How prodigies must remake themselves

Winner, Gifted Children, 291

As children, prodigies dazzle by their precocity.  But every prodigy eventually becomes an ex-prodigy.  If precocity and technical skill are all that they have, as adults they are no longer special.  Late bloomers have caught up with them.

To go on to creative accomplishments, prodigies must remake themselves.  They must learn how to transform sheer technical skill into something more conceptual, interpretative, and original.  Prodigies in art must go beyond the technical skill of drawing and have something to express…Mathematicians must ask new questions, or solve old ones in new ways.  Chess masters must invent new strategies to keep ahead of those who have studied their games.  Musical prodigies who stun the world with their technical virtuosity are forgotten if they cannot play interpretively and expressively as adults.

It is in the need to go beyond technical precocity that many prodigies falter….

When things go too smoothly for prodigies, they may never shift from being experts to being creators.  Creativity is often spurred by failure.  Creators have to be prepared to fail and fail again, and be invigorated by this process to boot.

Another factor may also play a role in determining a prodigy’s future.  When the skills of a child prodigy match the skills valued by adult creators in that same domain, the prodigy may be more likely to succeed in that domain.  Prodigies in drawing typically stand out in their ability to draw realistically.  But realism in the visual arts is valued only in some cultures in particular eras….In chess, the situation is more fixed.  What counts as being good in chess does not change from era to era.  And what chess prodigies can do well is just what is valued in adult chess masters.  Perhaps then, chess prodigies are more likely to continue in chess than are prodigies in music and art.

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