Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Prodigy vs. Genius

I'll explain this image in a minute.

Okay, everyone. The time has come for me to make a shameful admission: I was a child prodigy.

Most notably, I was able to read at the age of two. This is not an exaggeration. My parents weren't sure if I was really reading or if I had just memorized all my books, so for my second birthday my mom bought me a copy of Go, Dog. Go!, a book I had never seen before, and I read it on the spot. I grew up hearing versions of this story over and over again: how my mom apologized to a preschool admissions director that I read "painfully slowly" only to be told that most kids my age TALKED "painfully slowly." How I stunned elevator passengers at age 3 by pointing out the No Smoking sign and telling everyone that it said "No smoking under plenty of law."

As a result of this impressive start, it was assumed that school would be easy for me. I was raised with the philosophy that anything less than an A was unacceptable because that would obviously mean I wasn't really trying... because I was SMART. This seems like a recipe for achievement, but it really wasn't. In the gifted elementary school program, sure. But once I got into my crazy-advanced magnet high school where I personally knew 16 kids who got perfect math scores on their SATs, "really trying" was not always good enough. And it hurt to have to "really try" next to other kids who didn't have to try at all, because calculus (for example) came so easily to them. That was supposed to be me.

So, when things got too hard, sometimes I'd stop trying entirely. After all, better to say you didn't really try than to say you tried your best and still failed. To try my best and still fail would mean I wasn't SMART. And being SMART was more important that working hard.

What a total crock.

Listen, all of this was subconscious, okay? My parents would never in a million years have said that I shouldn't work hard to achieve my goals... but at the same time it was kind of assumed that I would find my goals pretty quickly and have some kind of head start on the work because I was gifted.

Look at the world around you right now. Do you hear people talking about how hard that sports celebrity guy trains, or do you hear about how he's so naturally gifted? Do you hear them talking about the pianist who spends hours at the keyboard, or do you hear about the wunderkind who's amazing despite having "no formal training at all!"


Sharon Stone once said it took her ten years of paying her dues to become an overnight sensation. I think Jim Carrey said something similar. People notice the breakout, and gloss over the failures. Even stories that seem to discuss past failures and hard work often end up glorifying the moment when things became easy. Would J.K. Rowling's personal story be as exciting if she had been a mid-lister for several years before Harry Potter? No. Her years of living in a car and working her butt off while single parenting have been reframed as, "She was secretly gifted all along, and just needed to be discovered." (Note that Rowling herself does not pitch her story this way. She talks very openly and eloquently about her failures and hard work.)

Here's what people forget:
...there's a stark difference between prodigy and genius.

Prodigies can very quickly learn what other people have already figured out; geniuses discover that which no one has ever previously discovered. Prodigies learn; geniuses do. The vast majority of child prodigies don't become adult geniuses.

-- An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green
I was a prodigy. So. Freaking. What.

I'm 37, and my peers? By now, they have also figured out how to read. I'm probably still at an advantage for standardized testing, but again... so freaking what? That doesn't mean I'm immune to office politics, or nationwide economic factors, or fear of failure. In fact, it probably makes my fear of failure worse than average, because failure doesn't feel like a single event, it feels like a reflection on my entire person.

What a crock.


I caught myself a couple days ago telling my daughter how smart she is. I stopped myself. I told her how proud I was of her for working so hard, for practicing, for being resilient, for trying again.

Write. Revise. Revise again. Fail better.

Submit. Be rejected. Submit again. Fail better.

I don't know what 2011 holds for me. But I know I'm going to try to do things that are hard. Things that are SUPPOSED to be hard. And maybe, somewhere along the way, I'll start being smart enough that it won't scare me anymore.


  1. Great post. And great reminder to "fail better."


    (That was me emphatically agreeing with you, for reasons that don't need to be explained because you likely already know them.)

    You rock, Carrie.

  3. What a great post! Just last week, I was having a Twitter conversation about the comparative importance of talent and discipline. Talent may be nice, but it does no one any good if it's not coupled with a heaping serving of discipline and passion.

  4. Well said, and congrats on calling bullshit on yourself. It's a great example, and things become much more rewarding when we challenge ourselves.

    And yes, it's true - even those we think of as gifted we only know because

    We worked hard. We used to have to battle sometimes with the engineers and sometimes with George Martin, to make them stay beyond six or seven in the evening. We’d start at one or two in the afternoon and work right through ‘til one or two in the morning.
    - George Harrison

    People are always trying to figure out what makes a successful late-night comedian. Is it charisma? It’s two words: work ethic. It isn’t cool, and it’s not a sexy thing to say.
    - Conan O’Brien

  5. I happened to need this very thing very badly today, for a reason I have written about and will post on Monday, but which has to do with failing hard as a mother and feeling very bad about it.

    This is a good answer, and I love it. Thanks.

  6. And I love the Conan quote-- thanks Maine Character.

  7. Great post. The way "giftedness" is treated by the majority of people in Western culture has some very serious problems, and not enough people are willing or brave enough to point that out.

  8. Wow. Thanks for this. I had a similar history (without the part about being an adorable child actor.) Much was expected of me for reading at three and scoring very, very high on standardized tests, and yet everyone resented me for it. So I learned that trying was a no-no. Great recipe for the slacker life, which I did succeed at for many years. Trying to catch up now.

  9. Carrie, This interview with Malcolm Gladwell has everything to do with what you're talking about. The Matthew Effect part isn't it. The source and nature of your true genius comes more toward the end.

  10. Thanks for this post -- this is exactly what I needed to hear right now. When you feel your work is a huge part of your identity, setbacks and failures can be torturous. But it's important to be able to frame them mentally as a part of the very process of making it -- not as evidence that you aren't fabulous at what you do.

  11. Carrie, what a great post!!! I was so pressured to do well in school that I pretty much gave up because nothing would ever be good enough. So now my fear of failure (of imperfection) looks like laziness. It's a really tough mold to crack. But I'm really trying.

    Thanks for sharing!!!

  12. An excellent post, well thought and well written, which I realize you already know(having worked hard at it). A highly talented Artist friend once told me how he loathed for people to tell him how they wished they had his talent. "Yeah talent some but more work and discipline than talent".

    Thanks for this. Assumptions are a bitch, huh?

  13. I agree with you 98%.

    I deducted 1% because I think there's value in honoring the talents and innate abilities that certain lucky (or cursed--your call) people are born with. True, those talents don't confer automatic success; true, they aren't earned or deserved in any moral sense--there's your 98%. But an important function of society is to decide which virtues deserve a measure of recognition and respect. And cognitive ability does. (As does artistic talent and, arguably, athletic prowess.)

    In other (and fewer) words: Being extraordinarily smart is good. It's just (maybe) not particularly important.

    (Another counterargument I might have made: you've demonstrated that prodigal intelligence is not sufficient for later success; but it may be necessary, or at least of substantial benefit.)

    The other 1% had to go because I'm incapable of agreeing with anyone 100%; the starting point is always 99%. (Btw I also have commitment issues; go figure.)

    I found Po Bronson's summary of the topic worthwhile:

    "How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The inverse power of praise" [NY Mag]

    Anyway, I really do 98% agree. Your post resonates with me since I'm facing a similar issue with my son right now. If you could only hear his grandmother describe him! I mean, Einstein was a moron next to him. (And Mozart might as well have been a monkey banging his fists on on a toy piano). But I'm determined not to let her fuck him up the way she (unwittingly) did me. And posts like this one help remind me that I'm not alone in this parenting struggle. Thanks!

  14. My sister is a grade school teacher, and she would love this post. She sees this effect on a daily basis, the smart kids who don't try because of fear of failure. She beats this into our heads every chance she gets because my son learns very quickly and easily and she doesn't want us to fall into this trap. Her mantra:

    Praise the effort, not the results. "You worked so hard!" versus "You're so smart!" "That's okay, try again." vs. "No, that's wrong."

    Here's hoping I've gotten the message.