Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Age of the Prodigy?

With no evidence other than my anecdotal impressions—an easy entry into an essay, no?—I wonder if we’re entering into the era of the prodigy, with all of the upsides and downsides that that implies.

What got me thinking about this subject were the twin phenoms of the MLB, Jason Heyward and Stephen Strasburg, about whom there has been so much hype that Ben McGrath of The New Yorker wrote an article about them. (Readers note: I’m very self-interested on the subject, seeing as Heyward is on my fantasy team and is about the only thing keeping it from descending into the pits of utter suckitude. This is what amounts to a journalistic conflict-of-interest disclosure at my current station.)

The hype is unusual because it’s widely assumed that baseball players take longer to mature and longer to break into the big leagues. Tom Verducci in Sports Illustrated theorizes that this might have to do with the skills necessary to pick up baseball’s subtleties.

This seems like a plausible enough explanation—but why not earlier? That, I guess, is the lesson of Jason Heyward, Stephen Strasburg, and other young guns of baseball. You can say similar things about basketball: on one hand basketball ever since Kevin Garnett has proven that youthful athleticism can make an earlier impact than most players, but athleticism isn’t the exclusive attribute of basketball prodigies. I think of a player like Ricky Rubio, who played significant minutes with his team starting at age 16 or so, but who isn’t overwhelmingly athletic—in fact, discussing his game revolves around his passing and “feel for the game,” attributes that seem to take longer to develop.

You might even say a similar thing about writing and intellectualism generally. Writing-wise, you have people like Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer, who got their first novels published while they were still in college. Malcolm Gladwell writes of people like Foer that there are two kinds of geniuses:
Prodigies like Picasso, Galenson argues, rarely engage in that kind of open-ended exploration. They tend to be "conceptual," Galenson says, in the sense that they start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they execute it. "I can hardly understand the importance given to the word 'research,' " Picasso once said in an interview with the artist Marius de Zayas. "In my opinion, to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing." He continued, "The several manners I have used in my art must not be considered as an evolution or as steps toward an unknown ideal of painting. . . . I have never made trials or experiments."

But late bloomers, Galenson says, tend to work the other way around. Their approach is experimental. "Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental," Galenson writes in "Old Masters and Young Geniuses," and he goes on:
The imprecision of their goals means that these artists rarely feel they have succeeded, and their careers are consequently often dominated by the pursuit of a single objective. These artists repeat themselves, painting the same subject many times, and gradually changing its treatment in an experimental process of trial and error. Each work leads to the next, and none is generally privileged over others, so experimental painters rarely make specific preparatory sketches or plans for a painting. They consider the production of a painting as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it; they typically believe that learning is a more important goal than making finished paintings. Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods. These artists are perfectionists and are typically plagued by frustration at their inability to achieve their goal.

But I’m not sure Smith fits Gladwell’s schema. Her novels aren’t formally adventurous or “conceptual” at all. Insofar as they have certain common themes or ideas drawn from experience (e.g. experience with a multiracial world), I mean, that’s true of every artist, right?

The point here is Smith doesn’t really look like either part of Gladwell’s schema and yet had the precocity anyway (she really isn’t precocious anymore; just very good). And I think experiences like Smith’s or Heyward’s or Rubio’s are becoming more common: a precocious claim to an old master’s skills. And if you had to press me as to why, I think this paragraph by Tom Verducci on Heyward’s development has a great deal to do with it:
But here's what is so special about Heyward. Yes, he is big and a natural athlete. But he is also an honest-to-goodness ballplayer, with a keen batting eye (aided by 20/10 vision), cunning baserunning instincts, premium defensive skills and a coach's nuanced understanding of how to play the game. Heyward is what Joe DiMaggio would be if Joltin' Joe grew up playing nothing but baseball, as many as 200 games a year all over the country from the time he was eight, on exquisitely groomed fields, with a private hitting coach, a fitness trainer and a father dedicated to ferrying him around greater Atlanta, which has become one of the world's greatest amateur baseball hotbeds. Heyward's story is increasingly how 21st-century stars are made: bigger, faster, stronger, specialized and, having played so much baseball growing up, far ahead of what used to be the sport's long learning curve.

What marks many of the other early geniuses is, well, a fanatical parent. Think of Andre Agassi’s dad deciding early on that Andre would become a tennis star, though his dad really had no experience with tennis previous to that…Or think of Todd Marinovich’s dad, deciding to try out of all his pet theories on human development onto him…Or think of J.S. Mill’s circle trying to make him a perfect intellectual machine…

What’s distinctive about the three most recently listed examples is that they all had mental breakdowns of one kind or another, usually related to the fact that Dad was a Jerk. And as far as I know, the earlier examples—Heywards, Rubios, Smiths—all had fine, quiet family lives.

Economically and socially, we live in something like the perfect environment to incubate talent early. This aspect of modern life has not exactly lacked for comment, so I’ll just let the twentysomething part of the audience remember its days full of the activities and clubs pursued. There’s always been an aspect of neurotic worry in the commentary about this subject—oh my lord, are we overscheduling our children and turning them into automata?—but I don’t remember being particularly overburdened about that aspect of my childhood, and I don’t know of any of my friends who felt this way either. Lest this turn into a “I don’t know anyone who voted for Nixon” moment, I’ll simply note that I might be wrong.

Instead what I remember is a dad and mom who were very patient in indulging me in some very odd pursuits that I wasn’t very talented at—e.g. baseball—and helped me develop whatever talents I have today. And I’d imagine many of today’s prodigies had a similar upbringing—indeed, the description of Heyward’s baseball education sounds like a more intense version of my brother’s tennis education. If either my brother or I were prodigies, we wouldn’t have lacked for support.

So I suspect these two things: given that the global middle to upper middle class and the sort of Bobo ethic that David Brooks has written about has never been more widespread than it has at this cultural moment, we’ve never really had a better environment to cultivate prodigies and their talents. And given the great successes prodigies have had—and the truth that they don’t all have to be Todd Marinovich—it’s hard to say that isn’t a good thing. Indeed, many of the problems with the arrangement are the people left out: that is, the potential young writers or composers living in a favela in Rio de Janeiro or the Congo.

But I think there’s a less obvious problem with the arrangement, also, with how the prodigies affect the late bloomers. Gladwell’s archetypal late bloomers—Cezanne and Ben Fountain—struggle through early editions of their work, supported by a patron (Emile Zola and wife, respectively). Gladwell identifies the problem of the late bloomer, perceptively:
…the marketplace works only for people like Jonathan Safran Foer, whose art emerges, fully realized, at the beginning of their career, or Picasso, whose talent was so blindingly obvious that an art dealer offered him a hundred-and-fifty-franc-a-month stipend the minute he got to Paris, at age twenty. If you are the type of creative mind that starts without a plan, and has to experiment and learn by doing, you need someone to see you through the long and difficult time it takes for your art to reach its true level.
The media marketplace used to be slightly more favorable to the relatively late bloomer. Madonna’s breakout album, I’m told, was her third one. Raymond Carver had to kick alcoholism and struggle with his work, publicly, until he began his wonderful eighties run. Their success wouldn’t happen today: because the internet is slashing the profit margins of the big media players, they have smaller amounts of money to subsidize artists who might one day become great—and provide them with paychecks until the rest of their life. They must therefore ruthlessly search for the late bloomers.

Practically the only major economic player left nowadays that subsidizes—even celebrates—failure is Silicon Valley, coincidentally the agent of the collapse of the other industry’s informal patronage operation. That this is true and that Silicon Valley is the innovation hub of the country can scarcely be coincidental. They can’t all be Mark Zuckerberg (or, as Paul Graham characterizes it, have organic startup ideas). Hence you need a little bitter experience to actually become successful later.

Silicon Valley aside, we don’t seem to do enough with the late bloomers, of which there must be many. The next question is, how do we do more?

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