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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Counterintuitive Science: Child Prodigies, Adult Mediocrities

Here's a fun question for you - what does Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Augustin-Jean Fresnel have in common?

You are thinking: "Duh, they are all scientists."

Of course, duh, this is a science blog.

Try again.

"Their last names run in the alphabetical progression of D,E and F?"

Hmm... close enough.

They were all mediocre-performing kids.

Darwin sucked in mathematics, Einstein was slow in learning to speak and Fresnel couldn't even read at eight.

If you met any one of them when they were seven, you'd probably tell their parents something like: "Oh, it's too bad that little Charlie failed his classics again, I'm sure there are plenty of ditches left to dig and french fries to sell. My son? Bobby got 97% for his classics and 99% for mathematics - just a 2% improvement from last year, NO BIG DEAL, hahahaha..."


In today's competitive society, it seems that the rat race begins right from the get go.

Not surprising that many parents would be envious of other parents whose children surpass their peers in academic and artistic performance by so much that they are called child "prodigies" or "geniuses".

Some parents even claim to have developed the technique for turning any kid into a child prodigy.

But the question is: even if a child is a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious prodigy, does it guarantee that she will become super-successful as an adult?

The short answer: No.


I won't go into the details here - you can read the references for the research data and in-depth insights.

Here's an exerpt that I especially like:

When someone is put on a pedestal, it’s likely that person will fall off at some point in time. How much damage is done in the fall is largely dependent upon the individual’s emotional maturity and the support received from others. If not managed carefully, permanent damage is done in the fall.

To summarize, I believe that there are three important reasons why:

1. You can't choose to become super-successful

2. Success is fleeting

3. Human beings are not cannonballs

You are thinking: "Well I suppose you didn't accidentally fail to mention Isaac Newton, Thomas Young, Marie Curie, as well as dozens of other prominent precocious kids who did in fact succeed later in life."

Here at Fresh Brainz, we focus on the downtrodden, disillusioned and desperate, the decrepit has-beens and the distraught nearly-theres.

Of course there are many people who went from being smart to smarter, rich to richer and from a big winner to a even bigger winner in life.

However, based on our intimate understanding of the human condition, we believe that most Fresh Brainz readers will not enjoy those sort of stories.

Because while everyone hates a winner, nobody hates a winner like a winner.

Would you like to know more?
Educating the Very Able (OFSTED Reviews of Research)
Child prodigy: Two sides of genius (TheStar Online)
Child prodigies (


lh said...

thought 'Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious' is a nonsense word you made up, until Wiki said...

Onlooker said...

Come to think of it A child @ 10 studying math and science would be consider a child prodigy in 1800. The only difference is that They absorb or process information faster at and younger age but ultimately it is the determination to do good that will determine one's success.
And Success is defined differently by everyone.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To LH:

It wasn't me, but somebody made up that word.

Come to think of it, all words were made up by somebody anyway.

To Onlooker:

Yes, you are right - determination can drive a person for years, but even that doesn't guarantee success. Personally I feel that some failure stories are far more interesting than success stories.