We usually think of precocity as a gift and associate it with genius: the musical prodigy who plays Carnegie Hall at age 12, for example, or the math whiz doing advanced calculus in grade school. For many people, however, precocity can be a curse when it leads to unrealistic expectations about how easily things ought to come, when it prevents them from doing the hard work involved in true mastery of any discipline. Most of us know the famous quote from Thomas Edison: “Success is 10 percent inspiration and 90% perspiration.” No matter how brilliant you are or how precocious your talent, hard work is always necessary to succeed at any meaningful endeavor.
Many highly intelligent people I’ve known who shone early on found their public school education utterly unchallenging and rarely interesting; they quickly developed an ability to determine the minimum work necessary in order to earn the ‘A’ and worked no harder. The first 12 years of their education were relatively effortless; for many of them, college came as a shock when they realized they actually had to work in order to succeed. One friend of mine graduated valedictorian of his high school class, went on to a fine university and received two ‘C’s during his first year there, before developing a different work ethic.
For some people, it might take even longer. I know a brilliant lawyer who grew up in a family of legal minds, where spirited debate at the dinner table was the norm. On her first day in law school, she awed her classmates when the professor engaged her in Socratic dialog about the legal issues in a particular case, and she rose to the occasion. For her, law school was relatively easy and left her a lot of free time, so much that she also joined a modern dance company. But at the end of her second year, when she interned for one of the most prestigious law firms in the country, they told her in the end-of-summer review that she “didn’t know how to think” and declined to give her an offer to come back once she graduated.
What she eventually realized as a result of this narcissistic injury was that her intellectual gifts and ease with the legal world had made her lazy, that precocity had led to a kind of self-sabotage. She expected everything to come easily; when it didn’t, when she came up against an issue that actually challenged her, a feeling of impatience would rise up and she’d resort to facile conclusions without the needed subtlety of thought. It took her years of hard work to develop a tolerance for that frustration, to overcome her impatience and to value hard work more than quick and showy brilliance. The greatest help came from her ballet teacher, she told me, who taught her how to care about every last detail, including the position of the pinkie finger on her left hand.
Another friend of mine who skipped several grades never had to work very hard to succeed at anything he tried. School came easily, of course, but he also had a gift for singing and acting that landed him on the Broadway stage at the age of 15. On nearly every level, he’s had a highly successful life, though impatience is still a feature of his personality. He easily becomes frustrated when things don’t come quickly enough, to him or to other people, though he understands the problem and struggles with it. He told me that working with horses has taught him the most about patience. There is no way to rush a show horse through the training necessary to reach advanced levels. It is slow and methodical work; impatience will undermine you in the step-by-step, often tedious process.
I’ve had my own struggles with this issue, in particular as it has affected my career as a writer. I had a precocious way with language and began writing fiction in the fourth grade: a three-chapter “novel” (about 25 pages in total) featuring my teacher’s imaginary pet dragon Herman. The year after I graduated from college, I wrote a science fantasy novel and sold it the following year when I was 22 years old. I published another novel several years later — a work of psychological suspense that “novelized” a screenplay written by another client of my agent’s. Genre fiction came easily to me … but then I decided to write something “serious”. Writing literary fiction takes much more care, more hard work than figuring out and implementing the conventions of a genre. I was crippled by my own facility, the ease with which I had written and published my first two books. My own impatience in the face of hard work prevented me from producing anything truly worthwhile in the realm of literary fiction. I have not published a book since I was 26.
Twelve years ago when I moved to Chapel Hill, I joined a writer’s group with seven other members, all of them published novelists and scholars, the most insightful and sensitive critics I’ve ever known. Last year, with their help and an awful lot of hard work, several drafts and countless revisions, I completed a novel that I believe passes muster. One year ago, I also began to develop content for this website; week after week, I’ve written carefully and thoughtfully, working hard to promote my site through Facebook and Twitter and, in particular, learning the ropes of “search engine optimization and marketing” — how a particular website shows up on page one of a Google search. I’ve curbed my impatience and taken no short cuts.
Two days ago, a publisher offered to buy the first book coming out of this material here on my website. It feels like a major accomplishment to me, not only because I have finally (30 years later!) sold another book, but because I’ve mastered my impatience, the wish for quick and easy answers; I’ve done the long hard work to achieve my goal. I’m 56 years old and there’s nothing precocious about it.