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You don’t want a child prodigy (nytimes.com)
85 points by mindgam3 32 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 128 comments

I have a son who developed intrinsic interest in a Rubik’s Cube I purchased as a gift for him at the age of 9.

He voluntarily attacked it with an incredible investment in time and focus.

I wouldnit call him an intellectual prodigy, but he consistently expressed outlier intrinsic motivation.

We supported him in his cubing competition pursuits.

He competed to a high standard making it to recognised national level competition twice, reaching the semi-finals the 1st year and clearing semi-finals the 2nd(but immediately knocked out in finals).

We openly discussed the commitment required to achieve national success, repeatedly covering the concept of diminishing returns.

We discussed that whatever he decided his family would support him.

He committed, he succeeded(to an extent), he recognised the need to redouble his commitment to achieve the final step up to the apex, and he decided he wanted to continue cubing for joy, rather than singular pursuit of competitive excellence.

We try to parent with a roughly 50/50 mix of “tiger parenting” and “hippies in joyful pursuit”.

Be disciplined in what we NEED to learn/do.

Be joyful in what we WANT to learn/do.

We think he’s a happy and well rounded kid

We think we did the right thing by him.

Too soon to tell?

He'll be drinking at 40 in a lonely bar reminiscing about how he was almost there. He had it within his grasp... He could have been national champ!

I read out what you wrote. He genuinely thought it was pretty funny.

The dark humour runs rampant with him/us.

Looks like you got a lot of downvotes for what was clearly a joke. I thought it was funny!

I don't post for the upvotes :) Have an upvote!

Jokes at the expense of a child aren't funny.

Are you kidding? As a father me and my wife joke a lot about our son. Hide and seek hiding behind a chain link fence? Hey I'll save on college!

Ours hid behind a curtain, flopping around like they had Parkinsons, laughing like they were in a soundproof safe room, with their feet sticking out.

You’d think they’d been eating lead paint chips daily.

Not everyone has what it takes to be accepted to and graduate from Hamburger U

Claiming some stranger's kid is going to become an alcoholic that achieved nothing in life because they like to play with Rubik's cubes is on whole other level of mean.

Yeah, a funnier one.

Only if he never does anything better

> We try to parent with a roughly 50/50 mix of “tiger parenting” and “hippies in joyful pursuit”.

Makes me think of one of the things I picked up from game theory: the best strategy is a mix of multiple pure strategies.

I was a child prodigy, now living a life that is a fairly natural extension of that experience. I started programming at 6, took college classes (mostly math and physics) from 9 to 13. I had a semi-successful software business with my dad from 14 to 22, then decided to go to grad school, which was a fantastic decision, as it both helped me sharpen my intellectual skills and develop better social skills.

These days I do independent CS research and open source development, and still enjoy learning. One of my latest projects involves programming GPU compute, and I find it very exciting to grapple with a new computing model.

I don't talk about my early experience that much, but in this thread, feel free to AMA.

That's a very common story in software. We all started early. You're certainly not a prodigy.

A prodigy, in terms of computer science, would have contributed in a fundamental level to the field, as in invented some technology, some way of working, contributed some insight that changed the way we work, even the way we think, and this at very early age.

You, however, worked with your dad. Then you went to grad school. There's nothing prodigal about that.

Thanks for providing more detail for my answer to mindgam3's question :)

I've always wondered if it was just talent or you know how to learn really well.

Any strategies you employ when it comes to reading? Does it come down to mostly practice or can you read a whitepaper once and implement it the following day? How much of the effort is just memorization?

I've been programming since elementary school, always curious what other people do to quickly pick up engineering.

I'm of the camp who believes it stems from motivation - for whatever reason, I've found computers (and math) fascinating and have found the motivation to spend a lot of time understanding them, without it feeling like effort. I'm not sure I'd say I picked this stuff up quickly, it's been many tens of thousands of hours.

I'm not sure I have any useful advice regarding reading, other than doing quite a bit of it (though these days a lot of it is net stuff, which is varied in quality). Lately I've been reading a whole bunch of papers on GPU, both 2D rendering and how GPU's work (the Citadel stuff is a good read). A couple years ago I read a ton of stuff on CRDT's, and while it obviously grabbed my attention at the time, I look back and kinda regret the effort spent on it.

Hope this is at least interesting, if not helpful.

Oh I read plenty, currently I'm on a financial interest reading through books on technicals and options. I agree a lot of what people call "smarts" is just a lot of time spent truly understanding what interests you.

It's just interesting to hear it from another person. Reading isn't all that special just gotta do a lot of it and keep yourself engaged.

Could you provide a link or some names of the papers you've been reading about how GPUs work. Those sound like an interesting read!

Do you feel like you experienced social isolation or bullying as a result of your gifts, either in childhood or later in life?

I was a child chess prodigy from age 7-12ish before resuming something resembling normal life. I feel like there was a dark side to the prodigy label where being really good at something made me into an "other" and potentially led to resentment from other kids. Wondering if that was just me or if other early achievers ever experienced something similar.

Yes to both. The isolation was pretty bad because I grew up in a rural area and thus there just wasn't a large group of friends to draw on, much less those with similar interests and drive. So I experienced quite a bit of resentment, and strong feelings of social awkwardness.

For me, "resuming normal life" was going into the PhD program at UC Berkeley at 22. I wasn't the only former child prodigy (hi NJ if you're reading!), wasn't the smartest kid in the room. More importantly, I had peers I could bond with. I keep up with a lot of my grad school friends, not so much from the small town where I grew up.

Btw, here's some publicity from the time (there wasn't much, which I think was very wise of my parents): https://archive.org/details/marybaldwin1980mary/page/9

Okay, first of all, that news article is awesome. "he has his own computer which allows hexadecimal computations" may be the best thing I've read on HN all week.

The "not too much publicity" thing is on point.

Glad to hear you were able to find your community in grad school. Not being the smartest person in the room is really liberating and one of the reasons I keep coming back to hacker news.

Your comment makes me wish I had done grad school myself. But I struggled with pure CS and only found my intellectual passion/home base in senior year undergrad (Symbolic Systems, basically CS+psychology+linguistics+philosophy). By the time I thought it would be cool to coterm or do a masters I was already on my way into industry.

Best of luck with your current projects! Look forward to seeing some more results from a "bright young man in the right place at the right time" :-)

I took a look at your Wikipedia page. Are you actually a practicing Quaker? I know it’s none of my business. It’s just so unexpected to see from a UC Berkeley PhD, computer science prodigy, that I find it fascinating.

Yes, quite seriously - I go to worship most every week, annual session most every year, am on several committees, including the one that does memorial services. There are actually a few computer people at our meeting.

Having a spiritual practice really helps keep me grounded. Keeping it relevant to the article, it's something I would recommend.

Thanks for the reply. I will admit I live in a bit of an atheistic bubble, so it’s interesting to hear a different perspective, especially from someone as incredibly accomplished as you.

I completely and utterly disagree. In a world where everything is a zero-sum game, the top few percent in any given area will gain more and more share. Being average or even is good is no longer enough.

I would also venture to say that the people who are good and something _and_ are generalists (e.g. the scientists in the article) are better in both halves than someone who is just one of those.

If your life is entirely oriented around hoarding as much money & power as possible, then sure, what you said it's true. But the world is filled with billions of regular people finding meaning in an average, good-enough life. The world runs on the backs of ordinary, unexceptional people like you & me.

> If your life is entirely oriented around hoarding as much money & power

Why do people have to always denigrate wanting money and power? It's an intrinsic desire to want power and resources. If somebody finds happiness that way why disparage them?

Because it's the same way unfullfilling as a drug addiction. Sure you have miles instead of needles and dots on the suit instead on the veins, but in the end you miss the one thing that matters-passing a legacy, influencing other life's in a good direction, for a socially acceptable Trainspotting reenactment.

I am not sure I fully agree with you, but you put it beautifully. You have a real way with words.

Excessive desire for money and power alone is generally viewed as anti-social and possibly even pathological.

Of course, figuring out what is "excessive" may be contentious, especially if one also has other good intentions that come along for the ride and help balance things out (e.g. philanthropy, strong ethical boundaries).

If you look closely enough you would see that the attainment of wealth and power definitely does not bring happiness. In order to know this an individual needs to experience both ends of the spectrum and have the ability to clearly introspect and compare both experiences.

There's a big difference between wanting money & power, and "hoarding as much" as possible, as I said. It depends on your value system, but most people place a non-zero value on showing love to others & bettering the world, and a money-hoarder doesn't do that.

What makes it intrinsic you think?

> everything is a zero-sum game

This is a flagrant and dangerous misunderstanding of reality. The history books are filled to the brim with examples of developments that have brought net-positive benefits to humanity.

It’s correct in the long run and can be incorrect in the short run (and, indeed, is incorrect at this particular moment in history).

It's correct in the short run, incorrect in the long run, and correct in the ludicrously (I'm talking cosmological scales here) long run. For all practical purposes, the long-term is much less zero-sum than the short-term.

Human existence has only been non-zero sum globally for the last hundred years or so. Additionally, it’s been non-zero sum in the Americas for several hundred years before that, but only because all the natives were wiped out. The rest of human history has been a zero sum struggle for existence.

> Being average or even is good is no longer enough.

Enough for what, exactly? What are you trying to optimize? Your contribution to society? Status? Happiness? Fulfillment? I think for some of these, average may give you a better outcome than others depending on what you want. And I also think people tend to change their goal over their lifetime

I was just thinking about this. I have some elderly grandparents that spent their lives as elementary and high school teachers with a home farm. They lived modestly and have collected retirement pensions and farmland for many years. So they are actually very well off. They want for nothing financially. They have lived long, storied, beautiful lives.

Billions of dollars of wealth and power would make no difference to them. Because they already have more than they need. In fact, it would probably just bring unwanted attention and stress.

I'm sure at a younger age, more wealth and power would have been nice. Perhaps to take away the more stressful, tedious parts of work life, but something about going through those moments make the better moments that much sweeter.

Spending your life trying to accumulate wealth for the sake of wealth and power alone will do nothing but create stress and headache for yourself.

> In a world where everything is a zero-sum game

That is a big assumption and I believe a minority opinion.

more and more what though? I work with a lot of people that are intelligent and worked super hard their whole lives and are in the 0.1% but I really dont want to be like them. They are really boring.

Meanwhile the janitor in our building has some health problems but 15 grandchildren and always has a joke ready.

In a world where everything is a zero-sum game

That's not the world I live in.

Why do you believe that everything is a zero-sum game?

Exactly what author is trying to convince against. Today's world is 'easier to master in multiple discipline' world and future is even brighter with all new education technologies.

I want my kids to be ordinary, middle of the road, happy kids.

Not famous, not super incredible, not mega successful. Just normal urban kids.

If they're happy and find their own purpose in life that's all I could hope for.

As an ordinary, middle of the road, adult, I wish my parents pushed me harder. Sure, I can do it myself now, but after 20+ years of building habits, it's very hard to change track, and so far I've been unsuccessful.

Basically I have the desire to do "more", but lack the mental and emotional skillsets to be able to execute.

Interesting. I'm the same way in the first regard. 27 y/o for reference. I always wished my parents had pushed a bit harder, but now I live in Irvine (SoCal) where everyone here is busy trying to push their children to prodigy-dom. I get an intense window into this because my partner is a private piano teacher and I have to say, I'm quite thankful they never pushed me like _that_. There's definitely a middle road and as a parent of two, I can empathize with this being somewhat difficult to nail.

I spent a lot of time feeling like you, wanting more but not executing. That said, I have been pretty successful in the last two years, learning those things on my own. I learned/am learning how to be a very proficient dev, play classical guitar, snowboard, dive, and surf decently, and even now fly planes. I'm not the best but enough for some serious personal enjoyment. For me it was the catalyst of flipping my world upside down, moving far away and starting over. Drop me a line if you ever want, maybe I can offer some assistance.

I'm the same age, and I agree, I am NOT saying that I wanted to be a child prodigy, but I wish there was a bit more push than the Laissez-Faire I got.

I've thought about

> flipping my world upside down, moving far away and starting over

but I have too many good people in my life where I am to do this, even if it means sacrificing ambitions. Note that these are good people who inspire me to do better, but that inspiration fades when push actually comes to shove.

> I wish my parents pushed me harder.

Think twice about what you wish for. Parents pushing kids hard are not a panacea, and you might not have gotten as far in life if your parents were like that.

> Basically I have the desire to do "more", but lack the mental and emotional skillsets to be able to execute.

FWIW what usually holds people back isn't what their parents did or the education they received at school. Rather, it is the importance they put on their parents' eyes and on their peers' eyes. Just move on and do.

How old are you? In the same way that most teenagers enjoy playing video games more than doing work, most people in their 30s enjoy doing work more than playing video games. If you're only in your 20s or early 30s then at some point your brain may just flip on its own.

Is that because they stopped playing video games or because they were part of a generation where it just wasn't as common? My brain never did that flip (though I don't mind work so much). I kind of expect to see video games start appearing in nursing homes around the time I have to go to one.

As an anecdata, I played games heavily as a kid, until my early 20s. I didn't stop completely, and I wouldn't say I enjoy working more, but I prefer many other things before I reach for a controller/mouse+kb. I don't know if the brain flip is accurate as it makes it sound sudden, but for me I just developed more interests all of which fight for ever-shrinking time.

I'm the same way; from ages ~5-21 or so, I played video games almost-daily, but now I tend to keep myself entertained by programming something...not necessarily for my employer, but also not necessarily not for my employer.

I can't quite tell if it's because I like programming more, or if it's because as I get older, I have trouble justifying stuff that I know won't help with monetary or intellectual fulfillment.

I think this is accurate. As you get older it’s more obvious that video games are kind of an artificial happiness, similar to doing mushrooms or something. It’s not that they’re not fun per se, but it’s hard to actually feel good about spending lots of time doing something that’s not going to contribute to your long term wellbeing.

Almost everything we do is technically artificial happiness, it just matters how personally satisfied you are with what you do for entertainment.

I don't think it really has anything to do with recognizing something as being artificial happiness. It just has to do with change. There are speedrunners who code for a living, come home and compete for the fastest times on any number of games, spend their time attending things like AGDQ or contributing to the various micro communities within the scene.

I think people tend to fall into either passive or proactive mindsets for their hobbies. And it's a sort of spectrum over time influenced by the communities you belong to. If you're part of a community for your hobby, then you get more out of it due to community momentum. Sort of like the person who plays games to relax after work, versus the person participating in a speedrunning community for a specific game.

Fair, and kids have made it very difficult to play games. As have other hobbies, reading sometimes takes priority, etc. So maybe I'm similar. I still enjoy a good game every once in a while though and go through phases.

I would say that I don't get addicted like I used to when I was a teen. I've often attributed that to realizing it was a destructive behavior and learning from it though. If I had more time, I would probably play more though.

Among other things, today's technology is simply not good enough to enable learning to show what wonders one may (with time and effort) achieve.

I played a lot of games as a kid, more than my peers. I still enjoy games, but I don't get much time to play them anymore. I have kids now, that takes a lot of time. As I've got older I've found other fun things that take my limited time too. It all adds up to my Xbox360 (remember those? It was last system I bought years ago) is sitting in a box in hopes that someday I can finish the games I started but never mastered.

There are already video game systems in nursing homes. They don't have much 3d shooters, but wii bowling is popular (or it was 2 years ago, since my grandma died I haven't had reason to visit).

I do enjoy my job, but I'd get burnt out doing it much more than I do.

I used to play games a lot as a teenager. Then I got more into creating rather than consuming, and now, I just have no desire to play any type of computer game at all.

I even try to play games occasionally because the idea is still somewhere in my brain that it would be fun and relaxing. I even usually overbuild my workstations to handle AAA games thinking I might just play one this year.

But they just don't hold my interest anymore. I don't really know why. That endorphin hit when playing just doesn't happen like it used to.

There's a good discussion of research on this topic here [0]. My personal anecdata was: there was flip and it came when I didn't spend enough time playing to be competitive at multiplayer games.

[0] https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2019/01/tales-of-an-aging-gam...

I'm 27 and so far, the older I've gotten the less desire I have to do work that needs to be done.

Mental and emotional skill sets can be improved.

What do you want to accomplish that you aren't accomplishing? What seems to be the holdup?

I'm sure plenty of people here can point you in the right direction to dramatically up your game in relatively short order (possibly including me).

> What seems to be the holdup?

Primary issue is my lack of self-discipline to be able to override desires for short-term pleasures.

Read Deep Work by Cal Newport. I’ve had problems my entire life up until the past year with self-discipline and bad habits. This book, among other factors, flipped a switch for me.

Other key factors were finding things in life that are worth the short term sacrifice for long term fulfillment. Surround yourself with ambitious folks. I’ve been the degenerate binge- watching Netflix till 5am, skipping college classes etc. And still have days almost that bad, but full-time employment changes people. Build good habits, adopt a growth mindset and we all can do it. Oh and sleep is extremely important. If I get less than 7 hours, I don’t have enough mental stamina and end up succumbing to all the short term desires.

"Lack of self discipline" is very often code for one of two things:

1. Unidentified problems, such as minor health issues.

2. A signifier of being Twice Exceptional, which I highly recommend you read up on because average performance that the individual finds frustrating while longing to do greater things is a standard hallmark of being 2e.

Some resources:



I raised and homeschooled two Twice Exceptional sons. One was a B student. The other made straight As. The B student has both a higher IQ and a lot more handicaps/other issues.

I briefly did pro bono work for The TAG Project: http://www.tagfam.org/

Thanks for the reply

> 1. Unidentified problems, such as minor health issues.

What kind of minor health issues? Physical or mental?

> 2. 2e

I really don't think I fit in this area, just one example being because it's not

> average performance

that's my problem, because when I do something when I put in any amount of "effort", I nail it. The only time my performance is average, is when I don't do any work and just throw something together last second because I spent all my time playing video games.

The problem, of course, is that I find the majority of things I do fall into that latter camp where I can't muster the drive to put in effort.

Any number of things can trip one up if they haven't been identified, so aren't being proactively managed. It could be as simple as "I have allergies and I don't know it, so I can't connect the dots that when I do X, I am exposed to something I am mildly allergic to and then I accomplish a whole fat lot of nothing."

The problem, of course, is that I find the majority of things I do fall into that latter camp where I can't muster the drive to put in effort.

Please just start reading the resources I pointed you to.

There's also this, which I am the author of, though there isn't much there currently: https://raisingfutureadults.blogspot.com/

Parents don't push kids. Kids push themselves. I was an EE/CS professor at a top 20 school. The only push was the example my parents set, as far back as 2nd grade. They never asked me to do my homework, work harder in school, or get better grades.

> Parents don't push kids.

Yes, they (often) do. With positive or negative effects depending on the approach and how well it is adapted to the kid.

> Kids push themselves.

Yes, they often do. The two are not mutually exclusive.

> I was an EE/CS professor at a top 20 school. The only push was the example my parents set, as far back as 2nd grade.

Yes, parental modelling is a powerful mechanism for influencing childhood behavior and, while it's not the only tool in the kit, by itself a powerful rebuttal to your first claim.

We just had a discussion with our kids yesterday about this, when I explained that the pat answer I tend to give them when they ask "can I..." before they've earned it, of "anything is possible if you try hard enough and believe in yourself" is actually flat wrong.

Not everyone is good at everything, or even can become good at anything. Not everyone is built for every type of job or career or vocation. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and we must all accept both of these aspects of ourselves.

I told them that I had decided some 15 years ago that I am intelligent and capable enough to go to Harvard, so therefore I should go, and that within hours of making that decision, I realized that it was the stupidest idea that had no basis in reality, so I never even applied.

The point I was trying to teach them was that what a person will become in 5 or 10 years is opaque to them now, and that time will reveal it, so that instead they should just focus on living now correctly, practicing discerning what they should and should not do, and focus entirely on that.

They might be a CEO or POTUS, or they might be a janitor of a broken down gas station. Every role is needed in life and someone is meant to fulfill every role. Greatness doesn't lie in what career you have, what college degree you have, how much you make, how many people know you, how many books you've written, how young you learned this or that skill.

EDIT: To clarify, I'm not saying that one should settle for a vocation that wastes their natural abilities. If I were to try providing for my family by being a janitor, I would be wasting the software talents that I cultivated into skills.

Not to come off as offering parenting advice, but how old are your kids? Not everyone can become Bill Gates or Usain Bolt, but for healthy individuals above a certain level of intelligence, passion and grit determine success more so than inherent characteristics. I wanted to be a lot of things growing up, and only through pursuing those dreams did I understand that I wasn't cut out for them, or didn't find them super interesting.

I wonder passion and grit aren't also inherent characteristics. Or, at the least, wondering if a ceiling on these traits is inherent.

The ceiling on those traits could be modulated by random factors, and if so, you might never be able to tell.

And if they're rich enough to be able to retire young while buying everything they want, even better.

Why do you want them to be urban in particular?

Why did this simple, unassuming question get downvoted I wonder? Interesting to see that there is a negative connotation associated with questioning an urban life.

They are urban kids. The parent wants them to be normal.

He was not expressing a judgement about kids who are not urban. The question about an urban bias seems hyper defensive and inappropriate in response to a very personal wish.

It's just an expression of the ordinary.

What I mean is - it's up to them what they want to be.

I don't see fame or being incredible as valuable things to pursue.

Solid human relationships, kindness, satisfaction in work - these are the things that matter.

Doesn't mean that pursuing financial success isn't valuable and worthwhile - as long as that's what you want.

> Solid human relationships, kindness, satisfaction in work - these are the things that matter.

You can get all these things in rural communities as well.

Yeah, but what do they want to be?

I sense a prejudice towards the bucolic.

> Athletes who go on to become elite usually have a “sampling period.” They try a variety of sports, gain a breadth of general skills, learn about their own abilities and proclivities, and delay specializing until later than their peers who plateau at lower levels.

There's so much for kids to experience as they grow up, it's a shame when a child is made to specialize in a single endeavor before they've had a chance to try other activities.

A kid who goes deep on a particular skill learns a great lesson of her own powers of discipline and mastery. That lesson applies to whatever other skills she pursues in life, earning herself a high opinion of her own agency that colors most important life choices.

I think the ideal is for someone to have a very deep knowledge of two different fields, or areas of interest, while also having broad general knowledge. This gives people an idea both of how deep human knowledge runs, and how wide. With only one area of interest, some people might come away with the idea that one area is somehow unique and different. With two, there's more reason to conclude that other areas are just as deep.

You can also try to counter your bias by always remembering the adage:

"Specialists will tend to underestimate how well a Generalist can specialize, when they choose to specialize. Generalists will tend to underestimate how deep any given specialty goes."

I'll have to remember that one. In a way, I'm advocating for everyone to be at least two kinds of specialist and generalist at the same time.

Sure. But then we won't have mozart or lebron james or turing or messi or most of the olympic athletes, etc.

It's a question of breadth vs depth. Specialization vs generalization.

I suppose most kids should be given a generalized "education". But if a kid is precocious or talented, then specialization makes sense.

Whatever happens, everyone lives with the "what if" or questions about the road not taken.

Call me crazy, but as a society, what do we lose if our best athletes are less good than the ones we have now? This argument maybe makes sense in STEM fields but to me at least it falls flat on its face if the loss is some number of seconds off the fastest mile ran, or cm's off the highest vertical leap.

It depends on whether you think non-STEM endeavors like athletic performance or art enriches society.

Does michael jordan dunking from the free throw line enrich society? Does mozart's music enrich society?

Did Bolt or Phelps breaking records at the olympics affect society or humanity? I'd say yes. Beyond the inspirational and the aspirational, it also pushed humans limits further.

Does art ( physical, musical, literary, etc ) matter? I'd say it matters, maybe even more than "STEM". But that's an open-ended philosophical discussion.

Athletic endeavors also help advance science as well. There is a science of athletics/athleticism. Striving for athletic excellence could drive genetic, biological and technological advancement and vice versa.

I think you missed the nuance of my point. I wasn't saying we should get rid of sports or athleticism or creative en devours that result in entertainment value or inspire emotion. I was saying that the accomplishments in those fields are relative. If Michael Jordan had instead dunked from a foot closer, but that was still better than had been previously seen, would the world have derived less enjoyment? If Phelps or Bolt had broken slightly less impressive records than they had broken would that really matter at all? I'd argue that since the history of humanity has been breaking those records and moving the line forwards again and again and the people where entertained long before the folks you mentioned were born, the answer is pretty obviously "not really". But a medical breakthrough that impacts millions of lives, not abstractly but in measurable improvements to health and longevity? It's a whole different kind of thing. Reducing the cost of clean energy and pushing back the grasp of climate change? Stuff like that vs an impressive slam dunk and I just don't see why it's vitally important to ever force-feed a child a sport in the hopes that they'll break that kind of record.

That goes counter to what this article is saying with the whole "Roger Dad" approach. He gives many examples where people took the general approach to start, specialized late and rose to the top.

Right. And I'm giving examples of prodigies who made it. My point is that "one size fits all" doesn't work.

I'm sure for every Tiger Woods or Serena Williams, there are late bloomers or generalists who thrived. For every example, there is a counterexample.

The blanket statement "You don't want a child prodigy" is simply false. Sometimes you want child prodigies if you can provide a great environment for them to thrive in.

I don't think Tiger Wood or Serena Williams would be where they are if they "generalized" and then decided to specialize later in life. Certain endeavors benefit from early commitment. Not always of course. Hakeem Olajuwon was a great NBA center who started playing basketball in his late teens. But then again, his size and pure athleticism allowed him to overcome late specialization. I don't think it would have worked had be been a point guard.

There's a huge amount of survivor bias in these arguments...

Lebron played football as well. Most olympic athletes likely played other sports before picking up the sport they're competing in. No one grows up specializing in javelin, discus, shotput, rowing, decathlon etc, etc. There's also all the multi-sport athletes that were phenomenal - Jordan, Gretzky, Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, Jackie Robinson all come to mind.

Lebron played football because he's 6'8" 250lbs and a supreme athlete. Being a top notch athlete causes one to play more sports, not the other way around.

Connor McDavid is a top notch athlete who didn't play other sports. Has said he'd be horrible at them.

I know lebron played football. I'm sure he played some baseball and soccer too.

Everyone you listed specialized in a particular sport. Specializing in a particular sport doesn't mean that's all you do. You can specialize in hockey but also play baseball or basketball for fun, etc. And if you are exceptionally gifted, nothing prevents you from "specializing" in two sports. But the point is that you "specialize".

I wouldn't call Jordan, Gretzky, Sanders or Robinson "phenomenal" "multi-sport" athletes. Jordan wasn't a phenomenal baseball player. Neither was Deion Sanders. I've never heard of gretzky being "phenomenal" outside of hockey. I only know of Robinson from baseball. And Bo Jackson specialized in two sports and he was phenomenal in both.

Once again, you can specialize in a sport and play other sports.

It's not specializing when you play a bunch of things, that's the opposite of specializing.

Also: During the 1992 season, his best year in the majors, Sanders hit .304 for the team, stole 26 bases, and led the NL with 14 triples in 97 games. During the 1989 season, he hit a major league home run and scored a touchdown in the NFL in the same week, becoming the only player ever to do so. Sanders is also the only man to play in both a Super Bowl and a World Series. In four games of the 1992 World Series, Sanders batted .533 with 4 runs, 8 hits, 2 doubles, and 1 RBI while playing with a broken bone in his foot.

Bo Jackson competed as a sprinter, hurdler, jumper, thrower and decathlete in College.

You can specialize and play a bunch of things. Pretty much everyone does it. You can be a chess prodigy and still play checkers, monopoly, video games, etc. Using your logic, nobody specializes because they all do other things.

As for Sanders, I'm well aware of his football and baseball careers because I was a kid who grew up watching him in the 90s. 1 "decent" season doesn't make a "phenom". Okay? In 1992, sanders didn't make the all-star team, he didn't get over 100 hits, he played less than 100 games. Sanders career batting average is the .260s. He was nothing special in baseball. Unless your definition of "phenomenal" is different than mine. Deion Sanders was phenomenal in football. He is arguably the greater cornerback in NFL history and a hall of famer. If deion sanders was a phenomenal center fielder, then what is ken griffey, kirby puckett, etc?

As for bo jackson, how about he specialized in track&field, baseball and football. You can argue all you want, bo jackson specialized. He didn't go into curling, badminton, tennis, hockey, etc. He didn't "generalize". He was a rare phenomenal athlete who could specialize in multiple sports.

If you disagree then your definition of phenomenal and specializing is different and we are simply never going to agree and I'll just leave it at that.

Not necessarily. My niece is an excellent gymnast and loves it, and it's the only sport she's ever done. I imagine when you're one of the best at your activity you tend to enjoy it more.

Don't have to be the absolute best. Just have to be good enough to impress yourself. (Provided one has a good perspective on what good really is.)

Probability dictates that there are people who find their passion with limited guesswork, and hopefully your niece is one of them. If a major part of enjoyment of a sport is how good you are relative to your peers, however, that is unlikely to last. AFAIK gymnastics has a very short timeframe for most women to be competitive as well, exacerbating that fact.

Only recognizing your own talents is more than random probability, and can be achieved at an early age for the truly talented. It's not hard to imagine that those who are legitimately talented be it in art, athletics, or academia, take pleasure in their activities not only for the competition, but in witnessing and experiencing the progression of their skill.

hence the Game Boy’s thoroughly dated tech specs.

What they left out: It made it extremely stable and reliable and had features that mattered to the players that bleeding edge tech couldn't compete with.

Seems like you posted this under the wrong article.

No, I didn't. It's a quote from this article.

I have two very smart sons who are very into games. They talk a lot about the gaming industry. I learned from them that the Game Boy was brilliant because it was "older" tech where the bugs had been worked out, the abilities were well known and so forth.

Proven tech was chosen to meet certain specs. There was a depth of wisdom there that more "ooh, shiny" tech lacked.

I'm sure my remark could have been framed better, but I intentionally chose to leave out personal anecdotes that I started to write -- about me turning down a National Merit Scholarship and my son getting accepted to college at age 13 and then not attending -- because I am given so very much ridiculous shit when I talk about such things, even though I appear to be the only woman to have ever spent time on the leader board of HN, so you would think folks here wouldn't blink at me self identifying as having attended gifted programs, having a proven track record of academic excellence and yadda.

I chose to leave that remark because HN is a tech oriented crowd and I thought it would resonate with some folks here and/or be a bit of cool trivia some people would appreciate learning that has potential relevance to their interests.

Former chess prodigy here. I earned NM title at age 10, had my 15m of fame and briefly flirted with the idea of training to be one of the greats, then realized by around age 12 or so that the future wasn’t so great for chess pros. Went to college, did a bunch of startups, still love chess but never regretted my decision.

I wholeheartedly agree with this article’s emphasis on developing generalist skills. I do think it’s also really valuable to have the experience of mastering one subject. Gaining mastery forces you to learn discipline and push through psychological blocks, both of which translate to any other domain you wish to pursue.

But mastery != prodigy. There are very real downsides to the pressure to develop extreme talent at a young age. It can cause a kid to value achievement over everything else, create false sense of self that ignores real feelings, etc. Eventually this leads directly to the “troubled genius” archetype. We have enough of those already.

Tl;dr: no on prodigy, yes on focus/mastery if the passion is there.

Has much of your experiences as a child transferred to your life as an adult? 10 is super young to be a prodigy, how much such awareness and actualization did you have then of your skill/talent? Did you willingly or knowingly apply your chess skills to life from that point forward?

Hope these questions make sense?

It’s been a double-edged sword.

Main benefits:

1. confidence knowing that I was really good at something, even if it is one of the most otherwise useless skills in the world. Whenever I’m down because I feel like I suck at something, I have a data point to remind me that at one point I had some competence.

2. Unexpected, but was really valuable when I raised money for my first startup: VCs like people who can beat them at chess. I think it’s because pitch meetings for them are basically like an endless series of dick size contests. I played the chess prodigy card hard, and it worked. YMMV


1. Typical geek social isolation, multiplied by 10x because chess is way more useless than coding, robots, etc.

2. All the usual narcissism/invincibility/insecurity that comes from having people tell you that you’re special when you’re young. Same mindfuck happens when you have all these twenty something tech millionaires. Super unhealthy mindset and required a lot of failure + soul searching + therapy to emerge reasonably intact.

This resonates with me quite a lot. I played World of Warcraft very obsessively in high school and got extremely good at the game. I remember a quote from a Nat Geo documentary on professional StarCraft players from South Korea: "I'm number 1 in one field because I'm trying my best, and I know if I put all of my effort into another field, I will also excel. So I'm not depressed or frustrated, I would rather be confident". For me, my prior experience has given me a deep-seated confidence that I can become great at anything I put my mind to (barring any genetic prerequisites)!

That is interesting. Did any of the 'chess specific' skills transfer? I know very little about how to play chess well so forgive the naivety of this question , but it seems very math-y, formulaic or a lot of pattern recognition (poor choice of words). Im curious because 10 is just so young, I wonder how much of being a 10 year old sticks with anyone, but have a applicable skill where it's apparent it's a special skill/talent might stick more long term.

Chess is mainly about visual pattern recognition + concentration. Noticing details.

For example, a detail in this conversation. You keep bringing up how 10 is "just so young". It's almost like you're more interested in the youth aspect than the other stuff. From my perspective the detail about age is the least interesting part of the experience. But maybe you are trying to get at or share something of your own that I am not understanding.

Different from the parent but also, how is the required skills for a chess master at 10 different for a chess master at say, 30? I feel like for the more experienced, it shifts more towards memory-based pattern recognition than logic-based pattern recognition as you are recreating historical game states/strategies. I also know nothing of chess at any real level, so I could be dead wrong.

No offense, but you don't need any chess understanding to realize from my previous comment that I have zero interest in further discussion about the whole "being 10" thing.

Fair enough.

Sorry to cut you off if you were being sincere. I specifically pushed back on the being 10 thing from the other comment after it rubbed me the wrong way, and then you pursued basically the same line of questioning without acknowledging anything I wrote. I interpreted that as being trolled and reacted accordingly. If I misjudged your intent I apologize.

Don't worry about it! The internet is like the wild west, trust nobody. To be fair, it is a thread on being a child prodigy, so I see why that individual was so adamant about being 10 :3

Yeah, I still think the focus on 10 thing is odd as I explain in the sibling comment. What would be nice to hear from you is some acknowledgement that you understand you pushed a button after I attempted to communicate that this particular button made me uncomfortable. Not ascribing ill intent or asking for an apology, but I'm always looking for allies in my attempt to increase emotional intelligence amongst all these geniuses on HN.

Sorry man, didnt mean to make it weird for you like that. I definitely did not mean for it to be taken that way.

So, part of what set me off was the emphasis on "10 being so young", because it is simply inaccurate. 10 really isn't that young for chess prodigies. Indian GM Praggnanandhaa was an International Master at 10. Google "chess prodigy" and the first line of videos includes one about a 3-year-old prodigy vs Karpov.

In hindsight I could have just called BS on your comment. But when the content of the BS happens to exactly intersect with painful memories from the past (which I specifically alluded to in earlier comment about social isolation, insecurity, etc), and when you don't reply when I ask you to share more about your intentions or background — that's a red flag for my finely tuned troll detector.

Pro tip: if you want to ask deeply personal questions without looking like a troll, all you need to do is give context by sharing a bit with vulnerability from your own experience.

After reading your replies and comments I get it. But I was posting to an HN thread where the subject line was "You don’t want a child prodigy" and your post was also an original post (i.e. not a reply to another comment). So like I mentioned previously I absolutely did not intend for my comment to be taken that way. I also dont see a lot of troll comments on HN but it is the internet and the bar is set at Twitter comments, Youtube comments, Reddit comments and then HN comments so I get it, but I didn't mean it that way, and also don't need a Pro-tip because its just a internet discussion/comment that you started. I apologize for rubbing you the wrong way and we can leave it at a gross miscommunication.


c5, clearly

In Vietnam, they say you're blessed if your child is more capable than you. Everyone says it but it takes a long time to sink in. My dad told me that. I used to think it's kinda silly. Why have low expectation? Now I understand how hard it is.


> He worries about death but has said more than a few times he wanted to die or kill himself.

As a 2 sigma gifted kid (I guess), I had some of this same tendency, starting around the same age as your son and becoming all but unbearable my freshman year of college. It took me another 15 years or so to develop the emotional intelligence to cope more effectively with the trauma of existence.

The one thing I wish I had discovered earlier, was Buddhism. Not as a religion, but as a mental practice, and an existential framework. Some of the most profound insights I've gotten about existence have come from Buddhist writing and teachers, and with all due respect for other religions, these insights seem uniquely Buddhist. Other religions do touch on the same topics, but either more obliquely or at a more esoteric/advanced level, whereas they are foundational to Buddhism and often stated in a very plain and concise manner.

For instance, that inner pain your son feels, that makes him want to die? That's the unavoidable discomfort of existence, which is literally the "First Noble Truth" of Buddhism. And if we look deeply enough, we can see that we simultaneously crave both existence and non-existence: we want to live forever but often can't bear the immediate experience we find ourselves in. We torture ourselves with contrary ideals that can't possibly coexist, and it's not like we even have any choice in the matter anyway! Gifted children are not unique in this regard; only their precociousness and sensitivity to it.

I could go on, but my specific and personal lessons aren't all that relevant. Aside from the existential framework, the main thing I hope you do for your son, is to give him the gift of "___". Normally Buddhist advocates would say "meditation" in that slot, but I prefer to put it like that, because while I would personally recommend the practice of meditation, that's not the only method of getting this value. Alternative words are prayer, silence, breath, sitting, peace, stillness, non-judgmental self-reflection--these are all part and parcel of the same core skill. Which is the cultivated ability to receive the experiences of life, as wonderful or as terrible as they are, with equanimity, knowing that the experience is the point and this too shall pass. All other aspects of emotional intelligence stem from the metaskill of being able to "sit" with the profound and inescapable discomfort of one's existence.

Best of luck to you and your son. I don't envy either you or him, but ultimately it just is what it is and we all end up in the same place anyway. Hopefully this helps make the journey a bit easier.

Thank you for this. We hope to help with focus on mindfulness and meditation and what you describe sounds like what he needs. He needs to find peace internally but he's too young right now.

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