Being told you're smarter than everyone else when you're 11 years old can wreak havoc on a young child's mind.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
As a child, did you ever chew on and swallow soil? Or drop a chocolate digestive into a glass of milk and then scoop the mush out with your entire hand and eat it? Or take literally any test and get less than 97 percent? Yes? Well then you probably weren't a child genius. But then you know that already, because this morning you tripped over your own foot while on your way to your job, which is not at the neuroscience lab at King's College.
Another thing you'll know, likely from Daily Mail splashes and Channel 5 documentaries, is that the life of a child prodigy can either go one way (the bad way, in which all the pressure leads to failure and a lifetime of misery), or another, in which you're Mozart and people still buy your music 200 years after you die.
"It's very dangerous to be portrayed as that sort of prodigy, because 99 percent of those prodigies don't last very long," says violinist and conductor Julian Rachlin. "I have never been treated by my friends and family as a prodigy. I have been treated as little Julian who loves making music, so I never felt a prodigy."
Rachlin started at the Conservatory of Vienna at the age of nine and has been performing professionally since he was 13. In 1988 he won the title of Eurovision Young Musician of the Year at the age of 14. "Mozart was a prodigy and [violinist] Yehudi Menuhin was a prodigy, but definitely not myself—I was just a kid."
So, as he says, totally not a prodigy.
Like Julian, Lavinia Redman is a musician. An oboist who was a finalist in the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 2010, she performed professionally throughout her teenage years. "I don't have any regrets starting at that age, apart from the fact that starting early, especially as a wind player, can allow you to pick up bad habits," she says.
As a teenager, Ollie Baker had the photographic world hooked when he ripped the guts out of an old Konica (and later Leica) camera and replaced it with digital innards, while retaining the original rangefinder. "I'm very lucky that my talents overlap completely with my passions, and this work was entirely a product of my interests and hobbies," he tells me. "I started the project using some money donated as part of a nationwide engineering scholarship scheme, so I had a lot of freedom in what I could spend it on. This ensured I was passionate about my project and I was my own employer, customer, and motivator."
Anne-Marie Imafidon is the eldest child in a family who were championed by Sky News as "Britain's brainiest family." The terrifying Imafidon children have all passed a GCSE aged ten or younger, and the youngest, twins Peter and Paula, did so at age six. The Imafidons seem like evidence that nature is capable of its own selective breeding, but Anne-Marie insists that she had a normal (ish) childhood.
"Now that I'm older, I appreciate the opportunities I had as a child a lot more, and also appreciate the lessons that I learnt very early on," says Anne-Marie, who founded Stemettes, an organization that aims to get more young women into science, a couple of years ago. "Like how to deal with people, and even my self-confidence and self-esteem. Having those experiences really early on has given me a solid, firm base. As every day passes that I'm working with young girls, I take it for granted less and less. There's nothing like the confidence of passing an A-level at 11!"
If you've got the drive to succeed as a child, it stands to reason that drive will only increase as an adult. Child geniuses don't experience normal formative childhood experiences—like pulling a worm in half and discovering you can make two worms—because they're already functioning at a level that most people will only arrive at after years of study punctuated by hormonal temper tantrums and procrasturbation. "When you come to doing your A-levels later," says Anne-Marie, "these exams no longer worry you because you did them when you were so young and they were so inconsequential then."
"I should have tried doing more different things," says Gabriel Carroll, Assistant Professor of Economics at Stanford. "I mostly stuck with a few things I was good at and developed them. Well, really, one main thing: solving mathematical puzzles."
In seventh grade—the American equivalent of year 8—Carroll scored the highest SAT score in his home state of California, which included a perfect 800 on maths. Two International Maths Olympiad gold medals followed, as well as degrees from Harvard and MIT, before his current teaching job at Stanford. But Carroll's not quite as sold on the prodigy childhood as some of his contemporaries.
"I had no interest in sports, or knowledge about popular culture, say, and didn't try to learn," he says. "I didn't figure out how to ask for help. I didn't date until 20, for example. That left me unaccustomed to failure, which is a weakness I continue to deal with."
Anne-Marie began her A-level adventure at the age of 11 and got her masters from Oxford by the time she was 17. Her tertiary educational experience was deformed: no drink or drugs or sex, but an awful lot of watchful scrutiny from press and faculty.
"I had parents who never ever forced me to practice and who always loved me just because I was their son and not because of my achievements," says Julian, the violinist and conductor. "They didn't really want me to be a musician, in a good way, because they knew that being a professional musician is extremely difficult. We emigrated from the Soviet Union to Vienna when I was three years old, so, as you can imagine, we came to Vienna with £200 and absolutely nothing else. No German language, no connections, nothing. They wanted to make sure that I had a beautiful childhood."
Like Julian, oboist Lavinia claims that her parents never pushed her towards music. "As an oboist, you can't really start as early as string players or pianists, so I suppose I was lucky. I started age nine and I was very keen. My parents were very supportive, and I was the one who pushed them to let me play."
For most of us, the transition into adulthood revolves predominantly around room temperature Foster's, Clearasil, and discovering what a P45 is. Being an adult seems to be defined by little more than alcohol and bureaucracy. Unsurprisingly, everything's slightly more complicated when you're exiting a period of being worshipped for your precocious talent.
"I wasn't fully aware of the scrutiny when I was younger," says Anne-Marie. "I don't know if I was shielded from it, but the scrutiny now tends to be in the form of people wondering what's coming next, or if I've used my skills as best as I could."
For photographer Ollie, the pressure of the financial support he's received for his project has started to dictate the way he approaches his work. "I'm no longer just working for my own pleasure, although that hasn't diminished the joy I get from it," he tells me. "Working for an actual goal, both monetary and having a product to distribute, gives me more purpose and allows me to justify spending time and money on my projects."
READ ON NOISEY: The Joys and Pains of Touring with Kids
Gabriel's switch from mathematics to economics shocked the creepy world of child prodigy enthusiasts, but it was a transition he'd thought long and hard about. "Probably the biggest difference is that, as a child, everything involved following well-worn paths: read this chapter, answer those test questions. I did great at that," he says. "My biggest accomplishments consisted of solving puzzles that other people had created and had already solved. As an adult, you need to chart your own course.
"My ambitions and motivations did change somewhat. As a child I liked getting prizes. I liked to show off and get attention. Now I've had enough of that. At this point I basically want to be a good person, which is much harder."
Lavinia is now studying music in London, taking it a little slower than during her days on the child circuit. "Since starting at music college my playing has progressed, but slightly slowly at first—the pressure is very different, and when I joined I found things rather tricky," she says. "Coming to a music college it felt like I was a small fish in a very big pond, and that was very difficult.
"As a child I could get away with a lot more, mainly 'cause of the instrument I play. I did face some criticism in my teens as a performer, but it was all very constructive. When I was younger I mainly got lovely comments, but sadly I did rest on natural talent for a while longer than I should have. In my late teens I could have worked harder."
At 40, Julian is a generation older than Lavinia, Anne-Marie, and Ollie (though he still has the cherubically youthful face of an Eastern Bloc pop star).
"It's nice when you get older, because you have a little bit more life experience," he tells me. "I'm still not totally old—everything is relative. I have nearly three decades [of playing experience] behind me, but I still feel completely inspired and completely curious, because—especially now with my conducting activities—there is a whole new world opening up. Playing the same concertos—for me, they are like completely new works."
Three decades on from his concert debut, it's hard to believe he feels quite as sprightly about the whole business as he claims. When pushed, he concedes, "Yes, of course things are changing with age, perspective. The pace is changing, the interpretation is changing, and it's a very exciting ride. I feel that I'm not in the middle of it, but in the beginning."
Beginnings, middles, and ends are more discernible for common folk like us. When we're born, we're dumb as shit—we can't read or write or walk. In the middle, we learn how to survive and wrangle our brain into feeding ourselves and paying the bills. And then, at the end, we're pretty much back to where we started.
For prodigies, beginnings, middles, and ends are blurred into one. I asked the older generation if there are any tips they would give the new wave of child geniuses, considering that after years of acclaim, arrival at adulthood can be quite a shock to both the system and the ego.
"Do what feels right for you and always try to push yourself," offers Anne-Marie. "Enjoy yourself while you're doing that, but push yourself—it will pay off in the end."
Ollie, meanwhile, is more cautious, focusing on practical considerations: "Find a way in which you can use your skills and talents that is financially responsible but doesn't detract from your love of the subject, and still allows you a fair amount of freedom."
"Don't let anyone pressurize you into doing anything you don't want to do," warns oboist Lavinia. "And don't become complacent as you get older, because there is a lot of talent out there to compete with."
"Play a lot of chamber music and play a lot with really interesting musicians," says Julian, whose lesson is, admittedly, quite specific. "This is my one piece of advice!"
For other ex-prodigies, success is a more uncertain goal. "One piece of advice I'd give is to be encouraging toward friends and classmates," says Gabriel. "Help pull others forward; don't run on ahead without them. Those of us who stand out as children are drawing on all kinds of advantages we don't fully realize we have, and that makes it easy to be dismissive of others who don't do as well, or to be predisposed to criticize their inadequacies instead of helping them find ways to get better."
All of these adult geniuses are well adjusted, sensible, and successful. But that doesn't necessarily represent everyone who was lauded for their abilities as a youngster. Child prodigies who have gone on to enjoy the mediocrity of the masses are harder to find. There are no support groups or internet forums dedicated to them, and just as the prodigies I spoke to all seem to look back on their childhoods with boundless enthusiasm, if you discover an ex-genius now selling home insurance over the phone, it's unlikely they'll be as keen to chat about what once was.
And so the baton for ex-child geniuses is carried by people who've gone on to a life of legitimate adult success, of their own companies and dedicated Wikipedia pages. That's the pot of gold at the end of the gifted-child rainbow. But the price of failing to make a smooth transition into adulthood is online oblivion. It's being haunted not by the ghost of "what could've been," but the ghost of "what used to be."
Follow Nick on Twitter.