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Advice to the Bright and Young (daniellefong.com)
56 points by DaniFong on May 15, 2008 | hide | past | web | favorite | 16 comments

This is exactly the opposite of my story.

My father taught me to read when I was 2 and from that point on, everyone encouraged my parents to "fast track" me. I was tested, examined, and prodded by psychologists, doctors, teachers, and "experts". I even passed the preschool entrance exam before my older brother (he's been paying me back ever since lol).

Finally one day, my father, of all people, said enough. I would mainstream with all the other kids because he didn't want me to be a "freak". To this day, I really don't know if it was a wise decision or a snap judgement.

So I sat in class, bored to tears for the next 12 grueling years. Looking back, I had no choice but to "let my love of something pull me" as the OP said. So I learned a musical instrument, started several small businesses, made home movies, and published my own magazine. I excelled in everything outside of school and did poorly in class. I wonder what college admissions officers thought about a self-published C student with perfect SAT scores. I think my magazaine did more for my future that anything from school.

After a great college experience, I spent years of torture in corporate cubicles, bored to death no matter what the job was. Only when I found a way to do my own software startup, did everything fall into place for me. I'm finally living the life I was always meant to live.

So this would-be prodigy ended up being a late bloomer. I don't know whether this is better or worse, but I sure am glad I finally ended up where I belong.

Thanks for thought stoking essay, DaniFong.

"Prodigies [inevitably] become ex-prodigies."

There's some truth to that statement. One of the best pieces of advice I got was from a college professor whose course I took in high school: "You're headed for great places. Don't sacrifice your childhood/youth just to get there faster."

At the time, I didn't really appreciate the advice, but looking back, it gets truer every day. Take some time to appreciate the little things.

Are you sacrificing your childhood if it sucks in the first place? Sure, there are dangers to rushing along. But it sure sounds more interesting to rush along than not to do so. I may be wrong, but I envy those who had the opportunity.

That quote ("Prodigies [inevitably] become ex-prodigies.") reminds of something I read earlier this week that goes something like this: "The problem of being too young lessens over time."

The quote aneesh's professor gave reminds me of the "This too shall pass" parable. That story is as powerful as any I've ever read. I bet that there's not a day goes by that I don't find myself saying "This too shall pass": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/This_too_shall_pass

That's a fantastic piece of advice, thank you!

The irony of being a prodigy is that it is indeed a facade, because it's not that the achievements are new, just that the achiever is.

This is why it feels empty. Because although you did something a few years earlier than other people, lots and lots of other people already did it, are doing it, and will be doing it soon.

The rat race is one of relative achievement. One can pile on all the plaudits and laurels in the world and it still comes down to jumping through other people's hoops for approval.

The only thing that doesn't feel fake is absolute achievement -- when you do something new, regardless of age, and regardless of media coverage or getting puppy snacks from the outstretched palms of condescending adults.

I think it's ten orders of magnitude easier to say "do something new," than it is to actually do something new. It's tempting to believe that prodigies burn themselves out because they get cynical about the "rat race", but many burn themselves out by trying to revolutionize the world at a young age, without realizing that the world is a damned hard place to revolutionize. (You can see this phenomenon in the kid in the cited article -- he's ten, and already convinced that he's going to revolutionize a branch of astrophysics. That's a dangerous kind of immodesty.)

Obviously, it's good to strive for creativity and novelty in your work, but you also have to maintain a sense of perspective: if you've set your goals so high that your definition of "achievement" is isomorphic to "originality", then you're probably in for a lifetime of disappointment. It's a hard problem to be original -- there are a lot of other people in the world, and most of them are trying to be original, too. In fact, being original is a lot like being famous, because you can strive for it, but your success is largely determined by what other people do; it's probably bad to condition your self-esteem on the actions of other people.

For what it's worth, here's my half-formed philosophy: you have to do whatever it is that gives you a sense of personal satisfaction and contentment. Your accomplishments don't have to be great; they don't have to be original; they don't have to make you famous. As long as you can look in the mirror in the morning and feel excitement about the day, you're doing pretty well.

I referenced Feynman at the bottom of my article. http://scienceblogs.com/thescian/2008/03/what_are_worthwhile...

Perhaps I should have described another trap. It is too easy to grow up with the sense that one should work on only grand things.

"The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. [...] No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it."

That's a great pointer, Danielle. Thanks.

I don't really find that people get burned out working on their own thing. It instead seems to be when trying to do what other people think they should.

Dani, this is a wonderful essay, really. Thanks a lot.

I had many problems related to what you mention there. Long story short: some years ago I got to my nation's newspapers because of my own small game studio and of my work on the local game dev association, and I got to speak to lot of conferences with very prestigious people, but I always felt empty, and I always felt I was more and more of an imposter. I rushed doing activities not because of my interest on them, but because of how they could help maintain and enforce my own image... and so on and on. Also I actually was starting to feel more and more stupid, because I wasn't doing the things I love most, and that I think I need to feed my mind.

Finally I decided that was stupid, and I decided a first step to find myself would be to shut the mouth up. I stopped caring a lot about press and related stuff, and despite I eventually did some note most of the times I sent the media to colleagues that I felt cold talk better than me about the different subjects. I dropped out from forums and disappeared from communities which only helped my ego grow. I just kept working quietly with a few clients, and I even started filtering my clients only to do the most interesting projects, which could again give a boost to my brain and let me feel again that I was doing something worth, and not just something that gave me money while making the others feel I was actually worth.

This was a lot of time ago, and that was like a slow career reset for me. These days I'm much happier about my work, while being a lot more slow profile (now I'm rarely called from the local press, as a remnant of my previous career, and because of my current activity I'm now teaching and giving some conferences).

But I think I have a lot more to learn yet. I loved your article, and despite all my growth in the latest years, I found interesting ideas in your article which I think I could use to improve my life a lot more. Thanks again.

Only wish I had read this some years later (the more years, the better).

It's plain to see that the wisdom being passed on here was painfully earned. Some people never make it out. Congrats on surviving and coming through stronger, reclaiming your life.

How prodigious do you have to be for society to push you along like this? I accelerated a lot, because I wanted to get to the good stuff, and I felt burned out occasionally when I did too much pointless work unrelated to what I liked, but otherwise was fine, even in the heavier semesters.

Basically, I figure there are two reasons to accelerate. One, it's dumb to waste time on things that don't matter (like the two years of high school math over which are distributed about six weeks of material, also known as algebra II and precalculus); you wouldn't want to waste your life in high school any more than you'd want to waste your adult life.

Two, you have only so many years of real productivity, I'd say between about 18 and 39 (upper bound varies by field and individual), and you want to spend as many of them as you can doing real work that has an effect on the world, rather than education.

Beautiful article. As one who almost burned out, I can attest to the many truths that are seen in the article. Great article, Dani.

Alas that our minds learn by trial and error and not taking advice. In fact, the brightest people tend to be the ones who have a driving need to find out for themselves and not listen to what other people say about it.

"Tell a man that there are 400 billion stars and he'll believe you. Say a bench has wet paint and he has to touch it."

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