The adolescent polymath

The polymath’s development throughout adolescence can bewilder parents even more than the toddler phase when an unusual level of clutter proliferates in the child’s life for no apparent reason. But since adolescence baffles and worries all parents, what’s different about the life of a polymath at this stage?

Multiple interests and abilities, always stressful and potentially unmanageable, can scatter the polymath at the best of times. Adolescence, which so often includes periods of lethargy and discouragement, can exacerbate this already difficult state of being.

So where an adolescent of normal intelligence may lose his or her motivation for a time, and lack a vision for the future, the pre-adult polymath—already wandering in an internal landscape of many paths and no map—could become temporarily paralyzed. On the outside, this could manifest itself as a nearly complete halt, while your multi-talented child copes simultaneously with the anxieties of teetering on the edge of adulthood and more interests than anyone could possibly pursue.

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Mitigating the clash between school and the polymath’s inner world

As we have seen, the complex inner world of the polymath exerts a powerful pull on his or her attention, with school often pushed into second place. This frustrates everyone involved, the student most of all.

How do you cope when the adults in your life expect you to focus on subjects or activities that are not nearly as compelling as what you’re thinking about? In addition, the pressure of all those interesting thoughts and nascent abilities, plus the prospect of rarely getting to pursue them, can be overwhelming and stressful.

This is why it’s so important for parents to try to understand their child’s plight, and above all, to support the very interests that appear to be interfering with school. Encouraging these eclectic interests could help a young polymath just as practice writing helped me, and as I felt it could have helped Writer A.

The principle is the same: When many interests or ideas threaten to swamp someone—with or without the complication of unwanted school subjects—give those interests a safety valve. Don’t allow them to be bottled up, or they’ll cause a lot more trouble than they will if they have even a partial outlet.

Then, with the feeling that their voluminous interests are not all imprisoned inside their heads, grade school-aged polymaths might even gain a bit of attention for school.

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The polymath in early grade school

As the young polymath reaches early grade school, his or her diverse interests begin to coalesce. Certain activities or subjects become compelling. If these don’t mesh with schoolwork, this can cause problems; so it’s important for parents to try to understand what’s going on.

For example, suppose your clearly able child isn’t paying attention during the reading lesson. It could be because math—along with about ten other subjects—is exerting a much stronger pull on his or her mind. Adding to the complications, even if the child is interested in the subject the teacher is presenting, his inner world often fails to harmonize with it.

Therefore, it’s essential to try to learn what your child is thinking about, and how. Conversations like this are possible in the grade school years. By adolescence, those same conversations will be much more difficult, so now is the time to try to connect with your child’s deepest passions. Then you can support and facilitate the multiple abilities that may be interfering with school, but certainly aren’t going to diminish in quantity or intensity.

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“Why does my toddler need to keep everything?”

Given that the two-year-old future polymath appears disorganized and even scattered, how can we help? We can start by trying to understand the likely source of the outer chaos we’re observing.

Almost from birth, the diverse abilities of the polymath are stirring. These children see many possibilities for various future activities, and this leads naturally to seeing potential uses for almost every object in their worlds. So they keep all sorts of things.

They apparently sense their multiple abilities long before they learn to organize objects. Where would a two or three-year-old get the ability to sort, categorize and arrange things? This is probably the source of the wild disorder of their play-spaces and bedrooms that can so frustrate and bewilder parents.

If we’re paying attention to our child’s mental and emotional state, we learn not to require too much neatness. When we suggest that certain objects are useless, and then see how much stress this idea causes, we learn to forget the clutter and adapt as best we can.

It’s better to allow preschool-aged polymaths to feel possibilities and opportunities in the raw, even though at this early stage these possibilities are mostly fulfilled by keeping things.

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The polymath in the preschool years

The inner world of the polymath is full and complicated. This inevitably produces chaos on the outside, and this surface disorder is most noticeable in early childhood. It is also baffling and sometimes frustrating to teachers and parents.

“Why can’t my child keep track of basic possessions, like shoes? Why does he forget which room of the house he’s supposed to be heading for, and the reason? Why does she forget basic instructions, or maybe never heard them?”

These children also experience insights far beyond their years, and are unusually alert, despite being absent-minded.

It’s exciting to witness the beginnings of such complex and high intelligence, and also a consuming task to figure out what’s going on, and how best to serve these children in their earliest years.

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The hidden benefits of finger patterns: mitigating the tedium of the 10,000-mile journey

What my students discovered about finger patterns revealed the interesting dimension in a potentially boring activity. As they established their routines for finger patterns, they soon found that their minds behaved in new and surprising ways.

One of my students, Alice, was especially alert and curious. She told me, “I’m noticing other things while I’m practicing finger patterns,” reporting increased focus on the general sensations of playing; a new ability to hear and evaluate her tone; subtle changes in pitch according to how she placed her fingers or angled her left hand, and similar elements not directly related to finger patterns.

My other students discovered that they could also place their attention on different aspects of their technique, thus making this drill count for more than just its apparent worth. This was possible precisely because the drill itself was so simple and repetitive.

Since they didn’t need their whole attention for so easy a task, they had enough left over to work on other sectors of their technique. This was a fascinating development, both for what it gave their minds to do, and for what it suggested about the gains they could expect to achieve long before they’d completed their 10,000 hours.

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How I convinced my cello students to get started on their 10,000 hours

Drawing on a mysterious fund of patience, my cello students all agreed to adopt one of the most routine, simple practice techniques I’d ever assigned. It could have been boring but somehow wasn’t; even those most likely to resist this task were excited.

Possibly this miracle of pedagogy occurred because I’d tapped a deep place within myself to find the vision for this drill, and the reason for doing it.

Building on a traditional component of stringed instrument pedagogy, finger patterns, I modified certain procedures for my purpose. The most important change was in the period of time my students were to practice finger patterns. Where most of my teachers had assigned finger patterns for a limited period, I told my students to practice them for the foreseeable future.

During the next few weeks, we had fascinating conversations about this simple, repetitive drill that didn’t even rise to the interest level or challenge of an easy etude.

After demonstrating finger patterns, and having my students try them, I said, “These are so simple that your reason for practicing them from now on isn’t because they’re hard.”

They agreed. One or two asked, out of curiosity more than resistance, “Why should we practice these so much if they’re so easy?”

“Because of what they will do for your technique: When you play, can you currently see the fingerboard; every note on it, and which notes are accessible from any given location of your left hand?”

It was a rhetorical question because their playing wasn’t at that level yet. But when I asked, their eyes sparkled.

“Finger patterns are your journey toward that comprehensive grasp of the fingerboard. It’s a limited task, though long, and every time you practice them, you’re advancing one step closer.”

They all got it. Not one argued or dragged his or her feet. And as they gained experience practicing this drill, other benefits soon emerged.

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Preparations for convincing my most gifted cello students to get started on their 10,000 hours

Since many gifted children don’t tolerate boredom well, how can we convince them that they should persevere through the long slog to mastery of any subject or skill? I succeeded with my cello students, but only after I had stumbled into the benefits of accumulated effort in my own musical development.

Although at the time I didn’t know about Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion of the 10,000-hour rule of proficiency in his book, Outliers, the force of my discovery was compelling. My cello playing had just leaped forward in one of the most important areas of technique: tactile knowledge of the fingerboard. After years of what felt like groping, I could suddenly see where to put my fingers. In my mind’s eye, I saw lines going across the four strings or sometimes dots or flashing lights where the notes were.

With this graphic guide, I played much better in tune; could read music faster; and maneuvered around the cello more easily. In addition, almost every other sector of my technique improved, whether directly connected to fingerboard knowledge or not. I soon saw the cause.

By that stage in my development, I’d been playing about thirty years. For that entire time, I’d been placing my fingers on the fingerboard, attempting—and often failing—to play the right notes in tune and on time. This effort, saturating my musical life, included rehearsals, practice sessions, performances, and numerous recreational chamber music sessions. Dictated by conditions far less controlled than those in a practice room, a high percentage of this finger-placing activity was random, or at least unorganized for the purposes of learning the fingerboard.

Nonetheless, I saw in hindsight how effective it had been. A finite number of attempts to place my fingers had led to those clear mental pictures. True, that finite number was huge, but I was impressed by two obvious facts about the process: 1) it had been effective despite the absence of a systematic procedure 2) I could devise a simple method for accelerating it.

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A natural law of learning

As teachers and parents of the most highly gifted students, we often wish for an “answer manual” to guide us through the puzzles these children present us with. Fortunately, there is one answer we can count on, apparently universal and immutable. Therefore, it might actually apply to all gifted people. It leaves other, more ambiguous, questions unanswered, but at least we have this one rock to stand on.

This important fact is a natural law of skill acquisition, discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, his fascinating book on high achievement. He devotes a chapter to the proven phenomenon that rather than the level of talent, the number of hours a person practices any skill determines their level of achievement. This is true of such diverse fields as athletics, music performance, and computer programming. Gladwell states, “Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.”

Even the most highly gifted have to cross that 10,000-hour line before they gain full proficiency. This corroborates what I’ve observed in my most talented cello students: those who show sudden, huge spikes in ability; those who can correctly perform a component of technique the first time while most others are struggling through many attempts; those who can see the fingerboard with almost no practice.

All these students, including even the ones who have the best intuitive feel for music-making, struggle with the inconsistent pattern of their spectacular abilities. There is no remedy for this except hours of practice; the same 10,000 hours everyone else has to put in.

I find this reassuring. It’s a straightforward path of work, work, and more work. Although it may be difficult to convince gifted students, whose learning paths are so often eclectic and self-directed, that they need to log in their 10,000 hours, it is one certainty for us in a minefield of ambiguities.

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Nurturing talent: not always an easy task

As we have seen, Joseph missed the opportunity to develop good work habits during his formative years. At age 17, he could still have learned to work hard, though this probably would have been difficult for him. As it was, the only way his talent showed itself was in the few areas of his cello playing that rose above the other portions of his technique: a classic case of having talent but not developing it.

Younger students, I’ve learned, might temporarily resist hard work, however, they are much more likely to establish consistent practice patterns than a student of Joseph’s age. What happens when a talented person works hard and regularly? I’ve been surprised to discover that their progress is often not spectacular at first. I’ve seen dazzling spurts of ability, seeming to come out of nowhere, that settle into a battle to recapture those glorious but elusive moments.

An emotional roller coaster can follow, until student and teacher realize that the same hard work, the same slow, persistent practice, is required for greater talent as for lesser. The difference is that less gifted students usually struggle harder and have to wait longer for spectacular moments, achieve fewer of these spikes, and their spikes are often shorter in height. But the general pattern of musical progress seems to be about the same.

The jagged shape of the most talented students’ learning curves surprised me before I’d taught enough of these high-ability people to observe what they actually need to do. I’d begun my career thinking that the lucky few who display quick facility with one or more components of cello technique possessed that same level of specific ability every day. Therefore, I assumed they just wouldn’t have to practice as hard as do the rest of us.

I was mostly wrong. Even prodigious ability comes and goes; waxes and wanes at first; until steady work hammers it into place. Where talent seems to “tell” is in the ultimately faster progress and greater depth achieved at a younger age by the genius who works hard.

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