But Mozart was a prodigy! (& other myths that might make you throw in the towel)

Has this cat gotten 10,000 hours of singing practice yet?  (Photo: Jonraguine1999, morgueFile)
Has this kitten gotten 10,000 hours of singing practice yet? (Photo: Jonraguine1999, morgueFile)

If you’re like me and you’ve been working at developing a skill (such as writing) for any length of time, you’re bound to look up and see all the people who are highly accomplished at this skill, and feel envious.

I walk into bookstores and it’s almost more than I can bear. All those books! Written by someone else! Not a single title with your name on the cover.

(For a while, when I was racking up rejections for The Cruelest Month, I didn’t go to bookstores at all. It was too painful.)

. . . And if you’re like me, you read a masterpiece and feel tempted to bang your head on the table because you simply know that you’ll never, ever, in a hundred million, billion years, be able to write something that marvelous. Marvelous? You’ll barely be able to crack mediocre.

. . . And if you’re like me, you look at the author’s photograph. If the author is old, you’re relieved. If the author looks like one of those wonderful “child prodigies” who write and publish books while still in the young whippersnapper stage of life, you feel overwhelmed with despair. They’ve been zapped with miraculous abilities. They’re flying around in a super-tight costume that says “SuperWriter” on the front, zooming from one book signing to another, making a layover so Oprah can interview them.

. . . And if you’re nodding your head, you should be profoundly disturbed that you’re this much like me.

But you can also take heart. I’ve read a book that will help put this in perspective. (C’mon, you knew I would find a book to discuss, right?)

Bounce, by Matthew Syed, is about success: the science behind success. He focuses on athletes—he’s a former tennis table world champ himself—but the principles are applicable to many fields. His approach reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s work, but from a different angle. He also affirms Gladwell’s famous idea that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become an expert. There were many intriguing ideas, but here’s one that floored me:

There really are no such things as child prodigies.

But what about—?!

I know what you’re thinking, but, no, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was not an exception to the 10,000 hour rule.

His father, a composer and highly accomplished pedagogue, was interested in how to teach music to children. He was also a domineering father who started Wolfgang’s intense music training when the boy was three. One historian believes that young W had racked up some 6,000 hours of intense, focused practice by the time he was six.

By the time W composed his first masterpiece, he had more than ten thousand hours of playing time, and had racked up thousands of hours of composition time. (His first few compositions were arrangements of other people’s music and contain no or little original work.)

Compare his achievements at twenty-one to

other twenty-one-year old pianists,

and W looks like a child prodigy.

∼But∼

Compare his achievements to

other dedicated, equally gifted musicians who have practiced and composed

for the same number of hours,

and his achievements don’t look so surprising or startling.

So. Remember my theoretical young whippersnapper who wrote a novel? We can make some educated assumptions.

First, he or she had a parent who pushed them from an early age and provided the opportunity for that child to receive good instruction. It helps to have someone drive you to sports practice or piano lessons when you’re five, or to pay for art lessons from a good instructor or writing feedback from a knowledgeable editor when you’re seven. Not every parent has the time or means to do that.

Second, Mom and Dad granted the child the time to practice, even when it took away from other activities. No well-rounded scholar-athlete-humanitarian-artist with a roster of activities a mile long. No, thank you, my child can be obsessed with only one thing at a time!

Again, not every parent is willing to shove aside the notion of having a well-rounded child.

Nor is every parent willing to allow the child to neglect schoolwork in favor of writing a novel, or neglect chores in favor of sports training. (I’m not saying that a child couldn’t do both, but energy levels will be a factor. Intense, concentrated practice on any one task consumes a lot of energy.)

Nor am I saying this is healthy! Just this week, a mom told me about a girl at her daughter’s gymnastics facility. The child is homeschooled so she can practice gymnastics for fifteen hours a week. That’s at the gym. At home, the child practices and trains for another eighteen hours a week. That’s thirty-three hours of dedicated practice a week! How old is this girl?

Seven.

My response: WHAT?!

Third, the training was in an area where the child was already gifted and already interested. Not every child who is trained like Mozart will end up being Mozart, Junior. Just like not every devoted athlete will end up as a pro, make the Olympic team, or even get a college scholarship. Innate talent does play a role. (And if the child isn’t interested, don’t bother.)

Fourth, look at the debut novel of this young whippersnapper and compare it to other debut novels. Is it really an impressive novel? Or is it impressive mostly because of the author’s age? Chances are, it’s not the best work this author will produce. Even my beloved Melville had to write Typee, Omoo, and Mardi before he cracked out Moby-Dick. While Typee was a bestseller, it wasn’t a masterpiece.

So if you’re struggling (like I am) not to be jealous of that young whippersnapper-writer, remember that.

And those masterpieces, the ones that make you cry from their beauty and craftsmanship—those did not happen overnight. They weren’t written in a week or a year or sometimes even in a decade. They were written through a life dedicated to finding the right words, in the right combination, and pinned on paper at the right moment.

Not all of us who dream of writing a masterpiece will do so. But we can be willing to take the time to write and fail, over and over, until we have used up every bit of our gift, the ones God gives us, and used it well.

Keep going.

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14 thoughts on “But Mozart was a prodigy! (& other myths that might make you throw in the towel)

  1. I understand these thoughts, really I do. I was considered a ‘gifted’ child. I was good at lots of things and exceptionally good at a few things. I do sometimes wonder ‘what if…?’ But how many people are there around the world who could say the same ‘what if’? How many lives are blighted by abject poverty? How many gifted children’s intelligence is stunted from poor nutrition? Is a genius worth more than someone with special needs? Is someone who is mentally ‘healthy’ more human than someone who is not? How can I possibly be anything other than thankful for what I have? If I start to define myself on the world’s terms, I reduce myself in God’s terms. Don’t get me wrong, these words aren’t meant to sound harsh at all, quite the contrary! I am saying them for myself as well as for anyone else.

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    1. I think I understand what you’re saying.

      One reason I write posts like this is to encourage myself to keep writing. I live in a tech-oriented, highly conservative community, and most of the people I encounter on a regular basis–at church, for example–do not value writing, literature, or art. It’s not “important” or at least not as important as their well-paying jobs are. I’ve had countless Christian men make jokes about my degree and interests to my face. (This happened a lot during college, during a particularly formative and vulnerable period of my life.) They may think they’re harmless, silliness, but I’ve been deeply hurt and am just now battling back after many years. I have to keep telling myself to press on, regardless of how these men treat me, and this is particularly difficult when that’s all I hear from the high-status and high-powered people in my life.

      So this post is more to remind myself to keep going. It’s not that I’ve forgotten how fortunate I am in my life circumstances, in many ways, or that I’m not thankful. It’s a reminder to keep my head above water when I feel alone in my literary pursuits.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Why are some people so insensitive? What a thing to say. What kind of a world would we live in if there were no stories? Not one I’d like to live in. I love stories and they have got me through some very tough times. Even God chose to reveal Himself through stories. Being creative is a gift that mirrors our Creator.

        I really hope you do press on because I will be first in line to buy your book. I love how your mind works and am intrigued by what you have to say, especially as a writer. You encourage me, with your posts. You make me wonder, at least, whether dreams are worth having. What I mean is, you haven’t given up. That makes me wonder whether I might consider opening that box again. Every time I’ve tried I’ve quickly closed it again and stopped writing because… I don’t know, stuff from the past. I don’t think I’ve made much sense either now or earlier, but please do keep writing!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for the encouraging words, Sandy. If it’s any encouragement to you, I gave up writing fiction almost entirely for years (between high school until shortly before my second daughter was born, almost a decade, with a month or two of trying again after grad school). I was too burned in college, too exhausted with everything going on, and when I couldn’t get it “right” (ie, perfect in the first draft) in the post-grad school period, I gave up. Wasn’t for me, I decided, I wasn’t good enough. But then I started again, about a year before C. was born. And here I am. So if you decide to open that box again, enjoy it. Sometimes a story just demands to be told and I’m the only writer who can tell it, so I have to tell it. It might be the same for you! 🙂

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  2. Reblogged this on multicolouredsmartypants and commented:
    God loves you because He made you. God knows your heart. He knows your dreams and your wishes. Before we can have any desire, our first desire *has* to be for Him. Because ultimately, as Julian of Norwich said, we are created “from love, of love, for love.”

    The word Logos (which is translated as ‘The Word’ in the gospel of John) is relates to the word locus. Locus is the centre of something, e.g. a wheel, around which other things move. Jesus is both the utterance of God and the centre around which we all spin. He speaks us into existence and He pulls us together.

    I am so tired today. My brain is having to work hard reshuffling all these memories. I don’t want to think ‘what if’ any more. It hurts. I just want to belong to Him.

    Some of us are given heavy loads, aren’t we? I think one’s own head being awry is one of the hardest burdens. But Jesus calls us blessed! 😀

    “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
    “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
    “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.” Matthew 5:3-5 (The Message)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I do exactly the same thing, Laura: I look at author pictures and think “Aw, crap — she looks so young and she’s written 5 bestselling books.” 🙂

    All your thoughts on using our gifts, practicing, and dedication are really good. I can’t help but think of my son, Jonathan, who is 12 and developmentally delayed. He reads at about grade 1 level and communicates only concretely, in very short sentences. BUT he is so crazy-good at shooting baskets and doing jigsaw puzzles. When his grade 7-8 class has a basketball unit, Jonathan is a go-to guy for scoring baskets — and the reason is practice. He loves to go to the schoolyard and take basketball shots, over and over and over for hours per day, every day of the week if he could. Playing with a ball is his reward for good behaviour at school;it’s the thing that gets taken away as a consequence for not following rules; it’s his obsession. And jigsaw puzzles: he has no need to examine the picture of what the completed puzzle should look like; he just dumps out a 150-piece puzzle and works away patiently on it, matching colours and shapes and slowly putting it together in a way that works for his mindset. It’s amazing to see. I think Jonathan is using his gifts to glorify God even if he can’t express that and even if these gifts are not necessarily “useful” in the world. He can share these activities with others, they give him joy and satisfaction, and they challenge him to keep trying.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jonathan’s my older daughter’s age. 🙂 I love his dedication to the things he enjoys! The world may see those as “useless” but they bring joy to him and bring glory to God. He knows what it means to persevere, to press on toward the finish line, like Paul says we should do in our spiritual lives. Maybe when others see his dedication and practice, they are reminded of those verses in the Bible and encouraged to keep going; I know I am.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You’ve taken the pressure off, Laura. It’s hard work and dedicated practice that lead to well-written books or anything else worth our time. So the practice and work are worth our time too. Now if I could only get myself to actually put in the work!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aye, there’s the rub: to work or not to work, that is the question we’re faced with every day, isn’t it? I choose to work (I’d go crazy–well, crazier than normal–if I didn’t write because I wouldn’t know how to fill my time) but I don’t know how you fit writing in alongside everything else in your life, Tim!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I am sorry I am so behind in my reading. I could relate to what you are saying, although I am not an aspiring novelist. I did not even pursue an education until I was 45 and now at 50 I am trying to get into a graduate program. Ugh! talk about feeling discouraged. Hopefully they won’t turn me down because of all of my silly questions. And hopefully I’ll graduate in time to actually use my degree. Anyway, I think we can fall into the comparison/envy trap with anything we want be good at. For me it’s teaching. I never thought I would take it so personally when I see others that are more experienced and skilled at their job, but I do feel at times as though I will never achieve the level of skill that I see in other people. I have come to realize that success is something that is fleeting for everyone, because there will always be someone else who is better at doing whatever, so the best thing to do is learn to be happy with how I am now and enjoy the process of growing and learning. It is also good to know that God loves us as we are, we don’t have to do anything to “earn” his approval. That is probably the best thing.

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    1. Don’t worry about “falling behind”: I’ll welcome comments whenever and on whatever! I can’t imagine trying to do grad school at 50. (I can’t imagine doing it now, honestly, but my brain is so overloaded that I keep my tasks to a minimum.) Best of luck! I know it can be discouraging to look around at others, but like you said, we don’t have to earn God’s approval. I also think that because you might be older than some of your fellow grad students or coworkers, you have something that they don’t have: life experience. That translates into practical wisdom. All these “prodigies” or young achievers may have high skill levels but their maturity hasn’t necessarily caught up yet. You might be able to help them in that area. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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