Advice to the Bright and Young

by Danielle Fong


An article on one bright young man, Moshe, recently appeared on Hacker News. For a long time I’ve been meaning to write about the subject, and what was to be a simple comment morphed into this essay.

The story of educational acceleration is an old one. Curious, bright children learn and explore rapidly on their own, and interactively with their parents. The world is like a playground for the growing mind. The child takes in everything. Eventually, these children find themselves mired in school’s morass. There are new adventures: more kids, older kids, a new environment. Yet kept in one place, individual attention of parents replaced by lectures from often overtaxed and uninterested teachers, their minds are left to go fallow. While some of school is new, and quite enjoyable, boredom and obedience, for the curious child, is torturous, a fact which lucky children and mindful parents come to confront.

Alternatives appear: skipping grades, dropping out, home-schooling, gifted programs, science fairs, participating in the popularity game, sports, focusing on musical or athletic achievement, playing hookie, becoming jaded.

After entering junior high I pretty much stopped responding to the world at large. Life rapidly degenerated. I quickly dropped out, and luckily my parents didn’t make me go back. At that time both of my parents were very busy with work, and so homeschooling couldn’t work for long. We discovered that college was much cheaper than private school, which didn’t seem very good anyway. We argued my way in.

I was given a huge amount of freedom. Like Moshe’s parents, and like many others, mine urged me to slow down — advice I tried to take, though my eyes were always bigger than my appetite. I was amongst a culture that respected me for good reasons. I shared so much more than with my age peers. I was learning so much. A growth spurt hid my relative youth — soon nobody suspected I was so young. I truly enjoyed my time in college. Nothing brightens a teenager’s world more than responsibility, respect, and freedom.

There are dangers. Early fame is a minefield, for many reasons, in many fields. I think it’s hard for most people to live up to past successes, the ‘promise’ they had shown. But there are worse dangers. Two extremes haunt the gifted:

It is easy to feel that what one has achieved is in some sense artificial. That one has been built up out of nothing — that really, respect is in a large part undeserved. ‘Imposter syndrome’ is a common term for this feeling. People can feel themselves to profoundly wanting. Phony. But this is by no means exclusive to the academically accelerated. It follows early achievement wherever it can be found.

Alternatively, one can fall into a trap of picking activities on the basis of their impressiveness. One can miss out on more intellectually simulating, enjoyable, and valuable things in life, all in order to participate in a vapid achievement contest. One strives to be the youngest smartest fastest most daring most broadly educated highest iq’d phd’d nobel prized ivy leagued quantum genius prodigy in the world ever.

This happens way too often. And it affects all of us. One can feel so small next to the prominent. Long shadows can reach deep into other’s egos. Perhaps worse, all of us have felt a need to be great at times. It can become overpowering.

It’s a trait that is unfortunately encouraged by some parents who should know better. It’s certainly encouraged by society at large. The wiser guardians of bright kids sometimes say that raising them is like having to constantly pull on the brakes. They must. The world keeps pushing them.

One of the saddest things is that it’s all futile anyway. Inevitably, you grow up. Prodigies become ex-prodigies. This is lost on too many people.

Beyond questions of ego and achievement, there’s another problem with acceleration. Those who advance so quickly do so by letting delight pull them. One falls in love with the rhythm of important, challenging work, with the excitement, with ideas, and with the culture of the mind.

But you can’t live life like this forever. One must learn other lessons while growing up. At some point, we all wish for a pause button. We all need time to pull our identities together. We all need time to relax, and there is much that we need that cannot be provided by an overscheduled life. It is far too easy, with successes behind you, with fame around you, with drive and courage within you, and with a love of your work pulling you, to let that pause button go, and to refrain from asking for respite before hitting rock bottom. I know. It happened to me.

It felt like the world was ending. I felt like I was abandoning my love and my duty. I felt incredibly selfish. And I was exhausted.

It was not so bad, it turns out. My life rallied. It is difficult to explain how much better I feel. And surprisingly, taking a break, and taking time to reset myself personally, has even started to improve my work. Much of that many be a function of happiness. But part of this may help even the happiest of people. Pressure to do great things can rush life. It is so hard to pursue daring thoughts in a life too hurried.

So my advice to Moshe, and anyone who finds a glimmer of recognition in these words: stay curious, let your love of something pull you, but do not hastily give all of yourself and find there is nothing left to give. Don’t engage in the achievement rat race. Listen to praise from those you respect, but ignore it from those you don’t. Push back when society eggs you on. Focus on things that matter the most to you alone. Ignore fears of being an imposter — be authentic to yourself, that is enough. Keep your hands on the brakes. Enjoy your freedom of time and mind. Pursue daring thoughts when the urge strikes you. And when your heart begs pause of the world, listen.

Further Reading:

The Myth of Prodigy, and Why it Matters. Adapted from a Talk by Malcom Gladwell

There is some discussion back on Hacker News.

What are Worthwhile Problems? Advice from Richard Feynman. I mention this in particular because there’s yet another danger for the young and ambitious: falling in love with grand problems (or the idea of them) beyond one’s reach. Feynman suggests that “The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. [...] No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.”

Terry Tao also describes ‘one of the hazards’ of mathematics (though this is shared by many fields), focusing prematurely on a single big problem or theory. His advice? Don’t. Try instead to be patient, and flexible. Work hard. And above all, enjoy it.

Scott Aaronson describes in It’s Science if it Bites Back a teacher amusingly similar to mine in grade seven. Both of us dropped out immediately after our fateful encounter.

Paul Graham posits in Is it Worth Being Wise? “If you feel exhausted, it’s not necessarily because there’s something wrong with you. Maybe you’re just running fast.”

Stanislav Shalunov asks “Would you work with micromanaging boss, no salary, and all your work thrown away?”

John Taylor Gatto has excellent writings on the nature of education, and is featured in a video here.