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Sorta Random Sunday: The Illusion of the Prodigy

Stories of prodigies are all over the place. The music prodigy. The sports prodigy. The mathematics prodigy. And on and on. It’s not hard to see why they are so ubiquitous, interesting, and popular. The idea that someone can just be born with some innate skill without exerting much effort. And that this skill may be hidden for some time until it is uncovered as a result of some extraneous circumstance. It’s the stuff of movies. The problem, at least in real life, is that the story of the prodigy is really an illusion.

But that’s not such a bad thing.

Because the prodigy story actually usually short changes the prodigy. Simultaneously, it seems to limit what the rest of us “average” humans can accomplish.

But the illusion of the prodigy frees us from both of these limiting beliefs!

The illusion of the prodigy

I came across this idea while recently reading a book called, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.

It’s a really interesting book although I have to admit that some parts get a bit more dry than necessary. You can tell that it’s written by someone more used to writing scientific papers. But still, overall it’s still very good.

illusion prodigy

Anyway, Dr. Ericsson is basically an expert at how people become experts. And his years of research and study have led him to the conclusion that experts become experts not so much due to innate talent but due to hard work and focus. The actual practice that this focus and hard work manifests is something he terms, deliberate practice.

I won’t get into the details of deliberate practice here. But if you want to learn, this book is the place to go.

But one big revelation that comes from this book and the research it shares is the illusion of the prodigy.

A quick example

Niccolo Paganini is one of the greatest violinist of all time. And there is a story about him which purports to exemplify his prodigy status. Apparently, he was playing a concert when one of his violin strings broke. I’m not a big music guy and play no instruments, but apparently this would really throw off most violinists.

But in this case, Paganini kept playing beautifully. But then..a second string snapped. He kept turning out beautiful music. And then a third string snapped. Now he was down to one string and playing better than most experts! If this was not a show of some natural (or unnatural) talent, than what was?!

However, this really was an illusion created by the prodigy

It turns out that Paganini actually wrote a piece that was designed to be a “conversation between lovers.” This piece was meant to be played on just two strings (one a deeper pitch to be the man in the conversation and one a softer pitch for the woman). He spent years perfecting the skills needed to accomplish this without sounding like a cat stuck in mud. And, being a showman, he would play this piece in concerts by accidentally (wink, wink) breaking the unneeded strings when playing other pieces.

This was not a case of a prodigy showing innate skills that they were born with. This was a case of someone who spent years of deliberate practice perfecting these techniques, only to be labelled a prodigy by those who saw the final result without the painstaking preparation.

This is just one example but others abound. And ultimately Dr. Ericsson, the guy who spent his whole life on this, has never identified a “prodigy” who couldn’t be explained by hard work and focus in whatever skill made than a prodigy.

What it all means

This is all very encouraging!

Rather than limits placed by nature, we all have the ability to become experts. The caveat is obviously that starting as young as possible helps the most. But even adults have been shown capable of achieving expert status, learning perfect pitch and other skills associated with prodigies later in life.

The keys is on our hands, or better put in our brains, in the form of deliberate practice!

A financial corollary

In fact, I believe that this can be extended to personal finance! It is never too late to start. You have the ability to become financially well and free, an expert in money, at any point. The key is to practice and build the right skills and habits.

Here are some resources to help you on that journey!

What do you think? Are prodigies real? Or are they an illusion, the result of deliberate practice that we can’t or don’t want to see? Let me know in the comments below!

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    Jordan Frey MD, a plastic surgeon in Buffalo, NY, is one of the fastest-growing physician finance bloggers in the world. See how he went from financially clueless to increasing his net worth by $1M in 1 year and how you can do the same! Feel free to send Jordan a message at [email protected].

    1 thought on “Sorta Random Sunday: The Illusion of the Prodigy”

    1. I enjoyed this positive post, Jordan. I think it’s vitally important for people to get over the notion that they can’t learn about personal finance and instead have to leave everything in the hands of a financial advisor. That is the path to financial ruin, IMHO.


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