Adult Genius, Unexceptional Kid

Tom Hulce-in-Amadeus

Genius: born or made

“The young Mozart’s prowess can be chalked up to practice, practice, practice. Compelled to practice three hours a day from age three on.. No wonder they thought he was a genius.” Malcolm Gladwell

How we think of talents in others and ourselves may have a profound effect on nurturing and realizing those abilities. Maybe “genius” or precocity is not some kind of inborn trait. Maybe exceptional talent can be sought – or suppressed.

[The photo is Tom Hulce as Mozart in Amadeus (1984).]

In his Psychology Today article “The Winning EdgePeter Doskoch notes that persistence “is vital even for an indisputable genius” and that “Mozart reported that an entire symphony appeared, supposedly intact, in his head,” but in his diary he “talks about how he refined the work for months,” notes educational psychologist Jonathan Plucker.

Doskoch adds that Angela Duckworth, who has conducted several key studies on grit with Martin E.P. Seligman of the Univ of Penn Positive Psychology Center, argues that intelligence accounts for only a fraction of success.

“There were a fair number of people [in studies of high achievers in various fields] who were brilliant, ambitious and persevering,” Duckworth reports. “But there were also a lot who were not a genius in any way but were really tenacious.”

Motivation is the key

Carol S. Dweck, PhD, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford, thinks “our society tends to believe that geniuses are born, not made. And I wouldn’t dispute that there might be a strong innate component, but it’s just clear from the histories of so many geniuses that motivation is a key component.

“And when you sift through the literature on creative genius, the researchers agree that motivation is perhaps the number one component in the realization of genius.

“Many of our most illustrious geniuses in every field were people who were considered ordinary as children, and then just caught fire around their topic and achieved amazing things that we know about today-from Darwin, to Coleridge, to Cézanne. All of these people were not necessarily extraordinary children.”

From Interviews with Carol Dweck.

One of her books: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Adult geniuses as kids

In his article The Myth of Prodigy and Why it Matters, Eric Wargo notes one way “to look at precocity is of course to work backward — to look at adult geniuses and see what they were like as kids. A number of studies have taken this approach, Malcolm Gladwell [author of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without learning dThinking] said, and they find a similar pattern.

JS Bach“A study of 200 highly accomplished adults found that just 34 percent had been considered in any way precocious as children. He also read a long list of historical geniuses who had been notably undistinguished as children — a list including Copernicus, Rembrandt, Bach, Newton, Beethoven, Kant, and Leonardo Da Vinci (“that famous code-maker”).

“None of [them] would have made it into Hunter College,” Gladwell observed.

Precociousness is no predictor of achievement

Wargo continues, “We think of precociousness as an early form of adult achievement, and, according to Gladwell, that concept is much of the problem. ‘What a gifted child is, in many ways, is a gifted learner. And what a gifted adult is, is a gifted doer. And those are quite separate domains of achievement.’

“To be a prodigy in music, for example, is to be a mimic, to reproduce what you hear from grown-up musicians. Yet only rarely, according to Gladwell, do child musical prodigies manage to make the necessary transition from mimicry to creating a style of their own.

“The ‘prodigy midlife crisis,’ as it has been called, proves fatal to all but a handful would-be Mozarts. ‘Precociousness, in other words, is not necessarily or always a prelude to adult achievement. Sometimes it’s just its own little discrete state.’

“Early acquisition of skills — which is often what we mean by precocity — may thus be a misleading indicator of later success, said Gladwell.

“’Sometimes we call a child precocious because they acquire a certain skill quickly, but that skill turns out to be something where speed of acquisition is not at all important… We don’t say that someone who learned to walk at four months is a better walker than the rest of us. It’s not really a meaningful category.’

“When we call a child ‘precocious,’ Gladwell said, ‘we have a very sloppy definition of what we mean. Generally what we mean is that a person has an unusual level of intellectual ability for their age.’

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

“But adult success has to do with a lot more than that. ‘In our obsession with precociousness we are overstating the importance of being smart.’

“In this regard, Gladwell noted research by Carol Dweck and Martin Seligman indicating that different dimensions such as explanatory styles and attitudes and approaches to learning may have as much to do with learning ability as does innate intelligence.

“And when it comes to musicians, the strongest predictor of ability is the same mundane thing that gets you to Carnegie Hall: ‘Really what we mean… when we say that someone is “naturally gifted” is that they practice a lot, that they want to practice a lot, that they like to practice a lot.’

“So what about the ur-child-prodigy, Mozart? Famously, Mozart started to compose music at age four; by six, he is supposed to have traveled around Europe giving special performances with his father, Leopold. ‘He is of course the great poster child for precociousness,’ Gladwell said. ‘More Upper West Side adults have pointed to Mozart, I’m quite sure, as a justification for sending their kids to excruciating early music programs, than almost any other historical figure.’

The Mozart Myth

“Yet Gladwell deftly debunked the Mozart myth. ‘First of all, the music he composes at four isn’t any good,’ he stated bluntly. ‘They’re basically arrangements of works by other composers. And also, rather suspiciously, they’re written down by his father… And Leopold, it must be clear, is the 18th-century equivalent of a little league father.’

Mozart-as-child“But most importantly, the young Mozart’s prowess can be chalked up to practice, practice, practice. Compelled to practice three hours a day from age three on, by age six the young Wolfgang had logged an astonishing 3,500 hours — ‘three times more than anybody else in his peer group. No wonder they thought he was a genius.’

“So Mozart’s famous precociousness as a musician was not innate musical ability but rather his ability to work hard, and circumstances (i.e., his father) that pushed him to do so. ‘That is a very different definition of precociousness than I think the one that we generally deal with.’


“A better poster child for what precociousness really entails, Gladwell hinted, may thus be the famous intellectual late-bloomer, Einstein. Gladwell cited a biographer’s description of the future physicist, who displayed no remarkable native intelligence as a child but whose success seems to have derived from certain habits and personality traits — curiosity, doggedness, determinedness — that are the less glamorous but perhaps more essential components of genius.”

From article The Myth of Prodigy and Why it Matters, by Eric Wargo, The Association for Psychological Science Observer, Aug 2006.

Read comments by Malcolm Gladwell and Creativity Post co-founder Milena Z. Fisher about the “wildly popular myth that mastering any skill requires 10,000 hours of deliberate practice” in article: Outliers and developing exceptional abilities.


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Originally posted 2007-12-10 22:13:09.


  1. V.T. says

    Very interesting to learn that Mozart had a pushy father! I always wonder about these type of children, if they are who they are simply because they had super-pushy stage parents. I’ve always found it kind of sad, that we have amazing gymnasts or whatnot because they’ve been doing grueling work since the age of 3, and never had any time to play. That said…. when I had my own son I stayed far away from all of the “baby einstein” type products. Bought no electronic learning toys, nor let him even watch TV. My son was going to have a carefree playful childhood. Yet…he had this innate drive to learn…it was a little scary. He was reading at 3 and a half. He found my calculator at age 4 and taught himself multiplication tables. Now a kindergartner, he has a voractious appetite for anything academic. Wants to be a scientist so he can figure out how to do things no one knows about yet. So interesting.


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