Quickie Post — Young Prodigies Usually Do Not Turn into Paradigm-Shifting Geniuses

My swimming partner — a 30′ whale shark, La Paz, Baja California Sur

A nice, bio-sketch piece from the BBC came flying across my Twitter feed from fellow educational pioneer, John Hagel (tip of the hat — John goes through a TON of content, sorts it, and posts it on Twitter!) This one, titled Child prodigies: How geniuses navigate the uncertain journey to adulthood, narrates the journeys of a number of prodigies who mostly either finished college early, or in other ways became known at an early age for musical performance. The piece was probably spurred by the recent mini-controversy over Laurent Simons, the Belgian prodigy who looked to break the record for earliest college graduate (his major was in electrical engineering) at the age of 10. He was, depending on your perspective, thwarted/didn’t cut the mustard/whatever! by the university he was enrolled in. And in light of that, his parents yanked him out to attend school in the United States.

The more interesting part of the piece is really NOT the idea that a 10-year-old can graduate from college, or play concert-level violin. Neuro-differentiated youngsters, possessing brains that run at the functional computer equivalent of increased clock rates, are going to show up on the tails of various intelligence measure distributions. They’re going to finish college faster because their brains in isolation are going to run faster.

What’s more fascinating is that they, through the process of their innate capacity, along with learned specialization, usually do NOT turn into creative geniuses. As I’ve discussed extensively on this blog, empathetic interaction is far more likely to yield creative solutions that leaving one, ungrounded person with their own thoughts. So it’s no surprise that these young people specialize in things requiring knowledge sophistication — and race through universities, also dedicated to exactly that same type of thought pattern/value set. Creative genius is almost always cross-paradigmatic, borrowing from different perspectives, than the narrow, parthenogenesis of further refinement that happens inside universities.

Here’s the picture I’m fond of using showing the difference between evolution and complexity, and sophistication, for your reference.

Evolution vs. Sophistication in Knowledge Structures

If you key into one part of this graph, consider the “reliability vs. validity” aspect. A prodigy violin player can practice over and over a particular sequence so they play it perfectly — thus emphasizing reliability. But even the best young player requires coaching from a master in order to deliver nuance in their playing, or communicate through their music moods expressed in the composition, such as loss of a loved one, or Alexander Nevsky beating the Livonian Order on the ice in Prokofiev’s masterpiece. A young person simply doesn’t have the life experience, and must rely on mirroring empathy. Their master must provide the grounding validity.

Limiting cases, such as these talented young people are especially useful for generalized insight into sentience. Not because of their externally validated accomplishments, like graduating from Oxford early. But because what they cannot do points to ways we must change, and establish behavior reward. The future, if we are going to have one, and the answers to the big questions are going to rely on connected thought, across disciplines and people. It will be empathetic.

7 thoughts on “Quickie Post — Young Prodigies Usually Do Not Turn into Paradigm-Shifting Geniuses

  1. That relates to my personal experience. I had a learning disability diagnosed when in childhood. It led to delayed reading and difficulty in classroom learning. But IQ testing showed me high in fluid intelligence, specifically in solving visual puzzles.The thing is that this didn’t offer much benefit in any particular ability. I had word recall issues and so couldn’t memorize factoids. I sucked at music, but I was fairly good at art. Still, there was little outlet for my cognitive style, especially within formal education or within society in general.

    I’ve only excelled in intellectual ability as an adult. I’m good at self-learning and thinking beyond the silos of knowledge. Part of my advantage might be my lack of formal education, as I dropped out of college. My “learning disability” allows me to think differently in making connections across domains, including making empathetic connections as I ‘think’ in somewhat emotional and subjective terms, in feeling my way into ideas and the connections between them.

    There is little use for this ability in my daily life for practical purposes or a career. It’s basically useless as far as other people are concerned, but it allows me to see things in ways few do. Someone like me would never be a prodigy. My learning ability was quite the opposite in being delayed. Until I was tested, some of my teachers even suspected that I was ‘retarded’, the actual term they used back then.

    To put this in context, I was one of the lucky few. If I had been a poor minority or otherwise disadvantaged, my learning disability combined with depression probably would have led to drug addiction, suicide, homelessness, incarceration, or institutionalization. How much human potential goes to waste because of how brutal is our society for those who are different? Prodigies are raised up not only because of their talents but because their specific talents conform to what is valued in society.


    1. Crystallized intelligence, in some cases, might have an opposite relationship to fluid intelligence. They represent two very different kinds of cognitive ability. And our society promotes one over the other. It would be interesting to see the crystallized and fluid IQ measurements of prodigies, creative geniuses, influential thinkers, visionaries, etc.


      “Many experts believe that one of the backlashes of overemphasizing standardized testing as part of ‘no child left behind’ is that young Americans are gaining crystallized intelligence at the expense of their fluid intelligence.”

      By the way, are you familiar with Lewis Terman. He was a psychologist who invented he Stanford-Binet IQ Test, a measure of academic ability (specifically having assessed attention, memory, and verbal skill) which I assume meant it was originally designed to primarily measure crystallized intelligence, although later versions of it included fluid intelligence.

      He is famous for having gathered a group of extremely high IQ children and did a study following them into adulthood. Few of them ever amounted to much. But interestingly, Ancel Keys was one of these Terman kids. Keys wasn’t exactly a prodigy, much less a creative genius. Still, he was academically successful and ended up being influential in his political manipulations to promote his dietary ideology.

      Liked by 1 person

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