Overcoming Weakness

When Temple Grandin was born, her parents were afraid that she would never be able to have the life of a normal child. She was autistic and had trouble even learning language. Her future was determined to be limited at best, but her parents were convinced she could learn language. They took her to a speech therapist and pretty soon Temple was learning the fundamentals of language.

But, Temple still thought in terms of images, so speaking, reading, and socializing was a difficult task for her. Abstract concepts, like mathematics and specific words, were impossible for Temple to understand, making school unbearable. She was often made fun of by other students, coming home from school dejected. In these dejected moments Temple would return to two things: animals (specifically horses) and building stuff. Temple especially loved animals, so at age 15 her parents decided to send her to her aunt’s ranch.

One day she sat and watched the cattle being vaccinated. To do this the cows were placed in a squeeze chute that held them in place like a tight cage. Temple had the desire to be held closely, but when adults would hug her she felt trapped. She begged her aunt to be allowed to go into the squeeze chute just once. The aunt agreed and Temple entered the squeeze chute, overcome with the tightness she had always longed for but never received. Soon after she became obsessed with the machine.

Beyond animals and building things, Temple became obsessed with cattle, squeeze chutes, and the effects of touch on autistic children. She did what any obsessed person would do: studied everything she could on the subjects. But, abstract concepts did not come easy to Temple. So, paired with her new passions, she slowly developed reading and researching skills. By satisfying her own personal curiosity and obsession, she learned what years of school couldn’t teach her. An intense concentration also developed within her as she read for hours, expanding to subjects like psychology, biology, and all of science.

Years later the autistic kid who couldn’t comprehend language was admitted into Arizona State University for graduate school. She decided to do a thesis on an analysis of cattle chutes to understand the behavioral responses of animals. This was the perfect intersection of all of her interests, but such a new research field was not permitted by her professors. So, Temple changed colleges until she found professors that would let her pursue this thesis.  

The limited academic world wasn’t appealing to Temple, so after her thesis she decided to forge her own career by consulting with local ranches and feedlots. She began designing superior cattle chutes that were better for the animals and made business more efficient. Through her new career she learned the ins and outs of business, beginning to innovate entire slaughterhouses and other systems to manage commercial farm animals.

Grandin’s design for the slaughterhouse cattle corral was revolutionary in its responsiveness to the animal’s natural behavior, making the task-at-hand more efficient. Even today it's considered to be the innovation that led the charge for animal welfare reform in the cattle industry

Grandin’s design for the slaughterhouse cattle corral was revolutionary in its responsiveness to the animal’s natural behavior, making the task-at-hand more efficient. Even today it's considered to be the innovation that led the charge for animal welfare reform in the cattle industry

Only after years of success did Temple return to academia to write, teach, and become one of the most respected lecturers in the country on animals and autism. Temple Grandin was told all her life of her deficiencies. Rather than yielding she found her own specific strength. With more weaknesses than most and an unrelenting drive, Temple focused intently on her love of animals, which lead to cattle, which lead to reading, which lead to academics, which lead to business, which lead to inventions, and which then lead back to academia. She evolved beyond her weaknesses and continually resisted the temptation to be like others.

Two lessons to take away here: your weaknesses are no big deal, and stop with all the big plans.

Why worry about your weaknesses? Acknowledge them--maybe even embrace them--and find a path around or through them. Success is achieved through focusing on the things you are good at. Concentrate on what you are doing now, becoming not only proficient but masterful. This will serve as the foundation of all other things to come.

And why make big plans for the future when we all know what happens to the best-made plans? The future is uncertain; concentrating on what you are doing now is the most certain thing you can do. You cannot control your future, but you can control now. The present determines the future, not the other way around. So set a navigational beacon, but focus on today’s tasks and allow flexibility in the overall path.

Lastly--again--quit worrying about your weakness. Those who are naturally gifted are usually those who accomplish the least. You have an opportunity to learn skills more important than talent: curiosity, focus, and persistence. Those naturally inclined don’t have to learn these things, but the rest of us do, giving us a distinct advantage. Lets run with it!

Despite all her personal success, Temple always struggled with human touch. Up into her middle-ages she owned a personal cattle-chute like device to comfort her while at home...a hug machine! But, these days, she doesn’t use it so much. She enjoys giving and receiving hugs instead.


Want more?

Watch a TED talk by Temple here: https://www.ted.com/talks/temple_grandin_the_world_needs_all_kinds_of_minds

And check out Global Autism Project, a non-profit founded by a friend of Renzoe Box named Molly Pinney!