Why do child prodigies fail to live up to expectations?

Last week at a dinner party,1This happens roughly once a year, and when it does, I make sure to write about it everyone realized they had one thing in common: when we were young, people had predicted great things for us. And then… we’d petered out, only to become normal, disappointing adults. Why?

We can pick up a few clues from How Children Succeed by Paul Tough:

  • Being praised for effort rather than intelligence leads to long-term success. As Carol Dweck shows in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, being complimented for your effort is much better than being complimented on your intelligence. When children are complimented for their intelligence, they learn that failure = stupidity. They learn to not venture outside of their comfort zone, and not to push themselves, because they believe that intelligence is not only a fixed attribute, but a crucial part of their identity. On the other hand, being complimented on your effort teaches you a mutable mindset. Failing doesn’t mean that you’re stupid, it just means that you have to try harder.If you’re a child prodigy, you’re probably hearing about how smart you are, not about how hard you’ve tried. While it may be true that prodigies don’t have to try as hard as other children, this reinforces the dangerous idea that failure means that you’re dumb. It’s not. It just means that you failed. What counts is whether or not you get back up, learn from your mistakes, and try again.
  • There’s a mismatch between the role that social intelligence plays in the lives of children and adults. Are you easy to work with? Let’s look at the way that children and adults are commended for their achievements. Children’s accomplishments are judged by teachers, coaches, parents, and other older authority figures looking at the merit of your grades/science project/clarinet solo/prize heifer. In the adult world, your peers do the choosing. Your boss is more likely to give a raise to someone he/she likes  rather than someone he finds competent but doesn’t get along with. Politicians are elected based on likability. These aren’t anonymous authority figures, but people who take into consideration the way that you interact with your peers.

Child prodigies live in a curious bubble: their intelligence, not their effort is lauded, and they don’t have to get along with their peers to get these accolades. Since effort, grit, character and social intelligence are some of the most important keys to success, it’s no wonder why so many promising 99th percentile children don’t live up to the expectations and pressure. What we should question is why we don’t emphasize those real factors for success in the first place.

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