Do Child Prodigies Equal Adult Geniuses?

   In a speech given at the Association for Psychological Science, Malcolm Gladwell, the bestselling author of Blink and Tipping Point critically attacked the idea of child prodigy. He took his own childhood experience as an example. As a teen growing up in rural Ontario, Gladwell was a running prodigy. He was encouraged to dream of being the future Olympic runner and was sent to special training camps to train together with other elite runners of the country.

However, being a child prodigy (in running) did not promise the success of Gladwell in later days. After losing a major race (age 15), Gladwell lost interest in running, and quit training only to take it back up again in college where he realized that he was no longer as good at running as he was in his younger days.

Gladwell gave the example of a mid-1980s study of adults who attended New York City’s ptretigious Hunter College Elementary School, which admits only children with an IQ of 155 or above. Hunter College (founded in 1920s) was supposedly the breeding ground of the country’s future intellectual elite. Yet surprisingly, the fate of the geniuses of Hunter College was by far less than anticipated with none of them winning Nobel or Pulitzer prizes.

  The sad truth according to Gladwell was that the genius kids of Hunter College were not to be genius adults. Furthermore, the value of early mastery in a particular field may be grossly overstated with a surprisingly high number of people having a good start and a bad ending or a bad start and a good ending.

   According to Gladwell, a study of 200 highly accomplished adults found that just 34 percent had been considered in any way precocious as children. In other words, being a gifted child makes a person a gifted learner but not necessarily a gifted doer. This means that having an edge in learning a particular skill at a young age is not a “prelude” to notable adult achievements in the future. Similarly, being a mediocre during childhood may not indicate that an individual would be a mediocre in later days.

   In many ways, I agree with Gladwell that the speed of acquisition is not the critical issue. Learning to walk at four months old does not make someone a better walker than the rest us. The bottom line is that learning ability should not be confused with intelligence and creativity.

   Gladwell’s arguments against the myth of child prodigies do contain certain obvious flaws. As pointed out by another blogger (on prodigies), generalizing physical activities like running to mental activities like IQ, arts, science, and music may be similar to making a comparison between an apple and an orange. Not only would the comparison be misleading, it would yield results that are in no way conclusive.

   Furthermore, the study of 200 hundred accomplished adults showed that 34 percent of these adults showed precociousness as a child! Assuming that precocity is rare (very rare in reality) and certainly much rarer than one in three of accomplished adults, the figures would actually mean that there is a higher chance of a child prodigy becoming an accomplished adult. The paradox is simply ironic.

   Putting aside these flaws, Gladwell’s stand on child prodigies does hold true in many ways. Who can deny that the late bloomer Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton are not geniuses in their own respect? The same can be said of Leonardo Da Vinci, Copernicus, Rembrandt, Bach, and Beethoven. The truth is being talented at a young age in a particular field is not a concrete guarantee that an individual would continue to be talented at a later age.

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