The Myth of Prodigy and Why it Matters

From APS Observer

What does being a child prodigy mean? Not as much as you might think according to this article which quotes Malcom Gladwell, author of Blink and The Tipping Point and a gifted runner as a child, quite extensively. One interesting distinction it draws is that a child genius is a gifted learner, but an adult genius is a gifted doer.

Early acquisition of skills — which is often what we mean by precocity — may thus be a misleading indicator of later success, said Gladwell. “Sometimes we call a child precocious because they acquire a certain skill quickly, but that skill turns out to be something where speed of acquisition is not at all important. … We don’t say that someone who learned to walk at four months is a better walker than the rest of us. It’s not really a meaningful category.”

So what does lead to success as an adult? The article dismisses Mozart and then points to a better model.

A better poster child for what precociousness really entails, Gladwell hinted, may thus be the famous intellectual late-bloomer, Einstein. Gladwell cited a biographer’s description of the future physicist, who displayed no remarkable native intelligence as a child but whose success seems to have derived from certain habits and personality traits — curiosity, doggedness, determinedness — that are the less glamorous but perhaps more essential components of genius.

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