The Wunderkind Club

Early stars are rare; those who don't flame out are more unusual still. What separates the grown-up wunderkind from the one-hit wonder?

By Lisa Birnbach, published January 6, 2015 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

 Illustrated Collage of successful young people under 30

Say you had the unbelievable good fortune to select the age at which you achieve your professional or scholarly goal. What age would you choose? Wouldn't you want it as early as possible? You could be one of those "30 Under 30" prodigies who spend their lives on every short list, hopscotching from the World Economic Forum to TED and the Time 100 gala. Eventually, a MacArthur "genius grant," Pritzker Prize, or Fields Medal should come your way as well.

The "Wunderkind" Club is populated by people who've enjoyed such outsize success while still young. It includes most child actors, many tech titans, and all those 30 Under 30s. Exalted though it is, membership can be remarkably disorienting over the course of one's life. Early success can create tensions and require trade-offs that older MacArthur geniuses need not contend with. If you have accomplished your life's work before 30, do you suddenly have a target on your back? How does an "It Girl" age gracefully? Are you crippled by the fear that you cannot possibly top your early work or, conversely, the expectation that everything forever after should come as easily? Will you be pigeonholed by your accomplishment?

Early stars who surmount such psychic hurdles tend to have a creative drive for the sake of generativity and an ability to decouple stratospheric success from their core identity. Those who do not are more likely to be one-hit wonders. At age 19, it can be hard to know whether success is due to raw talent or to blind luck. Those who do best try not to get hung up on the question, even if the world continually parses their lives for the answer.

Christopher Paolini wasn't trying to break any records as a homeschooled kid in Paradise Valley, Montana. There, with his sister Angela as his only classmate, he learned to love reading and storytelling. He earned his high-school equivalency degree at age 15 and began writing the story that became Eragon, which his family self-published. Eragon is a young-adult fantasy, much like the books Paolini adored reading. "I was ridiculously obsessed with books," he tells me over the phone. "I'd read to the point of tuning out everything else."

It took Paolini approximately a year to plot Eragon, the first in a series of four books that make up the Inheritance Cycle. "I never even told my friends I was writing a book. That would have been showing off." In a curious twist of fate, one of Eragon's early fans was the stepson of writer Carl Hiaasen. When Hiaasen read the book himself, he was impressed and showed it to his publisher. Thus, by the time he was 17, Paolini was a Knopf author. The book shot onto the best-seller list, and the series has now sold more than 34 million copies worldwide.

As a minor, Paolini needed his parents to cosign his book contract. "A marketing angle was my youth, and my age protected me in a way: You don't beat up on a baby," he says. "It got me attention, but it also got me negative attention. I'm glad I didn't know what I was getting myself into," he admits now, at age 31. Further, he believes his writing has improved. "I wrote some very bad sentences then, and I still do, but less and less. Now I have an 80 to 90 percent chance of pulling off what I want to say."

Like many early stars, Paolini worried that his success hinged radically on luck: "I felt enormous pressure to prove with the second book that my success was not a fluke. I wanted to test myself. I didn't feel like a writer until my third book."

Having finished the tetralogy that began with Eragon, Paolini is now writing a work of science fiction. "I feel I need to prove that I can move beyond the Inheritance Cycle, but I don't need to measure up to it. Will my next book sell as many copies? In every series, the first book always sells the best. I've spent a lot of time thinking about this. Whatever happens, I'm good."

The refusal to look back may be the key to continuing to produce work after one's early, heady, winning days. Manhattan psychologist Barry Lubetkin knows this both as a pioneering practitioner of cognitive behavioral therapy and from the accomplished patients he sees in his practice. Comparing your old work with your current output "is a dead end," he states. "When you look back, you nearly always return to the passionate beginnings of your career. Emotionally, no one is more excited than the person in her 20s or very early 30s who has just latched onto a great path." (Paolini recalls irritating older writers with his youthful ebullience when he began to attend industry events.) "Inevitably you lose some of the energy; the ideas become a little stale or passé."

Brooke Shields was a successful model and actress as an exquisite, lush-lashed child. She starred in Louis Malle's film Pretty Baby when she was 12. She grew up in New York City and nearby New Jersey, living primarily with her mother, and could easily see the direct fruits of her labor. "Success instilled a certain work ethic in me," Shields says. "I'd think, Oh, if I do this, can I get a nicer car? And if I can get more work, does it mean we can move to a house from our apartment?" Thanks to the laid-back model (and media) culture of the 1970s, Shields felt that she could "sort of make the rules," moving among assignments and perks with a coterie who functioned much like an extended family.

"I did see a lot early," she says. "I'm so used to the concept of being rejected. It would take a lot to derail me, because the groundwork of self-esteem and preservation was laid early."

In 1980, at age 14, Shields became the youngest model ever to appear on the cover of Vogue. By 15, she was on the cover of Time, inaugurating "The '80s Look."

"I couldn't have articulated this then," she continues, "but beauty was only one piece of the puzzle. I had no control over it, it was something that just was, that I couldn't take credit for. But my behavior could be rewarded. And I always cared about being polite and having good manners. If beauty is all that there is—especially when you hit 28? 40?" Her voice trails off.

Shields, who will turn 50 in May, says that her most successful endeavor was graduating from college: She earned an honors degree from Princeton in 1987. "It was in direct proportion to the amount of hard work I did. And only I did it. I didn't go to school to prove anything," she says. "But education is neither transient nor fickle."

Shields intuited early the difference between good luck and hard work, the circumstantial balance sheet that self-aware wunderkinds often struggle to square. By adopting a merit-based approach to success, she was able to offset the world's focus on her appearance, for which she could claim no credit.

In this way, Shields embodies the growth mind-set that Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has made a cultural rallying cry in the last decade—the belief that hard work (and inevitable failure) is the key to success, rather than immutable traits such as intelligence. Dweck has found that people with a growth orientation are more likely to persevere, take risks, and have a healthy self-image, and that mind-sets are established early but are amenable to change with the right beliefs and adult encouragement. For a high achiever, a focus on skills that can be cultivated rather than on innate gifts and abilities may affect whether he or she craters under pressure.

"Going to college was my lifeline," Shields insists. "I did know this as a young person. Education was going to carry me through the bullsh*t."

Shields is married to comedy writer and producer Chris Henchy, and together they have two daughters they are raising in New York. Her long resume now includes leading roles in television sitcoms and Broadway shows and the best-selling memoir Down Came the Rain: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression. Yet she continues to grapple openly with the legacy of childhood superstardom, most recently in a memoir about her complicated relationship with her mother and manager, Teri, There Was a Little Girl: The Real Story of My Mother and Me, which landed her on the cover of People yet again. Shields has graced all the lists, including People's "Most Beautiful," "Most Fascinating" and "Most Intriguing" over the decades. In 2006, after having been on a previous year's roster, she wondered, "Hmm...should I have been on it? Am I still viable? What is enough?"

No one is immune to career and status anxiety, no matter how growth-oriented. Manhattan psychiatrist Gail Saltz notes that "once you've had a huge hit, it can be daunting to create another, and you have to be willing to carry on." Lubetkin finds that his most successful clients embody both a healthy love of their craft and a fear of failure: "Fear motivates them. They worry that the whole thing could turn on a dime once again." Even Lena Dunham, the millennial phenom with a string of pop culture bull's-eyes, is not immune. Before the debut of the third season of Girls, the 28-year-old creator and star of the HBO show told the New York Times that she had "turned into a whole different ball of nerves. The first season was like my bat mitzvah, wedding, and birthday rolled into one," she stated. "As you enter deeper into your career path, there are more attendant anxieties. It's less pure, unequivocal, party-down joy."

Some early stars become known for an accomplishment that has nothing to do with their later identity, a disconnect that often highlights the difference between short-lived fame and lasting success. As an undergraduate at Princeton in 1976, John Aristotle Phillips figured out how to make an atomic bomb, a feat he then chronicled with the help of his roommate, David Michaelis, in Mushroom: The Story of the A-Bomb Kid. Despite his grandiloquent name, Phillips was a slacker at Princeton, a kid who'd transferred from the University of California, Berkeley and had been on academic probation. He was better known on campus for being the Princeton Tiger mascot than for creating a nuclear weapon. "People weren't jealous of me in college," he says on the phone from the Washington, D.C., headquarters of Aristotle, Inc., the political consulting firm he founded and runs. "They were shocked. They knew I was on academic probation. It was," he says with understatement, "quite a sensation at the time."

Phillips handed in his paper to his professor, the physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson, and the fact that an undergrad had figured out how to make an atom bomb quickly became international news. Soon a representative of the Pakistani government tried to contact him to purchase the plans for that country's use. "The French government canceled a sale of weapons to Pakistan," he states.

Today Phillips views the blueprint as just one small part of his life, something that exists as part of a colorful history. "It was a high point for me. I've continued to enjoy what I do in politics and democracy." In his 20s, he twice ran for a seat in the House of Representatives as a Democrat in Connecticut's 4th Congressional District. He was defeated both times. Aristotle, Inc., the firm that he started in 1983 with his brother Dean, engages in political research and influence. He clearly prefers talking about this chapter of his life. "We are the leading supplier of technology at the ballot box. We poll here and overseas, and we are the largest nonpartisan brand name in politics," he explains. But when we get off the phone and I continue to read about Phillips, I learn that he was so determined to play himself in a 1980s TV movie based on Mushroom that he flew to L.A. to audition for the role, which he won. (The movie was never made.) It seemed as if the bomb blueprint was a moment in his life that he had been interested in extending. "No," he demurs. "I'm not a one-shot deal. I'm trying to be consistent. When I reflect on making my mark, the work we do at Aristotle is as important and doesn't get so much attention."

Author and journalist Richard Brookhiser's trajectory offers another perspective on early success that strikes in one realm and unfolds in another. At 23, Brookhiser was chosen by National Review editor and conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr., as his sucessor at the magazine—only to have the offer rescinded a decade later.

Brookhiser first made an impact in the ninth grade. It was 1969, and unlike most kids his age, he was opposed to the opposition to the Vietnam War. Each week he wrote a descriptive letter to his older brother away at college. One such missive described what he regarded as the foolish protest activities at Irondequoit High School in Rochester, New York, where condemnation of the war struck him as inauthentic at best. His father enjoyed the letter and suggested that young Brookhiser submit it to National Review, founded by Buckley, a celebrated public intellectual, author, bon vivant, and television personality. That letter became the magazine's cover story on February 24, 1970, the day after Brookhiser's 15th birthday, and both his youth and his contrarian point of view made the news. Later, while at Yale, Brookhiser was a summer intern at National Review, able to observe Buckley closely and feel the warmth of his magnanimity. One of his closest allies was Priscilla Buckley, Bill's sister and the managing editor, who urged him to defer his acceptance to law school after college and return to the magazine for one year. There, at age 22, Brookhiser was the kid among editors, far younger than anyone save the interns.

One day Bill Buckley took him to lunch and announced, "Rick, I've decided that someday you'll succeed me." Brookhiser was now 23, still the greenest and youngest on staff. He called Yale to say he wouldn't be attending law school after all but kept this development a secret from almost everyone except his wife, the psychologist and author Jeanne Safer. "This was not like getting Excalibur," Brookhiser says. "This was like getting the whole suit of armor. I felt excited and a little baffled. I knew the tempo of his life." Being the next William F. Buckley meant speeches, travel, and socializing at a high level. "He must have thought I was another him. I'm not a modest man and I did think I was a good writer," he says, but the other activities, including managing a staff, were not native to Brookhiser's more modest upbringing or part of his wheelhouse.

Almost a full decade later, after his early promise and Buckley's promises, Brookhiser's story took a sharp U-turn. In the summer of 1987, Brookhiser, now managing editor, found a letter marked "confidential" on his desk. "It is now plain to me," Buckley wrote, "that you are not suited to serve as editor-in-chief after my retirement...I must at once tell you that I have reached the conclusion irrevocably." Buckley went on to articulate Brookhiser's lack of "executive pizzazz," while encouraging Brookhiser to embrace his writing talent, which, when compared to executive flair, was "much to be preferred."

Brookhiser was stunned and enraged, even if the description fit. "I felt I went from being precocious to being retarded," he wrote in a memoir about his life alongside Buckley, Right Time, Right Place. "I had to start freelancing. I had to do stuff at 32 that I should have done when I was 22." He found a way to reinvent himself, and to embrace the change thrust upon him. "As I turned 40, I started to write historical biographies. I still feel odd when people call me a historian. I didn't get a Ph.D., I didn't really study American history in college, and I feel I don't know the secret handshakes, yet various eminent historians have given my books good reviews, so that should be a seal of approval." Brookhiser, who will be 60 in February, has written 12 books, most recently Founders' Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln. "I feel I lucked out somehow," he says, "because of the odd shape of my career." He continues to write for National Review.

Ron Howard is also 60. He has been successful and famous—two very distinct attributes—for the past 55 years. After a career as a child actor in The Andy Griffith Show and then as a teenager in Happy Days, Howard has worked steadily as a film director and producer since 1977, when he directed Grand Theft Auto. He is married to his high school girlfriend, Cheryl, with whom he has four children.

"I once read that Katharine Hepburn always discounted a bit of what she achieved because she came from a family of privilege and had such opportunity that had she not achieved, it would have been horrible," says Howard. "I understand what she meant. Though I didn't come from that kind of privileged background, I was fortunate to come from a family with a lot of exposure to this business. Given my family support in the industry, I ought to have done well. The only thing I can give myself credit for is not f*cking it up. That, and having the appetite for it."

Howard's father Rance was himself an actor, and he contextualized fame and success for Ron from the beginning of his son's long career.

"The greatest thing my father was able to do for me was to give me perspective. He knew that other people would, in fact, view what I was doing with my life as more extraordinary than it actually was. Not to diminish my own achievements, but it was just my path, to do something earlier than most. My dad used to say, 'When kids come up in school and ask what it's like to be a TV star, you should ask them if they have a paper route.' At that time, every boy around the age of 10 had a paper route in my neighborhood in Burbank, California. 'Tell them it's not so different. They get those newspapers around 4:30 or 5 a.m., they have to fold them, they have to put rubber bands around them, they have to load them onto their bike and deliver them carefully. Then their job is done, and they have to go to school and live up to their other responsibilities. You have to get up in the morning and learn your lines, you have to show up, and you have to do what the director tells you. When that's over, you have to go to school and take care of your other responsibilities.'"

Those who achieve success early and wear it comfortably have a sense of how fortunate they are; they know that there is an element of beginner's luck, however unquantifiable. They also share an ability to follow through and to become neither complacent nor despondent when their next project doesn't equal their previous efforts. They have learned to normalize that which is unusual, just as Rance Howard taught his son Ron.

Ultimately, those who succeed right from the start invoke a universal truth about success: Whatever one's age or prior experience, if you don't love the work that you're engaged in, you won't be able to enjoy your accomplishments in a real way.

"A best-seller might never happen again," says Paolini, "but writing was as transformational for me as it was for the hero of my series."

The Ascendance of Three Early Stars:

Christopher Paolini

  • 1978 Christopher Paolini is born in Los Angeles. He is homeschooled by his mother, who used the Montessori method of teaching.
  • Age 15 Paolini graduates from the American School of Correspondence.
  • 16 Completes his first draft of Eragon, which is set in Alagaesia, a mythical land.
  • 17 Paolini's family self-publishes Eragon.
  • 19 Paolini tours more than 135 schools and libraries to promote the book wearing a medieval outfit, complete with lace-up boots.
  • 18 Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers publishes Eragon, which edges out Harry Potter on best-seller lists.
  • 21 Eldest is published.
  • 23 The movie adaptation of Eragon hits theaters.
  • 24 Brisingr is published. One-third of the book was written longhand on thick parchment paper.
  • 27 Paolini, who lives with his parents, buys a broadsword to celebrate the publication of Inheritance, with a first printing of 2.5 million.

Brooke Shields

  • 11 months Appears in first advertisement, for Ivory Snow soap.
  • Age 12 Plays a child prostitute in her first film, Pretty Baby.
  • 13 Becomes lifelong friends with Michael Jackson after the two meet at the Academy Awards.
  • 14 Youngest person ever to appear on cover of Vogue.
  • 15 Nothing came between Brooke and her Calvin Klein Jeans.
  • 22 Graduates from Princeton with an honors degree in French Literature.
  • 30 Stars in NBC sitcom Suddenly Susan, featuring Shields as a magazine writer in San Francisco.
  • 35 Marries ex-Suddenly Susan writer Chris Henchy. A two-year marriage to Andre Agassi ended in 1999.
  • 39 Publishes Down Came the Rain: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression, about her experience with postpartum depression following the birth of daughter Rowan Francis in 2003.
  • 42 Shields's tumultuous relationship with mother Teri is the subject of There Was a Little Girl: The Real Story of My Mother and Me, published in 2014.

John Aristotle Phillips

  • 1955 Born John Aristotle Phillips to Greek immigrants in Connecticut.
  • 1960s Teachers tell his mother that his IQ is so low that he might struggle in middle school.
  • Age 21 Writes 34-page paper specifying how to build an A-Bomb. His primary sources are declassified documents from the Manhattan Project.
  • 22 Coauthors Mushroom: The Story of the A-Bomb Kid.
  • 25 Runs for Congress in Connecticut on the Democratic ticket. He wins the primary but loses the election. He loses again two years later.
  • 28 Founds voter and political consulting firm Aristotle, Inc. with brother Dean Phillips, a computer scientist from MIT.
  • 29 Aristotle, Inc. is contracted by both Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale in the 1980 presidential election.
  • 30 The movie The Manhattan Project is inspired by Phillips's story.
  • 59 Still leads Aristotle, Inc., which is used globally to authenticate age and identity.

READ MORE:

Lisa Birnbach on her own early success:

Bestselling Author at Age 21: What Comes Next?