Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Prodigies become performers when work is play

The New York Times ran a “Room for Debate” package about child prodigies this week. The question: is it a blessing or a curse? I enjoyed reading Jordan Ellenberg’s take on this. A math prodigy as a kid, he became a mathematician as an adult, a transition that isn’t always easy.

Why is that? “A large body of research shows that when you’re great at something as a kid, you’re likely to be, at least, pretty good at it as an adult. But if the potential becomes a duty, the fun drains out of the enterprise,” he writes. “In my experience, you simply can’t grow from a precocious child into a grown-up researcher unless you can maintain your sense that math is play. When you forget how to play, you're lost. Math is just too hard to be done non-playfully. You'd get tired and resentful, and grow cold to its joys.”

Motivations matter. If someone is performing at a prodigious level because of external forces -- demanding parents and teachers, the desire to improve one’s economic status -- one can achieve a lot. These are legitimate reasons. But they are harder to sustain in the long haul. You might make decent money. You might change teachers and coaches.

But if you find the substance of the work fascinating in its own right, that’s a different matter. You keep experimenting. And that means you can break new ground beyond mastering what’s been done before.


nicoleandmaggie said...

Teaching my son to play with math is something we're focusing on right now. It helps that he really enjoyed Dragon-Box so I can relate hard (fun to me!) math problems to that kind of playing, except on paper instead of the computer.

The Escapist said...

"But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes."
-Robert Frost

(This gets tricky for those of us who have a lot of avocations.)