The Prodigy Myth


If your child shows flashes of natural ability in a certain subject, sport or creative endeavor, how do you keep up the momentum?  On the flip side, if your child isn’t immediately awesome at something new, how much do you push them to practice so they can see the fruits of their labor?

As parents, we are constantly trying to expose our kids to new ideas and activities so they can find their way to shine.  Often, we have them focus on areas that give them easier success.  It certainly is more fun to do something if it comes easily but sometimes great rewards come from hard work and persistence.

In his book, The Little Book of Talent:  52 Tips for Improving Your Skills, David Coyle states that it may be better to initially not be so great at something.  This surprised me because I always assumed that you watched your kids for flashes of brilliance and then did all you could to showcase that.  Here’s part of David Coyle’s interesting perspective listed under Tip #11, Don’t Fall for the Prodigy Myth:

“Most of us grow up being taught that talent is an inheritance, like brown hair or blue eyes.  Therefore, we presume that the surest sign of talent is early, instant, effortless success, i.e, being a prodigy.  In fact, a well-established body of research shows that that assumption is false.  Early success turns out to be a weak predictor of long-term success.

Many top performers are overlooked early on, then grow quietly into stars.”

He explains this is because if something comes easily to you, at the first sign of hardship, you are more inclined to give up instead of push forward.  If it is always hard, you are more willing to keep pushing and are less afraid of failing as expectations for your success are low.

“If you have early success, do your best to ignore the praise and keep pushing yourself to the edges of your ability, where improvement happens.  If you don’t have early success, don’t quit.  Instead treat your early efforts as experiments, not as verdicts.  Remember, [life] is a marathon, not a sprint.”

The good news is each of our kids, regardless of  ‘talent’ levels, have an equal shot at succeeding.

Written by Diana DeVaul, MSW and Parent

Coyle, Daniel (2012) The Little Book of Talent.  New York:  Random House Publishing Group.