A prodigy is very young and highly skilled in whatever field they practice.

The concept is demoralizing because it builds a wall separating prodigy from mortal.

It’s like the superstar effect: what’s the point of even competing when you have toddlers running around juggling fire and reciting the Iliad in ancient Greek?

I have good news about that though, that I’ll get to in a moment, but first me talk about lasers and dogs:

Humans are good at tracing trajectories. If you point at something, I can see what you’re pointing at because I can imagine the invisible laser coming out of your finger tip and hitting whatever it is. We also see the invisible lines tracing the paths of balls or birds traveling through the sky.

It’s instinctual for us; we don’t have to teach kids “pointing comprehension” in school. It’s so natural that we take it for granted, as if nature shoots invisible laser beams out of things that hint at direction.

It’s not natural though; it’s a quite sophisticated bit of processing. Dogs can’t do it. You point at a ball, they lick your finger. There’s no laser. Remember that: there’s no laser.

Back to the prodigies.

I was coloring my baby sister with magic markers and shoving bugs in my nose at that age. I'm doomed when that kid grows up.

You look at these kids and realize they have mastered a skill that takes adults years, maybe decades, to learn. As naturally as a fish cuts through water, the trajectory software in your brain says: they are as good as I am after 1 year, so they will be 30 times better when they are adults. I was coloring my baby sister with magic markers and shoving bugs in my nose at that age. I’m doomed when that kid grows up. I have to compete with him and he’ll be 30 times better than I am.

That’s what we think, and that moment is when the wall separating you from prodigies is built in your mind. Here’s that good news I promised: it’s not true.

Human trajectory software is broken. Actually that’s not true, it’s fine, but it’s optimized to figure out where to throw a rock so that it hits a moving gazelle. We just try to use it for things we shouldn’t use it for, including abstract concepts like “skill level”.

The truth is that prodigies, when they exist at all (instead of just being marketing gimmicks like they normally are), don’t turn out to extremely high performing adults. The laser beam you imagined little Einstein would ride toward greatness doesn’t exist (and for the record, Einstein was considered a normal, if not dull child).

Those kids you hear about graduating college before they hit puberty? Where are they now? They are probably maladjusted for one thing, and for another they are probably just average adult performers.

The dog is right in this case. There is no laser. There is no wall separating you from prodigal superstars.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Malcolm Gladwell via the APS Observer:

…the story of two buildings. One is built ahead of schedule, and one is being built in New York City and comes in two years late and several million dollars over budget. Does anyone really care, 10 years down the road, which building was built early and which building was built late? … But somehow I think when it comes to children we feel the other way, that we get obsessed with schedules, and not with buildings.