Monday, August 23, 2010

Reflections on a Mega-Savant

A few days ago I came across a newspaper from December 2009 that included a story that’s been on my mind ever since. It was an obituary for Kim Peek, the American savant that inspired the 1988 film Rain Man.

Peek was born with a developmental disability that gave him an unbelievable memory, while inhibiting his social and motor skills. He was originally believed to be mentally challenged, until it was discovered that he was a “mega-savant” capable of astounding mental tasks.

For instance, Kim had a photographic memory and could read an entire book in one hour (he read one page with each eye!). By the time he died last December, it was believed that he had committed 9,000 books to memory. He has genius-level knowledge of 15 subjects across science, sport and art.

It was less his mental abilities that impressed me than his relationship with Dustin Hoffman, who met Peek while researching his role in Rain Man. According to Peek’s father, “Dustin Hoffman said to me, you have to promise me one thing about this guy, share him with the world. And pretty soon it got so that nobody was a stranger to him, they were people, and so was he."

From that point on, Peek became a star on the lecture circuit. Audiences would test his knowledge with questions on the most esoteric topics. He rarely answered incorrectly. Peek thrived on the recognition and developed social skills that few thought were possible.

When Rain Man won the Academy Award in 1988, Barry Morrow, one of the film’s writers, gave his statuette to Peek. It soon after became known as the “The Most Loved Oscar Statue,” since Peek carried it with him to all of his speaking engagements, letting anybody in the audience who wished hold it. No other Oscar has ever been held by as many people.

I saw the story as a testament to the importance of helping individuals reach their potential. Hoffman unlocked something special about Peek by encouraging his father to share him with the world. Mentors, producers, teachers and even agents do the same thing by recognizing talent, putting it in front of an audience, and giving it a chance to blossom.