Prodigies and Mature Talent

Lynn Goldsmith, “The Timing of Talent: The Facilitation of Early Prodigious Achievement,” in Michael Howe, Encouraging the Development of Exceptional Skills and Talents, British Psychological Society, 1990, 25-6

During the 1920s and 1930s at least 70 musical prodigies hailed from San Francisco: more than one from every square mile of the city limits.  Of these, all but five (Yehudi Menuhin, his sister Hephzibah, Ruggiero Ricci, Ruth Slenczynshka, and Isaac Stern) have been virtually forgotten.  The fate of this ‘San Francisco cohort’ is a sobering illustration of the long-term future of the prodigy.  Rather than assuring continued future success in a field, the early, stunning achievements of child prodigies often represent the zenith of their achievements.  Despite extraordinary talent, enormous discipline, and years of hard work, relatively few prodigies transform their talents into adult careers.  Some find they cannot weather the transition between child star and mature (less adulated) adult practitioner; some find they are simply unable to develop their talent further; others in adolescence discover that their gifts have led to unwanted social isolation and sacrifice; some simply find their focus too limited and choose to abandon intensive study in favour of broader explorations.

Ironically, the ‘goodness of fit’ between child and domain may contribute in some cases to prodigies’ decisions to cease further study.  Prodigies are most noteworthy for their mastery of existing study.  Prodigies are most noteworthy for their mastery of existing bodies of knowledge rather than for their original contributions to the field.  Although they may eventually make outstanding contributions as adults (Mozart, Picasso, and Norbert Weiner are examples), and although the prodigy may aspire to such achievements, truly significant or creative accomplishments are not achieved by children, no matter how great their gifts.  The match between child and field may encourage such aspirations despite the fact that they cannot reasonably be realized.  The nature of many prodigies’ talents may, in fact, lie in their ability to master the domain in its existing state rather than to break new ground.  Their unique talents may be best for celebrating the current state of the art, not for transcending it.

Conversely, those who make the most singular contributions to a field may not be those who demonstrated the most precocious affinity for it as children (with the possible exception of music, where virtually every performer has been a prodigy).  The young Charles Darwin was a relatively indifferent student, demonstrating little of the brilliance and promise of his (now less famous) cousin Francis Galton; none of Marie Curie’s teachers were likely to have suspected that their able, yet extremely shy pupil would win two Nobel Prizes.  The prodigy’s gifts are in part ones of anomalous timing: their talents assert themselves early and rapidly, whole others’ gifts require more seasoning and experience before they become apparent.

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