Why child prodigies fail

December 18, 2012

in Child prodigies, Home schooling, Musical prodigies, Raising children

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand (Albert Einstein)

If you happened to watch the Channel 4 series “Child Genius”, you may have noticed a subtle effect in the choice of “prodigies” featured: as the young “geniuses” featured in the first episodes that the programme set out to follow over the years, suddenly featured very little or not at all in the later series and were replaced by new and younger “geniuses”, and from the little we saw of them in their mid to late teens, they seemed to have turned into relatively “normal” (albeit highly intelligent) teens. The witty Michael Dowling sums it up in Episode 4: “when you’re young you think you will do something spectacular but then you realise maybe you’ll just be a boring guy working in an office for the rest of your life!” – a wise statement for a 16-year-old, for sure, but also a form of resignation to the fact that being a “child genius” guarantees very little for the later course of life.

I think a major reason is the short-sighted focus on easily measurable qualities of “child prodigies”, such as an extremely high IQ, a near perfect memory or technical proficiency in an instrument, rather than a long term focus on originality, imagination and psychological characteristics that will support outstanding achievement (persistence, patience, focus, obsessive interest in a certain area, dealing with frustration, self-confidence). According to psychologist Ellen Winner, author of the excellent book “Gifted Children – Myths and Realities, a child prodigy is defined as a child who can perform at adult level in a structured domain (such as music, chess or maths). When TV programmes feature “child prodigies”, they often show them perform predictable tasks such as memorising hundreds of digits of the number Pi (think Ainan Cawley on the Channel 4 programme The World’s Cleverest Child and Me) or playing a Mozart piece on the piano.

The problem many child geniuses face in their later teens, however, is that as they grow up, many talented children who were not as precocious start catching up in terms of technical skills and mastery of the domain in question, and suddenly different qualities set the star performers apart. A perfect memory or excellent analytical skills can facilitate learning, but they are not enough to become an adult genius. The origin of the word genius comes from the Latin genere, which means to generate, to create. A genius is by definition not someone who simply masters existing knowledge faster than others, but someone who creates something new, who discovers a field or creates new ways of representing things. This is a very different skill. On the path to discovery, a true genius is likely to endure years and more often decades of frustration, uncertainty and rejection. These are exactly the qualities that child prodigies are unlikely to develop if parents or schools turn their focus on predictable and easily measurable tasks or IQ test results.


Pushy parents that you can see on TV programmes showcasing their high IQ children might be proud of their child’s extreme IQ and take it as a predictor of future genius, but studies have shown that beyond an IQ of 120, IQ doesn’t actually predict success well at all. It is a good predictor of success for the general population, as a person with an IQ of 120 would be more likely to qualify for a career in law or medicine than a person with an IQ of 95, but beyond a certain level which studies have shown to lie around the IQ level of 120, it is personality factors and creativity that separate those who succeed and those who fail, not additional IQ points. The famous Terman study found no difference in achievement in those participants with a measured IQ above 180 and those between 135 and 180. And in fact several future Nobel Prize winners were not accepted into the initial study when they were tested as children as their IQs between 120-135 were below the cut-off. Even Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman once shared that his IQ was tested in high school at “only” 125.

What does this mean? It means that you should stop focusing on short-term goals and showcase achievements and rather encourage the instinct to explore the environment, to ask unusual questions, to experience failure and uncertainty, to experiment with new hobbies. For these are the true foundations of impressive achievements later in life.

Recommended reading:

Malcolm Gladwell: OUTLIERS – THE STORY OF SUCCESS

Joan Freeman: GIFTED LIVES – WHAT HAPPENS WHEN GIFTED CHILDREN GROW UP

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

King Rocker November 21, 2016 at 3:39 PM

IQ is for losers. Stephen Hawking said it, not me.

IQ helps in structured domains. It helps you master a level of thinking. It does not necessarily help you create something new. Einstein said a problem cannot be solved on the same level it was created. IQ will not bridge that gap. Same Einstein said imagination is more important than knowledge. It is.

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Valentine Cawley December 19, 2012 at 4:12 AM

Another study I saw (again no link) looked at life achievements by IQ. What was very evident is that the higher the IQ, the greater the number of patents, books, articles, compositions, PhDs etc the subjects had. There was a definite increase in verifiable creative achievements – and difficulty of achievements – by IQ.
Valentine Cawley recently posted..The death of Jacintha Saldanha at the virtual hands of Mel Grieg and Michael ChristianMy Profile

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Genius Experiment January 17, 2013 at 9:59 AM

thanks, very interesting. I agree that it would be difficult to imagine why an IQ of 170 wouldn’t lead to any measurable advantage in terms of productive/creative output. At the very least, if a person has a better memory, faster processing and more complex/varied associations, they should be more productive/creative. Perhaps the reason there are lots of prominent nobel laureates for example with lower IQs is mere statistics – you will simply have 20x more people with an IQ in the top 2% than people in the top 0.1%, so for every profoundly gifted person there will be 20 moderately gifted people to compete with, and if they’re very determined/motivated/enthusiastic, at least a couple of them are likely to outperform a profoundly gifted person at some point. I also wonder if some measurements were simply faulty, it’s hard to believe that Richard Feynman’s IQ was really just 125, unless perhaps his score was dragged down by verbal IQ or something like that – hard to tell without seeing the original test.

What I do find very interesting though and I think it’s encouraging for a lot of people is that you can be very successful/creative without having a super high IQ. High IQ gives an advantage in many ways but if you look at very successful people and their paths, IQ is usually just a small part of the reason why they succeeded.

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Valentine Cawley December 19, 2012 at 4:09 AM

There are studies that did not address your question directly, but which nevertheless speak of it. Take a look at the 1926 Cox study of history’s greatest geniuses. These are the most creative people in history. Their mean IQ was estimated to be 165 by Cox, based on childhood developmental markers and achievements. This shows elevation of creativity beyond 150. Other studies are also suggestive. I once read a study looking at the intelligence of established creative professionals (I don’t have the link). I recall it stating that the mean IQ of professional novelists in the sample was 160. Also the mean IQ of the eminent scientists was also in the 160s (exact figure eludes me). Again this points to higher creativity for higher IQ, at least in these extreme samples of achievers.

(Passing thought: the most creative of Cox’s geniuses also had the highest IQs…)

My take on it is that, as long as the personality characteristics are permissible of creative achievement (which may not be so), higher IQ will allow the solution of more difficult problems and therefore different kinds and higher kinds of creativity. That is how I understand it. Of course, it is possible to have a very high IQ but not be creative (think bright accountant). In a subset of high IQ types, though, higher IQ will lead to greater creative possibilities and potential – and if life factors are in place, actual creativity.

I hope that helps. Thank you for this interesting article.
Valentine Cawley recently posted..The death of Jacintha Saldanha at the virtual hands of Mel Grieg and Michael ChristianMy Profile

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anon August 30, 2013 at 12:06 PM

I would love for my reply to reach Valentine, for I have given this much thought. What is IQ? What is genius? What is autism spectrum? What is not quantifiable?

This is my (recently composed on the spot) theory on IQ: Foremost, I believe if IQ was ever test-able, it would be as a child before anxiety, before “life.” That’s even assuming that the scope of questions is testing one’s ability to grasp wholes. What is it like to grasp the whole world as a child? I believe those are the ones who fall the hardest, without adequate support (if any support could be adequate.) How do you measure, beyond interacting with said person or child, the amount of information someone is taking in, not on a piece of paper, but of their whole environment? One would say they are one and the same, but I would argue that is terribly wrong. A precocious child is more able to deal with college level physics than the tragedy/inevitability of death. The higher his ability to understand these things, the less likely they would fit. And life is full of those sorts of things. Why do people hate? Why do people love? Why do I have this strange feeling that my intellectual ability is more than all of these adults (who are often jealous of me)? What about the children who clash with their superiors?

I would argue these children (and adults) are destined to fail as much as they are to succeed. The whole idea of gifted underachievement is funny because it makes you believe every gifted child should be doing something amazing. Not so. Every gifted child should do something; he should not grow to hate or become cynical. Because of this, if one is truly “profoundly” gifted (to use a benchmark, even though I don’t believe in IQ), the way he perceives information becomes “creative.” Thus, it is genius. The only way he could fail is doubting himself, refusing to give, or simply becoming what I would call a “catatonic prodigy.”

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Valentine Cawley December 18, 2012 at 5:04 PM

It is clear, from your analysis and the understanding that you have formed from it, that you don’t understand why a TV show might present a kid displaying a prodigious memory for Pi. It is quite simple really. We were contacted by the Channel 4 programme and they asked us what Ainan could do on camera to show his skill. This is actually a difficult request to meet, where mental ability is concerned. How does one show a superior mind, thinking, in a visual medium? Well, my solution, as his father, was to suggest that Ainan show his ability to learn. I knew that he had a very acquisitive memory and that he could do something very straightforward for the camera, to show one aspect of his mental ability. So, he did a demonstration of Pi memory and broke a couple of records. Now, what you fail to understand is that this is not Ainan’s primary area, or the limit of his ability: it is just a simple demonstration that worked well on TV. I would suggest that much the same dynamics apply to all kids you see on TV: they have to do something simple for the cameras that will work as TV.

Ainan is not, in fact, a good example of your contention that child prodigies focus on predictable tasks…in fact, he is a very good example of the opposite. Although he is known as a child scientist, and is pursuing an American Degree programme, at University, he has actually studied and acquired qualifications in a very diverse range of subjects – including Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Economics, Maths, History, English, Computer programming, Computer animation and theatre. He is also a self taught pianist and composer, who composes new music on a daily basis, as well as a digital artist and animated film-maker. He has even scored the music for a short film presently being entered for film festivals. On top of that, he made a scientific discovery at the age of 8 which resulted in co-authorship of a scientific paper and he has contributed to another paper, too, also based on work he did when was 8 years old.

Ainan is not what you suggest: predictable. Obviously, the future is unknowable, but his present looks very much like the beginnings of a genuine genius. He is creative, diverse, directed, self-driving, productive, inquisitive, perseverant, adaptable, resourceful and polymathic. These are all good indicators of the type of mind that does eventuate in true genius.

Ainan’s memory is the least of his gifts – but one that made for good TV. That is all.

By the way, many of history’s greatest adult geniuses, began life as child prodigies…so your contention that “child prodigies fail”…is countered by many historical examples. Yes. Some child prodigies lose interest and stop striving…but not all do. Some go on to become people who contribute greatly to the world.

Also more recent work refutes the idea that 120 is cut off for benefit from IQ. Studies have shown that people become notably more creative with rising IQ, even up to 150 (I don’t believe they had enough subjects to ascertain much beyond that). So IQ is of benefit…though personality differences will count for a lot, too.

I hope these thoughts clarify a few issues you have raised. Thanks.

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Genius Experiment December 18, 2012 at 5:25 PM

Dear Valentine,
thank you very much for your comment. I am sorry if I gave the impression that Ainan was an example of a child prodigy only showing predictable tasks – I was referring to the tendency of TV programmes to highlight impressive memorisation skills which in general are not a great predictor of genius in the creative sense – and the programme featuring Ainan was just a well-known example of that. i didn’t want to imply anything further regarding Ainan and should have stressed that (or picked a different example). So apologies if you have taken offence – Ainan looks like a fantastic and multi-talented creative kid.

I am very interested in your comment about the benefits of IQs beyond 150 – could you cite specific studies? I am not aware of any of these and have researched the topic extensively, so if you have any academic studies that you can cite that would show the benefit of an IQ of >150 versus an IQ in the 120-150 range I would be very interested to have a look at them!

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