The promise and curse of early success

Highly talented youngsters often fail to reach their full potential. We take a look at what can be done to help them stay on course.
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Ever so often we hear of people celebrating the success of a child prodigy in academia, art, or sports. Do people tend to cut the cake too early? Is this good for the child and the society in general?

My role at the intersection of education and human resources, over the last decade, has given me a ringside view of such issues. What intrigued me is why highly talented youngsters often fail to reach their potential. And what can be done to help them stay on course.

Blinded by narrow abilities

People sometimes get blinded by a narrow ability and believe that alone can carry the person very far. For example, a gift for multiplying numbers quickly is not enough to make a good data analyst or to work on abstract number theory.

Long-term success hinges on a wider range of abilities than quick and short-term accomplishments. Say, for example, the task of running a recruitment cell for years demands something more and different than organising a job fair. I have seen:

  • Academically brilliant executives do not realise their potential because they fail to ‘read the room’ or lack the emotional intelligence to work with people.
  • Cricket players with wonderful hand-eye coordination are unable to play the big league because of their temperament.

Not looking deep or wide enough: We often hear “if a student has scored well in biology, she should become a doctor” or a variant of this. It takes a lot more than a good score in biology to become a happy and successful doctor. The practice of medicine requires the ability to enjoy the routine, patience for deferred rewards, and the quality of caring.

Steven Rudolph, the founder of Multiple Natures International, is among the most consummate practitioners in this space. He assesses students on Multiple Intelligences (e.g., logical, musical, interpersonal) and Multiple Natures (e.g., creative, educative, entrepreneurial) and suggests career choices aligned with potential.

In a case I am intimately familiar with, he helped a student choose computational biology over a career in medicine based on her higher scores in ‘logical intelligence’ and ‘educative nature’, and a relatively lower score in ‘healing nature’. Rudolph has roots in the United States, but has invested two decades in India studying Ayurveda and Indian philosophy. The Eastern wisdom of ‘personal alignment’ has greatly influenced his work.

Judging too early: It takes experience and foresight to spot talent. The parent, coach, or boss needs to have the ability to project and see where the ward can go. The journey to success is often long and arduous. Injury, poor attitude, and poor career decisions can often derail the promise.

Having identified a few causes, let us now focus on the pitfalls of declaring success too early.

“It is not what you have, but what you do with it”: If we consider intelligence quotient (IQ), despite its known limitations, as an early indicator of academic promise, only 1 in 1,65,000 people (less than 0.001 percent) is gifted with an IQ of 170+. Yet, very few of them go on to win a Nobel Prize, a Fields Medal, or a Turing Award. This is probably because they lack the discipline for research or get bored easily.

Not knowing where to set the bar: Complacency could be an unintended consequence of early success and recognition. This can make people believe they can be good at everything, and they end up trying too many things, lose focus and underachieve. At times like this, a mentor who has perspective can guide and help the ward identify the next peak to scale. It is sad when people end up becoming lazy, resting on past laurels or giving themselves over to trivial pursuits.

Anxiety caused by enhanced expectations: We are in an era where everyone is in search of the next big thing, and the media gets unreasonably excited about people achieving early success. This puts people under enormous pressure.

At times, the stress is caused by a person’s natural tendencies towards anxiety as well. It calls for exceptional maturity to deal with heady success yet not lose one’s head. I know of several people who wanted to succeed at any cost but got tempted into playing close to the foul line, which proved costly.

In the meantime, thousands of youngsters are muddling through their education without a clear idea of what they are capable of and how to make career choices aligned with their potential. A mentor and a wise career counselor can help them aim for the stars while keeping their feet firmly on the ground!

Edited by Megha Reddy

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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