Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Too old to be a child prodigy

If I was jealous of anyone when I was at school, it wasn't the 'cool' kids who were popular and good at sports. They were the ones who were intermittently mean to me for not being like them, but even at that age, I didn't want to be. No, if I could have been someone else (and trust me, with hindsight, I'm glad I wasn't) it would have been one of the children doing maths degrees at age seven, whose stories occasionally cropped up in the papers.

I think it was mostly because they had the luxury of being in a university environment, where everyone wanted to study, rather than at school where it was weird to be one of the few who enjoyed learning stuff. But also, it's partially because my self-definition revolves around being someone who's quick to pick things up, and these stories seemed to describe children who were just a little bit better at being the sort of person I thought I was (but see below).

When I was at the NAACL conference in Colorado the other week, I was listening to one U.S. academic describing a great student he had in one of his classes, who was in his sophomore year (translation? I think it might be 2nd year...) but doing publishable research.

And then it hit me: I'm now officially too old to be precocious.

I've been wondering for a while what it 'means' to be a grown-up, except for the fact that I now enjoy a nice cup of tea or the occasional glass of wine. I don't really feel any different (and that's probably fodder for another post). Yet here is one big difference: I've reached an age and stage of my life where, by default, I'll be assumed to be capable. And for any given activity, there will be someone my age who's been doing it much longer than I have, and therefore done it better.

Being "good for a beginner" is cute when you're a child - you're a beginner at everything at that age. But maybe not such a good look for an adult.

I do see with hindsight that those kids doing maths degrees were actually in the opposite of my natural state; very, very specialised, while I'll never be a great specialist. I thrive on doing a breadth of different things (you may have noticed!), and even though I'm having, in theory, to narrow down my interests for my PhD I haven't really changed. My strongest strength is still in adapting quickly to new stuff and being "surprisingly good for someone who just started" rather than ever getting to the stage of "really good on a world stage". Plus, I get bored very easily!

This is a bit rambly, I know, but I'd appreciate any thoughts. There must be scope in the world for being a breadth-first person... but it certainly doesn't seem to fit with the academic model where you're expected to specialise more as you go on.


J9 said...

I agree, unless you are working on liberal arts, or a broad field of study that brings in other specialists, I think there is a push to specialize as you go.

Some Day I Will Get It Right said...

Hi Rachel,

a bring a great point to the breadth vs depth learning. :) What a refreshing and a motivating piece to some as we say in Philly -ol' head - like me.

Also, on to the list of talents, I think you should add a powerful ability to research (I know, because I stumbled onto your blog from some MapReduce or distributed computing blog)...

have a great day

Strawberry Girl said...

WOW, I can relate to a lot of your post. It's almost like you put into words some of my own feelings. I think that being too old to be cute as a beginner is definantly a draw back to being an adult (and I don't really feel any differently either). I keep having this feeling that I would like to put everything on pause (family obligations and such) so that I can get better at what I want to do (and figure out what I want to do) before I am put back into the thick of things. As per your personality, I am like that as well. There is a lady named "Barbra Sher" (I believe that's right) that calls people with this personality type "scanners." She has a book out (a lot of books actually) called "I could do anything if I only knew what it was" (or something like that... I'm being a bit scatterbrained today).


jenny2write said...

I reckon the only way around this, is to continue picking different things up quickly. Then you can continue till age 97 saying "well, I have only been doing this for 3 weeks/ 3 months, but..."

which is a cue for your listeners to say, "Wow, but you're brilliant for a beginner!"

I am not sure academia is the ideal career for fulfilling this particular need, actually. Perhaps you should consider casting yourself adrift in order to establish a career as a commentator or journalist? If anyone needs that skill, they do. Although speaking as a sometime professional journalist, I can tell you that you also need a thick skin because if you make even a tiny mistake on someone's pet subject that they've been researching for 25 years, you'll get abused as a "typical journalist" for not understanding it all perfectly and being able to condense it into 1000 words....

Anyway, don't forget what they say in Saga magazine: you are only as old as you feel.

jenny2write said...

Hey, Rachel this is strange. I added a comment to this yesterday - quite a long one. I think. Or did I add it to another post? must take a look.

Darn! all that considered prose for nothing....

Johanna said...

I too am too old to be precocious - it does creep up on you - like when you find yourself out of the 'youth' age bracket! I like your musings and I think the eclectic nature of this blog shows how you have lots of interests which I think is one of the great things about ageing.

I studied history and people sometimes thought I should know everything in history but I would say I don't know everything but I know how to find it out. I think this also is how I feel about getting older. I am more resourceful than I used to be - probably because I feel it is less ok to depend on others as I did when younger!

By the way, I have tagged you for a meme for Refugee Week if you would like to participate (no worried if you don't) - it is at

Lilly said...

Perhaps in your career specialisation is required but I agree with others here just keep filling up your life with your other creative pursuits and always be learning something new. I dont think any of us can claim to be experts no matter how old we get. I would rather be mediocre at many, many things then a specialist in one. Seriously. balance is what its about for me.

Anonymous said...

Interesting point! Unfortunately, the whole idea of higher degrees and academedia is that you specialize and become more and more knowledgeable about less and less.

However, outside the academic ivory towers there is definitely a place for a woman with a wide range of knowledge.

Sarah Lee said...

I have nothing poignant to say, only that everything you wrote resonated strongly with me. I watched my nearly six year old get up and sing in front of her whole school on Friday. She wasn't a master singer, but she was full of inner confidence and a strong desire to 'have a go'. Her performance was met with a resounding cheer.

I considered for a moment that I too enjoyed performing on stage in my youth. But, as an adult, to do so one needs to be - or is expected to be - of a certain standard.

Specializing is fine for some and not for others. I think in the old cave man days there would have been specialists of herb lore etc. as well as those that could react quickly to rapidly changing environments and circumstances. Those that could jump in, feet first, into a new situation and adapt quickly would have succeeded (lived!).

Thanks for the thought provoking post. I for one am a 'feet first' kind of girl. Not particularly remarkable at anyone thing, but willing to give anything a go!

Strange Mamma said...

I know this comment comes a bit late, but I'm catching up on some of my reading from my time in Chicago.

I also must say I relate a lot to how you felt growing up and some of the realizations/adjustments of now being 'an adult'. I've been one for a bit longer than you and I still have to remind myself that people are not seeing a 16 year old when they look at me. Baffling at times but true.

As far as specializing, ugh. My mom always thought I should be an actress because then I would at least get the chance to be all of those professions that I wanted to be for a few months. For now though I'm off to the next thing, getting certified to teach English as a second language.

I think one of the most frustrating things to me sometimes is that people don't believe you can do something unless you've got the degree or schooling behind you to prove it. Some things, yes, I'm fairly certain that no on should let me operate on them anytime soon. But other things? I don't really want to give an example because I don't want to knock anyone who has gone through all the schooling for something.

But now I'm rambling. Hope you're enjoying your island hopping. Can't wait to see the photos.

Anonymous said...

Firstly, sorry to comment on a relatively old post rather than any of your newer ones - if this were a forum, I'd be chided for necro-ing! It's just that this one in particular caught my eye as I wandered your blog. And then it got lost amongst my tabs. Also I am rather shy.

It's ironic in regard to academia if one aim to go into teaching/research: when one attempts to find any teaching posts, one may find that specialisation is a double-edged sword: it can make you stand out but it can also make you utterly useless, and no department wants you. Most academics seem to have a pet problem they love and tangential research interests which inform that. But I speak from a humanities perspective (and I could never hope to be in academia).

This may be encouraged by our education system. I've been exposed to a lot of U.S. culture over a decade of being on the internet, and I understand that although Statesiders are still expected to specialise, they still have to cover many disparate fields. Indeed, earlier this year I read that many university-age Brits are choosing to go overseas to U.S. colleges due to the sheer breadth and flexibility of degree programs there. But this isn't always a good thing for everyone - I've an American linguist friend who was trepidatious about having to do chemistry lab to fulfil course requirements.

I think there should be a place for breadth-first learners in academia and careers-in-general, as well as in overall public consciousness. For what do we sometimes call people who are good at lots of things without what we perceive as "real" depth and dedication? Jack-of-all-trades. Dilettantes. That's what I call myself, actually, as part of my self-definition: I acknowledge that I dabble in lots of things but am not good at any of them. There’s the polymath at the other end of the scale, where you join the likes of Leonardo da Vinci. But where is the catchy phrase for the middle ground, free of any connotations of intellectual worth or dedication, and simply a neutral descriptor for one's breadth-learning?

While I wouldn't say I was a child prodigy, from a very early age I had a reputation for being good at visual art, then a little while later - at 9 or 10 - writing. This provided important self-definition during my mostly difficult time at school, when other children felt my tendency to always do my homework and not respond to their teasing was objectionable. However, growing up with the idea that I had natural "talent" has, in my topsy-turvy mind, damaged my self-esteem and potential progress. I hold myself to high standards so nothing can ever measure up, they are hobbies as opposed to refined skills. It's a problem because I actually enjoy doing lots of things--and there’s nothing quite like the thrill of getting something right. It's also a problem because I am keenly conscious of being 22: I should be realising what I am good at but I am still floundering. What if I get it wrong? etc. We live in a culture where your job = who you are. It is seen as the sum of your education, skills, and potential. That probably adds to the expectations about specialisation, doesn't it? (Is this one of the ideas informing the political system of your novels, by the bye?)

I used to be very harsh on other people for what I felt was dilettantism; now I realise that I was merely projecting with typical adolescent self-loathing, and anyway, people just equip themselves with skills in different ways. There's nothing wrong with learning this and that. There's a difference between doing something for one's personal enjoyment and doing something in order to be good at it as judged by a wider audience. There will certainly be some overlap for people, but pressure shouldn't be placed on people to always be excellent from the first go, or even to always uncritically aspire to excellence.

Sorry for my essay! I'd be interested to hear if you've developed further thoughts on anything in your post as the years have gone by.

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