REVIEW: A Revealing Look at the Hidden Lives of Child Prodigies

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Off the Charts: The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies by Ann Hulbert (Knopf)

By Charlie Gofen

Child prodigy stories hold a certain allure, as we marvel at the miracles of young geniuses and root for them to astonish their elders with exhibitions of brilliance.

Picture Billy Elliot dancing, Doogie Howser performing surgery, Ender Wiggin commanding fleets to save the Earth.

My favorite fictional child prodigy is a savant named August from the fourth Lisbeth Salander book. Salander is of course one of the greatest computer hackers in the world, but she’s in her twenties by the time the series begins, so she doesn’t count as a young prodigy. She does, however, prompt the eccentric August in The Girl in the Spider’s Web to solve a previously impenetrable encryption problem, asking – and I’m still miffed that none of my high school math teachers ever bothered to pose this question to me – “Shall we see if you’re any good at prime number factorization, August?”

Turns out, he is.

Real-life prodigies can be equally impressive, as Ann Hulbert shows in her new book, Off the Charts: The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies:

·         Philippa Schuyler won her first piano competition at the age of four, performing not only a series of required pieces but also five compositions that she had written. “The judges discovered a gift that had eluded the NYU assessors who had recently tested her IQ at 180: perfect pitch.”

·         At the age of eleven, having mastered higher mathematics and planetary revolutions – and having gained admission to Harvard – Billy Sidis “delivered a lecture on the fourth dimension to the university’s Mathematical Club, `with the aid of a crayon which he wielded with his little hand.’”

·         Nathalia Crane published two books of sophisticated poetry by the age of twelve. Readers were mystified that a child could write such “rhythmical and ingeniously rhymed” poems with sophisticated themes of sex and class.

No one should be mystified that Hulbert, who has already displayed her expertise in writing about child-rearing in Raising America, has come through again with a sophisticated, well-researched, and thought-provoking book. In Off the Charts, Hulbert, literary editor at The Atlantic, offers up the compelling stories of 15 nonfictional young virtuosos. Her subjects include not just pianists, math geniuses, and poets whom most of us have never heard of, but also chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer, child actress Shirley Temple, and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

Interestingly, there are no sports prodigies in the book. (The closest we get is a star tennis player from Japan who comes to Bradenton, Florida, to attend Nick Bollettieri’s celebrated tennis academy but ultimately excels in math and physics classes and becomes famous for her work in neuroscience.) Tiger Woods, already winning golf tournaments at the age of six, could have fit nicely into this group. An even more interesting case study to include from the world of sports might have been Todd Marinovich, the “robo quarterback” whose father set out to build the perfect athlete from the day Todd was born.

Even without star athletes, Hulbert’s subjects boast a diverse group of talents. Fischer’s ability to think 20 moves ahead in a chess match is a much different skill than Temple’s tap dancing with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. The capacity to write a haunting novel seems far removed from the ability to program a computer. Hulbert’s stories of individual prodigies are captivating, but what are the commonalities and the lessons to be learned from studying a diverse group of extreme outliers?

Child prodigies across music, dance, math, computers, literature, and chess share the qualities of “remarkable curiosity and stubbornness,” she writes. They typically have an extraordinary ability to focus and to devote many hours each day to practice. Experts at Columbia University noted before Philippa Schuyler turned three that “she excels chiefly in her capacity for sustained attention and ability to concentrate during prolonged periods.” Hulbert quotes psychologist Ellen Winner, who coined the phrase “rage to master” to describe the fierce drive that distinguishes the true prodigy from the mere “superindustrious high-achiever.”

Prodigies typically have a high level of innate intelligence and sometimes have rare talents such as perfect pitch or a near-photographic memory, but the individuals who reach the highest levels of achievement also put in extraordinary hours of practice and study. (Hulbert discusses the “10,000-hour rule,” made famous by writer Malcolm Gladwell, which holds that even people with natural ability need years of “deliberate practice” to become truly exceptional.)

Bobby Fischer, by all accounts a genius and perhaps the greatest chess player of all time, was first introduced to the game at the age of six, but as Hulbert describes, he “was anything but a case of spontaneous mastery, or even of superspeedy takeoff.” He would lose games regularly at a local chess club (albeit to some fairly talented opponents), but he always returned with a vengeance. And then, as he says, “When I was eleven, I just got good.”

Fischer was also a famously difficult human being from an early age – arrogant, rebellious, dismissive of school – and in this respect, he embodies another shared trait of many prodigies.

“Talents are part of complicated emotional and cognitive packages,” Hulbert writes. Many of the prodigies in her book are portrayed as socially inept or rude. A few have severe autism, and there’s a fascinating chapter in the book on prodigious savants. Virtually none of the prodigies has a normal childhood, with friends and carefree play and downtime.

Meanwhile, their parents can be a nightmare.

Many of Hulbert’s prodigies have at least one parent who is hell-bent on making his or her kid extraordinary. There are the “stage mothers” who push their kids to stardom, and there are the “immigrant strivers” who drill their children from the crib to excel at math, music, and foreign languages and who “expect feats of mastery.” (There are also, however, some prodigies in Hulbert’s study who press ahead on their own. Bill Gates’ parents actually urged him to ease up on computers in high school and broaden his activities.)

Not surprisingly, the most demanding parenting styles tend eventually to backfire, triggering anger and resentment and often thwarting the long-term success that the parents are striving for. Virtually all of the child prodigies in Hulbert’s book encounter a midlife crisis in adolescence as they grapple with issues of autonomy and identity. In the cases where a child’s obsessive work has been driven less by intrinsic motivation than by the outsized expectations of others, the consequences may be dire – alienation from family, damaged self-esteem, and debilitating depression.

One of the best aspects of Hulbert’s book is that she shows the prodigies’ own perspective of their experience, revealing the pressure that accompanies being labeled exceptional at an early age. “The same anticipation that can help spur children onward sets them up to disappoint as well,” she writes, “saddling them with goals that can daunt and doubts that corrode.”

It’s a cautionary tale for domineering parents who may not be playing the long game wisely.

Billy Sidis – the eleven- year- old at Harvard – was raised by a hard-charging father, a brilliant psychologist from the Ukraine named Boris whose child-rearing methods at the start of the 20th century make contemporary Tiger Mothers look tame by comparison. Boris succeeded in driving Billy to extraordinary feats at an early age, including proficiency in seven foreign languages, but the young prodigy later seethed with anger at his family and chose to retreat from public view.

A few decades later, Philippa Schuyler – the girl with the 180 IQ and perfect pitch – endured similar parenting at the hand of her overbearing mother, Josephine, who among other odd practices allowed only sugar-free and raw foods in the belief that the diet would promote her daughter’s genius qualities. For a time, Josephine helped her daughter excel as a pianist and composer, but Philippa ultimately suffered “corrosive anxiety” and abandoned the piano.

As an adult, Philippa, still hounded by her mother, wrote to her:

Are you aware of the pressures you put me under? Are you aware of the impossibilities you ask of me?

To be a great pianist.
To be a great composer.
To be a great arranger.
To be a great author.
To be a great journalist.
To always get marvelous reviews.
To always pull off marvelous coups no one else could do.
To get good photographs everywhere. …
To always make money, and always keep within my budget. …
To always be a great beauty.
This is beyond human capability.

Hulbert seemed to have found a prodigy ideally set up for long-term success in Marc Yu, a concert pianist who first performed at Carnegie Hall in 2009 at the age of 10. Marc had the benefit of a mother who sought to let Marc steer his own path and also a mentor, the great Chinese pianist Lang Lang, who had learned in his own childhood that “undiluted pressure could destroy sustained commitment.”

And yet, as the story unfolds, Marc struggles in adolescence with depression and anxiety, and his mother rethinks whether her support for his passion in early childhood contributed to his unhappiness later on. She asked herself, Hulbert writes, whether she had “compromised my own values to keep Marc’s success intact.”

Again, the key element in the parent-child dynamic seems to be the extent to which the child’s pursuit is driven by intrinsic motivation. Does the child truly want to be playing the piano eight hours a day, to the exclusion of a normal life? Can anxious parents distinguish their child’s desires from their own?

“Extraordinary achievement,” Hulbert writes, “though adults have rarely cared to admit it, takes a toll. It demands an intensity that rarely makes kids conventionally popular or socially comfortable. But if they get to claim that struggle for mastery as theirs, in all its unwieldiness, they just might sustain the energy and curiosity that ideally fuel such a quest. That is no guarantee of mature creative genius, but it is a good bet for future happiness.”

Schools don’t come across as particularly helpful to child prodigies. One father attacks a school system that rewards not “the child who thinks best but the one who remembers most,” and one mother disparages public schools for “crushing all children into a shapeless, pulpous mass and then pouring them into molds, like hot tallow.”

Bobby Fischer refers to school as “a place for `weakies’ and a distraction from chess” (he bounced from one school to the next and dropped out entirely as soon as he could). And Jake Barnett, a child prodigy with severe autism, urges peers in a TEDx-Teen talk to stop worrying about being the top student at school and start thinking for themselves.

A few private schools in the book come out better, including Gates’ Lakeside School in Seattle and the progressive Nueva School in the Bay Area of Northern California where Marc Yu currently attends classes, but most schools aren’t set up to provide the resources that many child prodigies may need, or to allow them the flexibility to pursue their passions.

It’s also unclear whether college at age 11 is a good thing. A contemporary of Billy Sidis named Norbert Wiener was on a similar fast track to Billy – at Tufts rather than Harvard – and by the age of 14, Norbert was “an exhausted teenager with `severely lacerated self-esteem.’” He later wrote in a memoir that he was miserable, a “confused mass of feelings of resentment, despair, and rejection.”

Norbert had faced enormous parental pressure throughout his childhood. His father belittled him, calling him a fool and an ass.  As Norbert later wrote about his father’s algebra lessons, “He would begin the discussion in an easy, conversational tone. This lasted exactly until I made the first mathematical mistake. Then the gentle and loving father was replaced by the avenger of the blood.” So it’s hardly a surprise that Norbert was unhappy at college and after.

And yet Norbert went on to study math and philosophy, earned a Harvard Ph.D. and eventually landed a professorship at MIT, where he did pioneering work in electronic engineering and systems control that helped usher in the computer and led to advances in automation and robotics.

Norbert isn’t the only Hulbert subject who triumphed over the pressures of prodigyhood and enjoyed significant accomplishments later in his career. Thankfully, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs stuck with computers, and some of Hulbert’s young musical talents continue to compose and perform.

In addition, some of the prodigies ceased pursuing their childhood passions but moved on to successful careers in other fields. Long after she left Hollywood, Shirley Temple served as U.S. ambassador to two foreign countries.

“Lessons and predictions about unusual lives – whether the extrapolations are grandiose or cautious – almost never pan out as expected,” Hulbert writes.

Even Doogie Howser, unhappy with the practice of medicine, had a crisis of identity in the final season of the show and left his job to travel the world.

“Every child,” Hulbert writes, “is a remarkable anomaly, poised to subvert the best-laid plans and surprise us.”

Charlie Gofen is an investment counselor in Chicago who has taught high school and been a newspaper reporter.