The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Are many gifts better than one?

If we look back at the past, some of the figures we most admire, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, had many gifts. He was a man who, seemingly, could do anything excellently. Is this situation the ideal one?

In one way, it would seem to be, for it lends the bearer of the gifts, many opportunities and choices: there is nothing they cannot do if they have gifts in the sciences and the arts, practical gifts and theoretical gifts, musical gifts and athletic gifts. Such people may do as they please in life. That is the clear advantage. However there is one disadvantage that is not so clear. With many gifts, there will be a tendency to dilute one's efforts among them and so reduce the likelihood of success in any of them. In the modern world, therefore, the person of many gifts may not succeed in the way that a person of one gift would: eminence requires focus and effortful attention over many years. That does not come easily to someone who has half-a-dozen areas of expertise. Such a person may sparkle brightly in one way, and not at all in another.

I have seen such a tendency in my own early life. I had many areas in which it was easy for me to shine - science, acting, writing, music, art and academia. Yet, having so many areas meant that I was pulled in several directions and so did not dig sufficiently deep in any of them to satisfy my potential in those areas. Many years were perhaps "wasted" pursuing one gift at the expense of others. Although I would say that pursuit of any of one's gifts makes one grow - and so makes the whole person more complex and more interesting.

I was a physicist for a time, with a government laboratory, at 17. It was at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, Middx., UK. I enjoyed it and completed two research projects while I was there - a major and a minor, if you like. I worked as an Arts magazine founder and editor, for a couple of years - and again, found it enjoyable and rewarding. I have written two non-fiction books and done major work on two others. (The process of publishing these has begun). I used to draw very distinctive compositions as a teenager...but gave up due to personal injury at 17. I have yet to return to it. Though, a piece of my performance art, "Lord Valentine the Misplaced" was global news on CNN, and Reuters, among others, in the 1990s. The interviewer at CNN, was Richard Blystone who was, or became, the European Bureau Chief. As a child, singing was one of my greatest joys. I went to Cambridge University and studied Natural Sciences, taking my B.A and later M.A. This I did not enjoy for reasons too diverse to discuss here, though I would point out that I was unlucky enough not to find a mentor there. I have also acted on stage, TV and the odd film. I appear regularly on TV in South-East Asia of all places.

Yet, there has been a price for this diversity: the cumulative effect of working in one area with focussed effort over time, is to establish a rather large presence in a field. That doesn't happen in a short time if you are working in several fields. Would I do things differently had I the opportunity? Perhaps - but then I would have paid a different price - the lack of diversity of experience that I have garnered in my varied career.

Why do I write this? Well, many parents are worried about the development of their children. They want to see them become all-rounders in some instances, or to shine at one thing in others. Is either superior? Well the first gives great flexibility of choices - but the latter could be superior from the career point of view. You see the person focussed on one thing is infinitely more likely to become a great shining success in it, than the person who has several mini-careers. That being said, of course, if the person of several mini-careers becomes famous for any one of them, he or she may become known as a polymath, and admired for that characteristic - and rewarded with opportunities in the other areas, too.

Ainan, my scientific child prodigy son, shows great focus on science, at present, although he has shown aptitude in music and art among other things. If his focus is maintained as he grows up, he is likely to make a significant impression in whichever scientific area is his choice. I don't worry that he might be less "polymathic" than I was - for I see something now which I did not understand then - there is a definite advantage in picking a strength and working with it. He has other strengths and each may develop at different stages in his life - but it is as a scientist that I think he will most readily shine - for that is the subject of his focus.

So if your child has many gifts, or just one: don't worry - for both have paths to success - and in some ways, it is the child of one great gift who has the easier path.

(If you would like to read more about Ainan Celeste Cawley, my scientific child prodigy son, aged seven years and one month, or his gifted brothers, please go to: I also write of child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 6:40 PM 


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