Examining the Prodigy Myth

Some time back I posted a link on my Facebook page about “The Myth of Prodigy and Why it Matters“. The crux of the article was that there is a misconception that prodigies are prodigies because they are born with talent and that you can identify a prodigy through the early display of talent.  However, the truth of the matter is that there is no way of predicting who becomes a prodigy because even thouse who appear “less talented” early on can go on to excel beyond those believed to be “prodigies”.

I hope that made sense. If not, click the link and read the article for yourself…

Here’s the real life example – one of my favourite examples – Michael Jordan. Reputably known as one of the all-time greats in basketball and some even say the greatest basketball player of all time (although I’ll leave it to the hardcore fans to debate the latter). If Michael Jordan was a prodigy based on the misconception about prodigies, then one would have expected him to be a basketball legend even in highschool. The irony was that he didn’t even make the basketball team in highschool because he was deemed too short. Determined to prove his worth, he worked hard to get on the team.

That’s not to say that Michael Jordan’s greatness had nothing to do with some innate talent, but I do believe if he had rested on his laurels, he would not have become the legend that he is today. What separates Jordan from simply being good is his obsession for his sport. His willingness to go all the way. He was a gifted basketball player, without a doubt, but he also knew his sport well. His brilliance on the court was not only due to his being a skillful player but also from an intellectual understanding of the game – something you don’t get good at just by being talented. In other words, his talent may have given him some leverage for being a good player, but the reason he became an excellent player is because he worked for it.

I guess the underlying message is “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration”.

That leads me to the next part about prodigies. A prodigy is usually only good at one thing – or a specific niche. Michael Jordan was hailed as the best basketball player, but the same could not be said of him in baseball. And I’m sure he was no Mozart or Picasso. That’s not to say he would not have made a good artist or musician – we’ll never know because he never tried it out. The point is that to be good at something, you need to devote the time to it. The more time you devote to it, the better you get.

Anthony Robbins wrote in one of his books (I forget whether it was Awaken the Giant Within or Unlimited Power) that he was not a good public speaker but he became good at it because he did it often. I don’t recall the exact details but this is an example – while other speakers might have spoken once a week, he was speaking several times a week. The take home message is that if you want to become good at something, you have to clock in the hours. If you want to get better faster, spend more time on it. That’s why prodigies are usually only good at one thing – by the time they’re done with their primary niche, they don’t really have enough time to focus on something else. You might be able to become good at something else, but you’ll never really become great at it.

Another thing about prodigies is that they love what they do. Michael Jordan was said to be obsessed with basketball. You don’t get that way without having a passion for it. He was so passionate about his sport, he even shed tears for it. Someone once said to me, “You can’t always do what you love, but you can learn to love what you do.” That may be true, but I don’t think you will ever really be great at it unless you can really develop a deep passion for it that borders on an obsession.

Finally, there is talent. To say that talent doesn’t matter or that talent doesn’t exist is also incorrect. Take the child prodigy Akiane – look at her pictures that she drew at the age of 4 and you will agree the girl has innate artistic talent. “Normal” 4 year olds don’t draw like that. Gavin’s nearly 4 and he can’t even draw a stick figure. However, I placed “talent” last on the list because I believe it counts the least. Gavin may not be able to draw faces like Akiane at the age of 4, but if he can develop the passion for art and devote the time to developing his artistic skills, there is no reason why he can’t be a great artist.

There are three things that help to create a prodigy – obsession, time and talent – but it is the first two that will define great from good. Any child can be a prodigy if he is given the chance to discover his passion and allowed to nurture that talent (which I believe is one of the fundamental principles behind the Suzuki Method – talent education). And that’s where the parent’s role lies – in helping children to discover their passions and encourage their pursuit of it. If you can do that, you can raise a prodigy.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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