The Scourge of Precocity

I realize it isn’t a novel observation but I’m intrigued by how poorly our society can pick future winners. Here’s my caricature of the process:

  1. Take a teenager with a notable ability in math or physics or programming or something.
  2. Watch as he/she masters material at an incredible rate
  3. Maybe even makes some minor discovery of some sort. The key here is that the discovery or achievement would not be notable if done by a 50-ish professional with a career’s worth of experience. It carries little absolute value.
  4. Yet the press latches onto the relative achievement. This puts our subject waaaay out into the tail of the distribution for his/her age level. Everyone loves an outlier.
  5. Attention, fame, status accrue.

We love to imagine the great works our teenager will undertake if they’ve already achieved such distinction. Yet we don’t particularly care about the achievement itself. Who would?

For the the phenom, a door is now opened to cash in on the 15 minutes of fame. Become a writer or speaker with books/talks titled: “How to Revolutionize Education” or “Prodigies: DIY”. Such high status work is both easier and more lucrative than the grind true achievement demands. Or maybe our outlier was just lucky and such luck will never return.

Meanwhile, back home, real achievers incubate. There are schools that produce many Nobel Prize winners (try here). Achievement clusters; I like to think this happens because kids are competitive. Chip firmly in shoulder they go off and make the world a better place.

Ignore the precocious. Watch their friends.

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