Flying back from my conference last weekend, I experienced a moment of rare satisfaction: the conference had gone well, our book debuted, and I’d made some new friends. I’m in the productive period in my life right now: I’m engaged in satisfying scholarly projects, I’m happy being married, I’m enjoying my four year old daughter, and I finally have a community of friends outside of the university. How does this make me feel? Frustrated that it took me so long. If only I had been this confident in my twenties, I lament to myself, I would be really successful by now. Of course, this is part of my own personal neurosis, but it also speaks to our culture’s obsession with early success, instant gratification, and effortless talent.
So I was intrigued by Malcolm Gladwell’s essay about genius and precocity in this week’s edition of The New Yorker:
In his essay, Gladwell challenges the notion that genius is always expressed early in life, citing examples of the painter Cezanne and writer Ben Fountain each of whom did not produce their best work until middle age. The story of Ben Fountain, in particular, fascinated me. At 30, Fountain quit a career as a lawyer and devoted himself to writing (and taking care of their children). Supported by his wife, a successful attorney herself, Fountain wrote for 18 years before he achieved substantial critical “success.” I’m intrigued by Fountain’s story for a number of reasons: how does someone get that kind of courage? Would a wife feel entitled to part-time daycare so that she could produce art for 18 years? But most of all, I liked Gladwell’s closing point: that talent often needs patronage and that “sometimes [genius] is just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.”
My daughter’s not yet five and she has yet to be measured for any type of genius. Soon enough, she will be labeled “gifted” or not, athletic or clumsy, beautiful or plain. While I fear the judgment of teachers and peers, I may be just as guilty. This morning I noticed a display of artwork in her 4K classroom. The children had each drawn a self-portrait and most –including my daughter—drew large bulbous heads, creepy circle eyes and stick arms springing from the heads. Only one drawing, done by a shy Hispanic girl named Elena, actually represented a body. In her portrait, she had drawn a long intricately-colored dress cascading down in rough proportion. As I admired Elena’s picture, I found myself thinking, “Oh well, I guess my daughter’s talent won’t be art.”
How quickly we label each other, our children, and our students! As if talent is something that springs fully-formed at birth, instead of the result of hard work and, perhaps, someone else’s faith in us.