the adult prodigy

a case for peaking late, or not at all

20-tweets long

growing up, I was fascinated with intelligence — how to measure it, what it predicts for, if it was fixed. I would research cognitive exercises, spend weekends with brainteasers, and most fun of all, binge-watch videos of other 12-year-olds with university degrees. watching those videos, it was clear there was a premium attached to doing normal things early. normal in the sense that most people were expected to be capable of these things, just a bit later.

was the creation of this premium misguided? I believe not. If doing ordinary things earlier strongly predicts for doing extraordinary things later, we could see society celebrating the former as paying forward adulation—for what it's worth— in expectation of the latter. but even if that wasn't the case, to the extent that prodigious achievements are the result of 'genius', they are worthy of celebration for their own sake just as we would appreciate beauty for its own sake.

that said, there is room for another model of what constitutes extraordinary people and their work. what it suggests is fairly simple: there is something noteworthy about learning things later than you're expected to. this model describes a person who was properly introduced to a topic much later than when they had the aptitude to appreciate it. following this discovery, they don't anguish in the regret of lost time or missed opportunities but delight in the joy of having discovered it at all. it is my position that these people, over time, can achieve results similar to those expected of prodigies.

it is also worth noting that this narrative of individual exceptionalism offers an escape from a trap. there is a notion that foundational learning and unbounded curiosity are things of your childhood. that, almost definitionally, an adult is completely and contently educated. there is also the related notion that exploring a topic you could've (or revisiting a topic you "should've") learnt much earlier is, at best, amusing and at worst, a little embarrassing. this leads to people having less enthusiasm to learn (and re-learn) even as they acquire more agency, resources, and information about the world and themselves. they feel discouraged for not knowing earlier when there couldn't be a better time to know than now. this results in a propensity to learn relating inversely with the increasing capacity to support it. that is the trap.

note that the tone of this essay is primarily speculative, given limited evidence beyond the anecdotal. however, even if the adult prodigy were a myth, I believe any narrative that encourages self-actualisation and life-long learning is one worth having around.