their careers tend to end not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Child prodigies rarely become adult geniuses who change the world. We assume that they must lack the social and emotional skills to function in society. When you look at the evidence, though, this explanation doesn’t suffice: Less than a quarter of gifted children suffer from social and emotional problems. A vast majority are well adjusted — as winning at a cocktail party as in the spelling bee.
What holds them back is that they don’t learn to be original. They strive to earn the approval of their parents and the admiration of their teachers. But as they perform in Carnegie Hall and become chess champions, something unexpected happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new.
The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies, but rarely compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights. They conform to codified rules, rather than inventing their own. Research suggests that the most creative children are the least likely to become the teacher’s pet, and in response, many learn to keep their original ideas to themselves. In the language of the critic William Deresiewicz, they become the excellent sheep.
In adulthood, many prodigies become experts in their fields and leaders in their organizations. Yet “only a fraction of gifted children eventually become revolutionary adult creators,” laments the psychologist Ellen Winner. “Those who do must make a painful transition” to an adult who “ultimately remakes a domain.”
Most prodigies never make that leap. They apply their extraordinary abilities by shining in their jobs without making waves. They become doctors who heal their patients without fighting to fix the broken medical system or lawyers who defend clients on unfair charges but do not try to transform the laws themselves.
So what does it take to raise a creative child?
The parents of ordinary children had an average of six rules, like specific schedules for homework and bedtime. Parents of highly creative children had an average of fewer than one rule.
By limiting rules, parents encouraged their children to think for themselves. They tended to “place emphasis on moral values, rather than on specific rules,” the Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile reports.
Creativity may be hard to nurture, but it’s easy to thwart.
Even then, though, parents didn’t shove their values down their children’s throats. When psychologists compared America’s most creative architects with a group of highly skilled but unoriginal peers, there was something unique about the parents of the creative architects: “Emphasis was placed on the development of one’s own ethical code.”
Yes, parents encouraged their children to pursue excellence and success — but they also encouraged them to find “joy in work.”
Their children had freedom to sort out their own values and discover their own interests. And that set them up to flourish as creative adults.
They responded to the intrinsic motivation of their children. When their children showed interest and enthusiasm in a skill, the parents supported them.
Top concert pianists didn’t have elite teachers from the time they could walk; their first lessons came from instructors who happened to live nearby and made learning fun.
SINCE Malcolm Gladwell popularized the “10,000-hour rule” suggesting that success depends on the time we spend in deliberate practice, debate has raged about how the hours necessary to become an expert vary by field and person. In arguing about that, we’ve overlooked two questions that matter just as much.
First, can’t practice itself blind us to ways to improve our area of study? Research reveals that the more we practice, the more we become entrenched — trapped in familiar ways of thinking. Expert bridge players struggled more than novices to adapt when the rules were changed; expert accountants were worse than novices at applying a new tax law.
Second, what motivates people to practice a skill for thousands of hours? The most reliable answer is passion — discovered through natural curiosity or nurtured through early enjoyable experiences with an activity or many activities.
Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience.
In science, winning a Nobel Prize is less about being a single-minded genius and more about being interested in many things. Relative to typical scientists, Nobel Prize winners are 22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or magicians; 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music.
No one is forcing these luminary scientists to get involved in artistic hobbies. It’s a reflection of their curiosity. And sometimes, that curiosity leads them to flashes of insight.
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