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Why Prodigies Fail

Talent isn't enough. Commitment, perseverance and innovation help prodigies make a lasting mark.

In retrospect, it might not seem so impressive that music historian Charles Burney predicted an uncommonly bright future for the musical prodigy performing in front of him, a 9-year-old who possessed what Burney described as "almost supernatural talents." After all, who could fail to recognize that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was destined for greatness?

Betting on a prodigy, however, is anything but a sure thing. The majority of childhood prodigies never fulfill their early promise. "Perseverance is a key part of it," says Robert Root-Bernstein of Michigan State University. "Many of them say that their expectations were warped by their early experiences." When success comes too easily, prodigies are ill prepared for what happens when the adoration goes away, their competitors start to catch up and the going gets rough.

Parents and educators rarely pick up the slack. "I don't see anyone teaching these kids about task commitment, about perseverance in the face of social pressures, about how to handle criticism," notes Indiana University psychologist Jonathan Plucker. "We say, 'Boy, you're really talented.' We don't say, 'Yeah, but you're still going to have to put in those 60-hour work weeks before you can make major contributions to your field.' "

Even prodigies who avoid burnout and resist social pressures are unlikely to make a big splash as an adult. The problem, notes giftedness researcher Ellen Winner, is that to make a major contribution in the arts, and even the sciences "you need a rebellious spirit and the type of mind that can see new things." Most prodigies, however, are acclaimed not for their innovation but "for doing something that's already been done, like playing the violin in the style of Itzhak Perlman." Only prodigies who can reinvent themselves as innovators, she says, are likely to leave a lasting mark during adulthood.