The Myth of Prodigy
Kim Ung-yong was born in 1962 Seoul, South Korea. By the time he was a year old he had learnt both the Korean alphabet and a thousand Chinese characters by studying the 1000 Character Classic, a 6th Century Chinese poem. At three years old, he was able to solve calculus problems. In the same year he published a best-selling book of his essays in English and German. By the age of five, Kim could speak Korean, English, French, German and Japanese. At the same age he was able to solve differential and integral calculus problems. He worked at NASA for ten years after which he returned to South Korea to complete his schooling. It took him two years to complete primary, middle and high school education. Thereafter he studied civil engineering and earned a PhD.
Some of us are born with simply extraordinary talent. This type proficiency normally only achieved by a handful of adults usually results in two responses. We are either inspired to develop our own talents or we are simply overwhelmed and say, ‘I could never do that’. In the main though, most associate such brilliance with success. In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell strongly disputes this belief. ‘It is’ he writes, ‘an article of faith in our society that great ability in any given field is invariably manifested early on, and that to be precocious at something is important because it’s a predictor of future success’. Nothing could be further from the truth. History is littered with historical geniuses who were notably undistinguished as children. These include Copernicus, Rembrandt, Bach, Newton, Beethoven, Kant, da Vinci and Einstein.
But how successful are precocious children?
Michael Kearney had started to master the English language before he could walk. He fast-tracked through elementary and high school and enrolled at the University of South Alabama in 1992 at the age of eight. Two years later, aged ten, he had earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Anthropology. The Guinness Book of World Records named him as the youngest ever university graduate, a record that is unsurpassed to this day. He earned two Master’s Degrees during his teens and twenties and thereafter, a PhD. What is he doing currently? The BBC reported in an article on Michael in December 2019 that, ‘Beyond the late- 2000s, Michael’s online footprint amounts to a few breadcrumbs. Nowadays, the BBC understands the 35-year-old lives a private life, his last known whereabouts in Nashville, Tennessee’.
There are a tiny number of schools globally that specialise in educating ‘gifted’ children such as Winchester College, UK and the Anderson School in Manhattan.
Another example is Hunter College High School which was established in 1869. It has been ranked as the top public school in the United States by the Wall Street Journal. It is known as a fast-track to law, medicine and academia in Ivy League Colleges. Wikipedia reports that ‘publicly available data indicate that Hunter has the highest average SAT score, the highest ACT score and the highest percentage of National Merit Finalists of any school in the United States, public or private. According to the school, ‘students accepted to Hunter represent the top one quarter of 1% of students in New York City based on test scores.’ Formerly admission to Hunter was based on IQ tests. Current admission is based on entrance examinations. Total enrolments from grades seven to twelve is approximately 1,200 students.
Although Hunter’s alumni include an impressive roll of academics, performing artists, writers, producers, jurists, politicians and civil servants, the school was yet to produce a Nobel laureate or Pulitzer Prize winner when a study was conducted in the 1960s. In the main, Hunter alumni had good jobs, many had graduate degrees, were all doing pretty well and were reasonably well adjusted and happy. Not really what one would have expected from the top 0,25% of the top 1% of the highest test or IQ scores in a city with a population of over 8 million.
It is abundantly clear that exceptional talent alone is not sufficient for success in life.
The effect of concerted effort
Just as exercises improve fitness and lifting weights, strength, so mental effort increases ability and intelligence.
In 1865, professional athletes achieved a record time of 4 mins 36 secs for the Mile run. By 1999, the time had been reduced to 3 mins 43 secs. Similarly, the record time for the 200m Freestyle in 1908 was 2 mins 31 secs. In 2009, the German swimmer, Paul Biedermann, swam it in 1 min 42 secs. Unsurprisingly, these dramatic improvements were the fruit of increased training. In 1876, the distance that a professional cyclist could cover within an hour was 26 kilometres following a training regimen of 67 kms per week. By increasing the training to 230 kms per week in 2005, the distance was almost doubled to 49 kms.
Are such improved achievements possible mentally? Imagine having to memorise 320 routes on a map, 25,000 streets and their names as well as 20,000 landmarks, museums, parks, churches, theatres and schools?
Known as ‘The Knowledge’ this is what London cabbies had to learn by heart, at least up until 2017, in order to be permitted to drive one of London’s famous black taxi cabs. The mammoth task takes between two to four years to complete.
Given the fact that cab drivers are not normally associated with the top brains at school, scientists undertook a study to determine how they were able to successfully complete this extraordinary feat. Neuroscientist, Eleanor Maguire, of University College, London, measured the hippocampi of 79 aspiring taxi drivers for four years, as well as 31 people who did not drive taxis but were of similar age, education and intelligence as the taxi trainees. The hippocampus is a section of the brain that is crucial for long-term memory. All participants had more or less the same size hippocampi at the start of the study. Four years later, however, MRIs showed that the successful trainees’ hippocampi had grown over time.
The message here, again is that effort (training) can lead to physical change. One can deduce that the environment led to the expectations which resulted in the focussed effort. The successful candidates had high expectations of themselves.
The role of deliberate practice is highlighted in another study conducted by the eminent psychologist, Anders Ericsson, professor of Psychology at Florida State University.
The researchers read out a series of random numbers to a first-year college student e.g. 6-15-32-4-234-15-, etc. At the beginning of the year, the student was able to recall sequences of seven numbers. He was not provided with any methods but practiced for about 10 hours a week. By the end of the year, he was able to repeat an eighty random number sequences after listening to them only once. There were no tricks but he did use a mnemonic strategy. As a member of the university track team, he was accustomed to working with times e.g. 2 mins, 34.5 seconds. He used his familiarity with the latter to assist his recall.
It is precisely because of the benefits of practice that St Peter’s staff have begun emphasising the need to praise the effort of your children more so than their ability. The practice referred to above takes continued dedicated effort. The concept is perhaps best highlighted in the notion of the ’10 000 hours’ required to become a master performer, popularised by the author, Malcolm Gladwell.
While the benefit of practice is not a novel concept, it’s hitherto ignored role in the success of many recognised talented individuals, is. The example of The Beatles is mentioned in several publications. Their protracted contracts for gigs in Liverpool and Hamburg provided them with large amounts of downtime which they used to practice religiously, devoting far more time than the average rock band.
Similarly, the talent of the great composer, Mozart, was only refined after years of practice. As the second child in his family, little Ludwig enjoyed little attention from his organist father who devoted most of his time to tutoring his eldest daughter. It was only when she showed diminishing interest that papa Mozart began to teach his son at the age of 3 or 4. Thereafter, we are told that the youngster could hardly be pried away from the piano. Had he stopped composing music on completion of his 19th Symphony, we may well have heard nothing more of him. It was only in the works that followed that his genius began to take shape in the most magnificent of compositions which only seemed to improve
There are literally hundreds of thousands of successful sports men and women, musicians, scientists, technology whiz kids and memory experts whose seemingly effortless achievement is the product of countless hours of practice and effort. Every child should understand that great effort can result in great talent.