit of ordering one's physical environment one could also learn to order one's thought processes. There are few of us who do not come to appreciate the importance of seder and a regular routine as we grow older. And seder, as the Alter of Kelm taught, is a quality that can be developed.
Perhaps the most important quality we can help our children attain is a positive attitude to life. No doubt some children are born with sunnier dispositions than others. But children who grow up in an atmosphere of encouragement, and are raised on a steady diet of observations about the amazing little things that others do, rather than constant carping about the failures of others, are far more likely to view the world and themselves positively.
In short, a certain gene pool is often the least important thing we contribute to our children.