How likely is it for a child prodigy to blossom into a successful adult?
She-e Wu essentially became a child prodigy the day she noticed a music store.
When she was three and a half years old, she and her mother walked past a store where music was playing inside. Wu heard the sounds and pressed her little face to the window. “My mother said it was time to go, and my face was stuck on the door,” Wu says, describing her earliest memory. She refused to leave. “It was the point of no return,” she says.
Wu’s mother signed her up for a trial class, and the toddler advanced to percussion lessons when she was six. With a two-step stool, she could reach her teacher’s timpani. Three years later, at the age of nine, Wu booked her first professional gig at the opera. Concertos and competitions soon followed.
Wu fits the classic definition of a child prodigy: someone who reaches professional levels by the age of 10 or in adolescence. Today, 43-year-old Wu travels internationally year-round to perform concertos as an acclaimed marimba player. She is booked years in advance and has released multiple recordings.
Yet as a child prodigy who evolved into a successful adult, Wu is an anomaly.
Child prodigies don’t necessarily grow up to be adults who find success. “Success” is, for the purposes of this article, defined as the ability “to thrive professionally in some arena,” says Alissa Quart, author of Hothouse Kids and a former precocious child herself. She continues, “I’ve spoken to former prodigies who struggled with anxiety and depression that was paralyzing. I guess that’s not successful, but it’s more like stymied by their past.”
Studies are finding that the odds of a child prodigy finding success in adulthood are not very high. So now experts are trying to determine the magic formula: what can help a child prodigy continue to thrive beyond childhood?
Joan Freeman is a psychologist in the United Kingdom dedicated to gifted and talented children. In a study of child prodigies for her book Gifted Lives: What Happens When Gifted Children Grow Up, Joan Freeman found that only six out of 210 were successful as adults.
A complementary ongoing study that began in 1921 by Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman found that those with an IQ higher than 180 had no long-term differences in success when compared to those who had an IQ between 135 and 180.
IQ does not appear to be a reliable indicator of success. For example, Richard Feynman (1918-1988) said his IQ in high school was 125, but in adulthood he won the Nobel Prize in physics.
Freeman’s study also found it’s difficult to predict a child’s future by their childhood success. As children, sisters Anna Markland and Jocelyn Lavin were musicians and attended a gifted school for musicians. But in adulthood, one became a professional musician while the other quit and went on to work part-time doing clerical work. “Child prodigies can be felled by circumstances like anyone else,” Freeman says.
But why do so few prodigies find success in adulthood? Unfortunately, there’s no formula for success, and it’s hard to figure out exactly why some child prodigies plateau.
“Some go on to do brilliant work across a lifetime; some burn out in childhood and are not successful as adults,” says Andrew Solomon, author of Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. “In general, and on average, early development is not the same as profound development.”
Solomon says one key to success, however, is parental involvement. But he warns, “You can damage a child by keeping him from what he most wishes to do, or you can damage a child by pressuring him.”
“You can damage a child by keeping him from what he most wishes to do, or you can damage a child by pressuring him.”
Still, without a parent’s financial and emotional support, a child will find it difficult to succeed. “Parents are vital in providing the material, such as instruments or education or morale, to enable children to seek their goals,” Freeman says.
For Wu, this was essential. “I never would have been able to maximize my ability if my mother didn’t help me,” she says. On the other hand, Wu says her mother never pressured her or expected her to become a musician.
“Child prodigies are self-propelled,” says Joanne Ruthsatz, assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University at Mansfield, who specializes in child prodigies. “That’s the difference between them and [the children of] stage parents.”
In fact, prodigies push their parents to the limit because they need to find out every piece of knowledge about their areas of interest. “Parents should hang on by their fingernails, because the prodigies are going to want to see and to do everything in their domain,” says Ruthsatz, who compares child prodigies to children with autism because they have incredibly focused special interests.
But if a parent pushes the child further than the child wants to go, or if a parent constantly tells the child to practice more or read more, it can backfire, says Ellen Winner, author of Gifted Children and professor and chair of psychology at Boston College. “There are no systematic studies on this, but there are lots of anecdotal findings that extreme pushing by parents ultimately makes the child hate the domain in which they have been pushed,” Winner says.
In his recent autobiography, Open, tennis star Andre Agassi bemoaned his childhood, saying his father forced him to practice. He hated tennis and felt like a hamster, isolated. In adulthood, he nearly destroyed his career by drinking excessively and using drugs.
Sometimes pushy parents do end up with high achievers, Winner says.
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) learned Greek at the age of three, and by the time he was eight, he had read Aesop’s Fables, Herodotus and other difficult works. He had also started studying Latin and algebra. His father was determined to help him continue to excel as a genius, and Mill wasn’t allowed to associate with children his own age aside from his siblings. While Mill went through a period of depression when he was 20, becoming suicidal, he excelled in his career. He was active in government, making enormous strides in economic freedom and women’s rights.
“There is no formula. Every case is different,” Winner says.
Success also depends on the type of child prodigy, Winner explains. In performance fields like music, chess and sports, those who succeed as adults tend to show very early signs of talent. One example is Tiger Woods, who stood out from his peers at the age of three.
But success in visual art is different. An early sign of artistic genius is realism in drawings. However, realism isn’t prized in today’s artwork, so many early realists don’t make it in the art world today, though they may become illustrators, Winner says.
Other fields simply don’t have prodigies. “You don’t see prodigies in novel writing. That is, kids are not writing novels at age eight,” Winner says. “The early signs for becoming a novelist should not be writing novels but rather precocious verbal ability and precocious interest in other people. I would bet you’d see that if we could look backward into the childhoods of novelists.”
In other genres, a child could be a prodigy, but it’s difficult to take that genius to the marketplace, says Alissa Quart. “There are certain aptitudes that carry over.” But as with anything, she says, “There’s a limited marketplace.”