Which is a better motivator? Intimidation or inspiration? Turns out, that child prodigy whose precocious achievements make you feel like a dolt will spur you on better than an older superstar—provided you're working in a different field than boy wonder. Repeating his feats (Pulitzer at age 5?) may be an unattainable goal, but the demoralizing comparison will push you to excel in your own way to regain your dignity. In studies reported in the European Journal of Social Psychology, people performed better on a test of verbal skills after reading about a young math whiz than they did after reading about a young word wonk or an older brainiac of either ilk. "If you never feel bad about yourself," says lead author Camille Johnson of Stanford, "you never feel the need to change yourself or do more."
You may be too old to best these feats, but there's more to life than science, movies, and sports.