True or false: gifted/creative = early achiever?

Are all geniuses prodigies?  No, according to Malcolm Gladwell, in the New Yorker.  Following an economist at the University of Chicago, David Galenson, he argues that there are two different paradigms;

Prodigies like Picasso, Galenson argues, rarely engage in … open-ended exploration. They tend to be “conceptual,” Galenson says, in the sense that they start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they execute it….

But late bloomers, Galenson says, tend to work the other way around. Their approach is experimental. “Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental,”

Much in Western economic life favors the early bloomer and not the late.  Academia is a good case.  Start out a star and you are set for life; find yourself immense in the possibilities and unable to be highly productive at the beginning, and your career may end.  Importantly, as the article points out, the late-bloomer needs mentors or some sort of support.

Is the possibility of this sort of difference of interest to feminists?  At the very least, it raises some questions, one of which is whether men and women are equally distributed among the types.  Of course, it is hard to tell how the distinctions would look if they were described in less vague language, but the second sounds much more like the way at least groups of women philosophers in my experience tend to approach philosophical problems.  

And though the study seems focused on the arts, it may generalize to fields like philosophy.  In which case we can also remind ourselves that an early start,  which for fairly extraneous reasons is too often difficult for women, may get one a much better job and much better opportunies, it really need not indicate superior talent.

Well, we did know that.  But a reminder is a good thing.

8 thoughts on “True or false: gifted/creative = early achiever?

  1. One way it might be relevant even if there is an equal distribution among men and women is if women have especially serious difficulty finding mentors; and this, at least, does tie in directly with some of the worries about the current make-up, structure, and culture of academia. (I can’t find the paper offhand, but doesn’t Haslanger mention lack of mentors in her paper on the subject? Or am I mixing it up with something else?)

  2. I don’t know about the distribution, but I have experienced a lot of pressure by those invested in specific fields to stay and work in their field as well, to “settle down” and stop exploring other interests.

    It’s flattering on the one hand to have professionals trying to convince you that you’re “one of them,” but it’s maddening when they completely discount your own desires concerning your own direction. I’ve even been told (jokingly) by the chair in my own department that she would “try to forget” that I also hold a degree in history, as if that makes me a sort of traitor.

    I’ve started inserting imaginary earplugs when someone starts telling me about my “gifts” or talents because that seems to be code for “the only thing I think you ought to be doing, and you’re an idiot if you try anything else.”

  3. The Cult of Young Genius (as it’s sometimes called in math) is especially ironic in philosophy: I once tried to make a list of the Great Works of Philosophy written by either mainstream or critical philosophers (including feminists, racial theorists, queer theorists, etc.) who were under 45 at the time. Other than work by logicians (Kripke, Wittgenstein, Russell, Gödel, etc.), there’s not much: Hume’s Treatise and Enquiry, (arguably) Berkeley’s Three Dialogues, Quine’s `Two dogmas of empiricism’ (and that just barely – Quine turned 43 in 1951), maybe some of the earlier Socratic dialogues, Aristotle’s Categories. Charles Mills’ Racial contract might count; Martin Luther King’s `Letter from Birmingham jail’ definitely counts (King was assassinated at 39). Even John Stuart Mill, as bona fide a child prodigy as any, has only one Great Work (A system of logic) written before he was 45 — and Mill made some dramatic changes to his epistemology in the later editions of System.

    Based just on the quotation, Galenson appears to think that being a `prodigy’ versus being a `late bloomer’ is a matter of temperament or methodology. This makes it sound like being a prodigy or being a late bloomer is a completely individual quality — either innate or a set of habits that can be learned, but still a matter of what the individual does. But I suspect it’s more (or also) a matter of esteem — both how you perceive your own work, and how it’s perceived by others. If everything you scribble down at 30 is treated like gold by the senior members of your field, they’re going to reward you with both the encouragement and resources needed to produce more of the same. And, on the other hand, if you’re treated as just another grad student/junior professor, it’s unlikely that you’ll be given the opportunity to really stand out.
    Relatedly, if you think that everything you do is fantastic (most likely because that’s what your mentor is telling you), you’ll be motivated to produce more of it; and if you find that, no matter how hard you work, your peers remain unimpressed, you’ll be much more likely to see it all as a waste of effort.

    If this is right, then female philosophers will generally be disadvantaged in several ways: to the extent that subfields within which they work are held in lower esteem (feminist philosophy, political philosophy, arguably ethics compared to Analytic metaphysics and epistemology), to the extent that their work individually is perceived as less valuable or less significant due to implicit biases, and to the extent that they cannot find supportive and prominent mentors (who can talk up their work to other prominent philosophers), we expect them to receive less recognition and less material support.

  4. Brandon, yes, sadly, women are typically mentored much less well than men.

    Flying tomato: Well, I’m with you on this, but I worry that you are being given survival advice. Your reference to professionals suggests to me you are a student, so at least you aren’t facing tenure, if my guess is right. Still, there is the thesis…

    Noumena, Good point. I think some good researchers have said that famlies can in effect elect a child as a prodigy and then, by concentrating their energy and resources, pretty much bring it about. It seems that that sometimes happens in grad school too. One forgets, of course, that by and large, women have been bizarrely disadvantaged until recently. In the US lots of very good programs didn’t accept women, in England women’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge were in the minority (at Oxford, 5 to 30 or so). Until fairly recently (e.g., 30 years ago) women were typically not allowed to eat with professors in most men’s colleges except for special guest nights, etc, etc.

    How much less formal exclusion is still going on? Looking just at the programs for meetings and the people included in editions, I’d say it’s pretty clear.

  5. You should also read Linda Nochlin on Picasso in her famous article “Why There are No Great Women Artists” in which she de-bunks the whole idea of ‘genius’ and discusses what might have happened to a hypothetical Pabla Picasso (Pablo’s sister) if she had been equally talented. One thing that is VERY relevant in this story is that PIcasso’s father was an artist and art teacher who helped his son along and the very idea of some sort of innate “golden globule” of genius in him (as in the famous chicken soup) is itself an ideological construct of our romantic, post-18th century notion of “geniuses”.

  6. jj–No, I’m not a student, I’m an instructor of English and an organic farmer building a local food network in my community.

    While I was a graduate student, my mentors in English and history (in which I also hold a Master’s degree) tended to see my efforts outside their fields (both in the other department and in my literal field as a grower and community organizer) as “secondary,” or a “waste of time.” But I saw my efforts in their fields not so much as a career path, but as a means to my own ends: making contacts, fine-tuning my research and writing skills, and providing myself with a second, stable income by teaching first and second year students online.

    Had I wanted to give my life over totally to academia, I would have pursued a doctorate and a tenured position. I have found that rejecting this path when one is identified as having promise is sometimes seen as an insult or a challenge to the traditional status hierarchy within academia.

  7. FT: I’m surprised in this day and age that people are not encouraging students to do something outside of academia. The job situation is dire, and more and more universities are contriving to use adjuncts at abysmal page. I hope organic farming has a robust future; one hears its past has been full of difficulties.

    Calypso: Interesting, thanks. Looks like a great reference.

    I’m not sure how either person is using “genius” since they use it interchangeably with less problematic – if quite vague – notions. The idea of the prodigy is just that of the early (high) achiever, and I think Gladwell is principally interested in whether significant creative work has to start pretty early.

    Noumena’s comment, and my later one, sort of resonnates with what you’re saying. It occurs to me that he and I have ended up talking about what I think Hacking calls social kinds. Certainly, the idea of social support upping the creativity looks like what Hacking calls a “looping effect.”

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