A few days ago, a colleague asked about the name of my baby, whom I named after jazz musician John Coltrane. He responded, “Ah, he’ll be a saxophone prodigy!” Later, I realized my colleague didn’t have his jazz history right. Though Coltrane is regarded as one of the seminal saxophone players, he wasn’t a prodigy. Definitely a good musician as a kid, but he wasn’t remarkable. And by all accounts, he only become a leading player later in his life – in his thirties – after dedicating himself completely to the mastery of his instrument.
This leads me to the concept of “prodigy bias.” It’s the belief that someone who has achieved great skill was a young prodigy, one who succeeded on raw talent and ability, rather than practice. In academia, we see this all the time. Often, we say that an academic is successful because of talent rather than work. Academia has a cult of genius. The arts also have a cult of genius. Other fields have the same bias. In sports, we focus, we focus on “athletic talent” instead of the long hours of work.
While there are definitely some people who have abundant raw talent early in life, many – possibly most – high achievers reached their level of mastery through tireless practice and honing of the gifts they had. Though I do wish for my baby to have “talent,” I wish more that he’ll have the wisdom to realize that achieving one’s goals is more a matter of practice than effortless mastery.