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

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

An actual tiger mother.
An actual tiger mother. Photograph: Getty Images

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.”

Cherry-picking

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)