This post has been moved to the Right Brain Child. You can read it here:
I stand corrected. When I was examining the Prodigy Myth, I highlighted talent as one of, though not the critical, element to raising a prodigy. After reading Outliers, it appears that talent is squat if you don’t spend the time developing it. This fundamental rule applies to everyone – all-star sportspeople, chess masters, Bill Gates, Mozart, and The Beatles – and there are no exceptions to this rule. All the talent in the world won’t make you brilliant if you don’t practice enough.
Do you want to know how much you need to practice to become brilliant? 10000 hours. That’s roughly 2.7 hours a day, everyday for 10 years. Bill Gates, Mozart and The Beatles all clocked in their 10,000 hours religiously, and then some, and that’s how they became brilliant at what they do. So if you want your children to be brilliant at something, that’s what you’re aiming for – 10000 hours of practice. That’s a lot of practice time so it makes sense if it is something that your child has an inclination for, and preferably an interest in. Now how do I turn Gavin’s obsesssion with Thomas into something useful? Unless we can find something else that Gavin can really get into.
As much as I disagreed with Amy Chuah’s methods, there is one thing she said that I have to agree with – nothing is fun until you get good at it. It’s the “getting good at it” part that is challenging. If you’re lucky and your child discovers his passion like Bill Gates, he will be motivated to find time to practice on his own. But the other thing that Outliers also highlighted is the importance of having opportunity. If you don’t provide your child the opportunity to get good at it, he will never excel at it (it being anything your child desires to learn more about – music, sport, science, chess,…).
The other thing that these 10000 hours is beginning to remind me of is the study in Brain Rules for Baby that showed that children who learned a musical instrument for more than 10 years had the ability to pick up emotion-laden cues with lightning speed. 10 years of music study can equate to 10000 hours of practice. That means, in order for your child to benefit from music lessons so that he can read emotions quickly and easily, he has to become an expert at it. But the thing about becoming an expert at one field is that you usually don’t have the time to work on becoming brilliant at something else. It’s either music or something else. Food for thought…
Suzuki was right – talent has to be cultivated through practice – lots and lots of practice. Anyone can be brilliant at anything they choose to be if they can be diligent about their practice. That’s probably what creates the illusion of talent. It’s probably not so much talent that we see but our innate interest in a subject that directs us towards a specific field. For Bill Gates, it was programming; for Mozart, it was music (although it appears that there was a lot of Daddy’s firm guidance going on there); for Michael Jordan, it was basketball. And that’s probably why Michael Jordan excelled at basketball but was never really brilliant at baseball despite his efforts to break into the sport – he just didn’t have the hours of practice behind him on the baseball field.
So what is your child’s passion? If you want your child to become a prodigy and make a career out of it, then ideally, you’ll want him to discover his true passion by the time he’s about 10 years old. Add another 10 years of solid practice and he’ll be 20 years old by the time he’s ready take on that field and make waves. Why 10 years old? If he’s working in another field, he’ll be too busy to practice. Once he’s working to make ends meet, it will be tough to break away.
That brings us full circle back to early childhood development. Early exposure to a wide variety of subjects allows your child to discover his passions. Help him discover it, then give him the opportunity to practice it and excel at it.
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Some time back I posted a link on my Facebook page about “The Myth of Prodigy and Why it Matters“. The crux of the article was that there is a misconception that prodigies are prodigies because they are born with talent and that you can identify a prodigy through the early display of talent. However, the truth of the matter is that there is no way of predicting who becomes a prodigy because even thouse who appear “less talented” early on can go on to excel beyond those believed to be “prodigies”.
I hope that made sense. If not, click the link and read the article for yourself…
Here’s the real life example – one of my favourite examples – Michael Jordan. Reputably known as one of the all-time greats in basketball and some even say the greatest basketball player of all time (although I’ll leave it to the hardcore fans to debate the latter). If Michael Jordan was a prodigy based on the misconception about prodigies, then one would have expected him to be a basketball legend even in highschool. The irony was that he didn’t even make the basketball team in highschool because he was deemed too short. Determined to prove his worth, he worked hard to get on the team.
That’s not to say that Michael Jordan’s greatness had nothing to do with some innate talent, but I do believe if he had rested on his laurels, he would not have become the legend that he is today. What separates Jordan from simply being good is his obsession for his sport. His willingness to go all the way. He was a gifted basketball player, without a doubt, but he also knew his sport well. His brilliance on the court was not only due to his being a skillful player but also from an intellectual understanding of the game – something you don’t get good at just by being talented. In other words, his talent may have given him some leverage for being a good player, but the reason he became an excellent player is because he worked for it.
I guess the underlying message is “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration”.
That leads me to the next part about prodigies. A prodigy is usually only good at one thing – or a specific niche. Michael Jordan was hailed as the best basketball player, but the same could not be said of him in baseball. And I’m sure he was no Mozart or Picasso. That’s not to say he would not have made a good artist or musician – we’ll never know because he never tried it out. The point is that to be good at something, you need to devote the time to it. The more time you devote to it, the better you get.
Anthony Robbins wrote in one of his books (I forget whether it was Awaken the Giant Within or Unlimited Power) that he was not a good public speaker but he became good at it because he did it often. I don’t recall the exact details but this is an example – while other speakers might have spoken once a week, he was speaking several times a week. The take home message is that if you want to become good at something, you have to clock in the hours. If you want to get better faster, spend more time on it. That’s why prodigies are usually only good at one thing – by the time they’re done with their primary niche, they don’t really have enough time to focus on something else. You might be able to become good at something else, but you’ll never really become great at it.
Another thing about prodigies is that they love what they do. Michael Jordan was said to be obsessed with basketball. You don’t get that way without having a passion for it. He was so passionate about his sport, he even shed tears for it. Someone once said to me, “You can’t always do what you love, but you can learn to love what you do.” That may be true, but I don’t think you will ever really be great at it unless you can really develop a deep passion for it that borders on an obsession.
Finally, there is talent. To say that talent doesn’t matter or that talent doesn’t exist is also incorrect. Take the child prodigy Akiane – look at her pictures that she drew at the age of 4 and you will agree the girl has innate artistic talent. “Normal” 4 year olds don’t draw like that. Gavin’s nearly 4 and he can’t even draw a stick figure. However, I placed “talent” last on the list because I believe it counts the least. Gavin may not be able to draw faces like Akiane at the age of 4, but if he can develop the passion for art and devote the time to developing his artistic skills, there is no reason why he can’t be a great artist.
There are three things that help to create a prodigy – obsession, time and talent – but it is the first two that will define great from good. Any child can be a prodigy if he is given the chance to discover his passion and allowed to nurture that talent (which I believe is one of the fundamental principles behind the Suzuki Method – talent education). And that’s where the parent’s role lies – in helping children to discover their passions and encourage their pursuit of it. If you can do that, you can raise a prodigy.