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Tiger mothers will disagree, but you can’t manufacture a prodigy

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

We have prodigies all wrong. We fool ourselves that the secrets of exuberant ability can be observed and then replicated elsewhere to achieve the same results. But the truth could not be more different. The more we learn about high performers, the clearer it becomes that there is only one universal characteristic: they are all different. Nurturing greatness cannot be decoded into a pretend science. It hovers somewhere between an art and a mystery.

It has been a bad month for “tiger mothers”; the first of many bad months, one hopes. Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed explores the huge dangers that follow from the sharp-elbowed obsession with high grades, whatever the human cost. And Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon’s new study on prodigies, punctures the fantasy that elite talent can be coached by a single prescriptive method.

Solomon’s previous book, The Noonday Demon, was a deeply intelligent study on depression. The same mixture of thorough reporting, humanity and erudition informs Far From the Tree. “While it is true that parents push their kids too hard and give them breakdowns,” Solomon writes, “others fail to support a child’s passion for his own gift and deprive him of the only life that he would have enjoyed.”


Judgement, in other words, always trumps theory. “I gradually realised that all parenting is guesswork,” Solomon concludes. It is a timely intervention, because two strands of conventional wisdom have converged to reinforce the idea that if pushy parents follow the right formula, they can engineer designer children.

The first is the hegemony of developmental psychology. Solomon describes “the widespread presumption that a child’s destiny hinges on getting a baby foot on a tall ladder”. Anyone who has observed parents in the elite pockets of London or New York will have witnessed the hysteria attached to early achievement. It is as wrong as it is terrifying. The biologist E O Wilson was asked what represented the greatest hindrance to the development of children; his answer was the “soccer mom” and her list of after-school clubs and activities.

Obsession with how well your child is doing at the age of three and a half has been compounded by pop science books promising the secret of nurturing greatness. The genre tells us nothing about genius but a great deal about ourselves. In a phony meritocracy, genius must be reduced to a formula that is open to anyone. It cannot be acknowledged unless it can be domesticated and commodified.

Cherry-picking is the preferred methodology favoured by authors determined to “decode” genius and to uncover a template for future greatness. Well, let’s cherry-pick two examples that demonstrate the problem with cherry-picking.

Until very recently, the pre-eminent rivalry in men’s tennis was between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. It is one of the greatest rivalries in sports history. Here is the crucial point: though both men were exceptional young players, the learning environment in which they grew up could not have been more different.

Nadal’s parents effectively ceded Rafa’s tennis upbringing to his father’s brother, Toni. Uncle Toni was brutally tough, pushing Rafa to the limits of his physical and mental capacity. Even now, despite being an 11-time Grand Slam winner, Nadal plays with a hounded intensity, as if fearful that he will be punished if he ever stops chasing down lost causes.

When Rafa was growing up, as John Carlin’s authorised biography describes, the rest of the family worried deeply that Toni might be damaging the teenager: “In the case of Rafa’s mother, [bemusement] occasionally gave way to anger . . . His godfather went so far as to say that what Toni was doing to the child amounted to ‘mental cruelty’.”

There is no escaping the logic that Nadal’s education was an enormous risk. The uncle gambled that his nephew could withstand extraordinary pressure. Rafa could easily have been crushed. That the risk ended in success does not prove it was not a risk.

Compare the story of Federer, who has won 17 Grand Slam titles. A passage in Jon Wert - heim’s book Strokes of Genius summarised the influence of Federer’s family: “His parents weren’t pushy; if anything, they were ‘pully’. If they nudged him at all, it was to stop taking tennis so seriously. Instead of supplementing God-given talent with burning ambition and intense training, the Federers stressed fun. Instead of suggesting to their son that he was special, the Federers took pains to treat Roger no differently from their daughter, Diana.”

The Nadals pushed the boundaries; the Federers provided a “relentless onslaught of the normal”. In terms of nurturing winners, the two opposite approaches have been roughly equally vindicated. In human terms, both men are widely admired. There is no “right” approach. It depends on the character of the child.

Random selection

What makes some men and women exceptional will always remain unknowable. The uncertainty has two separate dimensions. First, there is the complex and largely unanswerable question of innate talent, gifts conferred at birth. This strand of greatness then interacts with the equally unscientific question of nurture. Identifying exceptional talent is hard; knowing what to do with it is even harder.

Humanity is not only messy and disordered, it is also random. We can be sure that many potential prodigies lived unfulfilled lives in an unhelpful environment. We can be equally sure that many children with access to every social and economic advantage are crushed by over-coaching – or lack the talent to benefit from it. We cannot even learn rigid lessons from elite achievers because the interaction of nature and nurture is always unique.

That mystery will doubtless annoy tiger mothers around the world. For the rest of us, the fact that some corners of human achievement cannot be deconstructed is a source of joy and humility.

Ed Smith’s “Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters” is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.