I read "The Queen's Gambit" for book club. It is fiction that focuses on a female chess prodigy in the 60s.
Summary summary summary... the plot doesn't really matter for this thought. The short version: She's been a prodigy since age 8, and there are several mentions of fading precociousness that aren't really explored in a meaningful way.
- She ages out of being considered precocious
- She reaches what could be considered the high point of her career at a young age ... and where does she go from there.
But the book doesn't fully explore these, and stops after the final triumph. They go into a period of alcoholic slide somewhere in the aging process, but they connect that with addictive personality (an early addiction to tranquilizer pills) instead of any major conflict of identity.
If I were to predict a sequel, it would be a decline into utter bleakness. The future doesn't look pretty at all.
Because when your identity is wrapped up in being precocious, at some point YOU AGE OUT and you are left with the crumbling shell of your achievement. Where can you go from there--to be great is now expected. You are no longer special. Notable. A 40 year old doing a good job is the way of the world. A 16 year old doing the same thing is fucking brilliant.
I know this. Many kids do not survive this.
Cute, brilliant child actors do not age well.
14 year old geniuses kill themselves.
Precocious kids start to fail because they don't know how to be consciously competent after so much unconscious competence. What is the work of putting in the work when things stop being easy? If you never learn how to arrive at answers that always just came to you, at some point you get stuck in the world in a way that others don't. I've seen it so many times with friends, with acquaintances. (In the book, oddly, the precocious genius is coupled with the hard work of the learning of the strategy, in a way...which...may be realistic, but the preternatural "intuition" is always just there.)
I am not--at all--genius or prodigy level. But I was precocious. "An old soul". All my life I heard these things, and everything was about that. Being grades ahead in school. Being top of the class...and the next class. I could always write like a mofo. Graduating early. Finishing two degrees at 19. Writing my first show (for a big tech company) before I was old enough for my client to buy me a drink to celebrate (that was awkward in so many ways). No slipping no tripping.
And I ticked other boxes. Write a (business) book. Publish articles. Get married young. Travel young. It was so much a part of me that I forget that it was unusual.
At some point you stop being unexpectedly brilliant and you start being simply competent. Nothing in your ability has diminished (if anything it's grown through experience and wisdom). Nothing has changed but your age--and it's a shock to the identity, even if every ounce of your pragmatism expects it and every bit of your ego and vanity have been chugging along with appropriate humility this whole time.
You are precocious, you are precocious, you are precocious, you are fulfilling expectations. *Needle scratch*
But in reality, it's just another angle to view that spark--through the lens of youth in a youth-obsessed culture. Everyone loves a 9 year old who can sing like an adult, but their voice is no less lovely when they lose that youth--they just become unremarkable.
There's a satisfying thrill to seeing prodigies. That brilliant spark. That perky precociousness. It surprises us. It impresses the hell out of us, and it should, but where do you go from there? How do you transition, psychologically, into a new identity after youth sheds your old identity--brilliance fading inevitably in concert with cherubic cheeks and gangly limbs?
You take on something else, you reinvent, re-identify. You become Mother. Owner. Boss. Wise.
Or you drink a lot. That's where the book was going, but it didn't do anything but scratch idly at the surface.