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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Wunderkind Syndrome

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“The Godhead Enthroned,” which won Irish illustrator Harry Clarke a gold medal at the 1911 South Kensington National Competition in London. Clarke was twenty two years old.

 

Wunderkind Syndrome: Or, How to Stop Wanting to Be More Amazing Than Everybody Else

There is here no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer.

— Rainer Maria Rilke.

 

During my freshman year at NYU I took the subway uptown to the Guggenheim. When I came upon Picasso’s Le Moulin de la Galette—painted just after the great artist’s nineteenth birthday—I stood before it in a fog of self reproach. I was nineteen, and what did I have to show for myself?

In that moment I succumbed to “Wunderkind Syndrome”: the frantic desire to produce an amazing work of art as soon as possible—preferably before the age of twenty, twenty five at the latest—so that everyone will hail your genius before any of your contemporaries can edge you out. Furthermore, if you’re not applying yourself to this ambition with obsessive focus then you obviously don’t want it badly enough, and if you don’t want it enough to sacrifice sleep, social life, and basic personal hygiene, then you musn’t be a true artist.

Ridiculous, right? I’m chuckling as I type this. Why do we want so badly to prove our brilliance at a more tender age than everyone else? Why, in our secret (or not-so-secret) hearts, do we want to be perceived as better than everyone else?

Perhaps the first reason is, of course, that our culture is obsessed with youth (and generally at the expense of substance). We feel this panic to produce something while the world still casts us in an attractive light.

The second factor to consider is the scarcity mentality, which has haunted our species from the African savannah all the way to the Walmart Black Friday stampede. There are only so many accolades to go around—only so much gallery space, only so many slots on the “big five” publishers’ seasonal lists—and we grow desperate to claim our share as soon as we possibly can.

But the ultimate reason has nothing to do with cutting throats or getting trampled. We all want to be loved and accepted for who we are, and because our art feels like the truest expression of that identity, it’s all too tempting to conflate output with intrinsic worth. This misperception is most powerful during that brutal passage through adolescence. I must beam this work of my heart out into the world so that I will be seen—heard—understood. If we must make ourselves vulnerable in this way, then we might as well be rewarded for our bravery.

When I first began writing fiction with an eye toward publication, in 2001, a nineteen year old with a book deal was a rare bird. These days, thanks to the rocketing popularity of young adult fiction and the ease of digital publishing, you can find teenaged authors seemingly everywhere you look. Amanda Hocking, whose phenomenal self-publishing success led to a million-dollar deal with, ahem, my own publisher, has mentioned in interviews that she wanted to publish by the age of 26 because that’s how old Stephen King was when he came out with his first novel, Carrie. When I read an ARC of Hocking’s own debut novel, I made a game of underlining the adverbs, which appeared in ludicrous profusion on nearly every page. Apologies for the snark here, but she could have taken a few more years to hone her craft.

Still, I know exactly where Amanda Hocking was coming from. Just before my twenty-second birthday, I finished the last scene of a 600-page manuscript, hit the print button and mailed that teetering pile of paper off to a literary agent. I look back on the girl I was then, and try not to smile too condescendingly. I did get my first book deal at twenty five, but I put those three intervening years to good use: writing all night, sleeping ’til noon, forging lasting friendships with my grad school classmates, and going to classes knowing only that I had a hell of a lot to learn. In essence, I was working on a much more practical form of character development: I stopped believing the world owed me something and focused on telling an engaging and meaningful story.

In Show Your Work, Austin Kleon cites John Richardson’s biography of Picasso. According to Richardson, Picasso was notorious for sucking the energy out of anyone who paid him a visit: somebody with stars in his eyes would show up hoping to be inspired by the great artist, only to leave hours later feeling completely exhausted and depressed. Picasso, meanwhile, retreated to his studio and painted all night with renewed vigor. This is why many of Picasso’s contemporaries wanted nothing to do with him personally.

The asshole-genius is a false binary—you can see something you painted as a teenager in one of the world’s finest art museums without turning into a psychic vampire!—but we may still find ourselves striving for notoriety at any cost if we lose sight of these two basic truths:

1. Getting a fancy book, film, or record deal does NOT make you a better artist.
2. Getting a fancy book, film, or record deal does NOT make you a better person.

In his 2008 TED talk Benjamin Zander, longtime conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, says, “I have a definition of success. For me, it’s very simple: it’s not about wealth and fame and power. It’s about how many shining eyes I have around me.” Zander is now in his seventies, and the viewer gets the distinct impression as he bounds down the steps to engage with his audience that he is sharing the wisdom he has accumulated over seven decades of conscious living. He has nothing to prove; he’s only offering the best that is in him, a trove of abundance that goes on accumulating with every passing year.

How absurd, then, to think that one’s insight and ability have a sell-by date, when they ought to have a “do not sell before” date! Art isn’t a sporting event; it isn’t a race. No one is standing before you holding up their wrist to tap at their watch. Besides, there’s always going to be someone out there who’s achieved your goal at a younger age, who’s garnered more commercial success or critical accolades and awards. Wunderkind Syndrome will siphon off your creative energy if you give in to it.

In the end, of course, no one gives a crap how young or old you are. If you’ve written a good book or snapped a stunning photograph, your work will circulate in the world on its own merits.

* * *

Edit: Nora Mathews pointed me to this 2008 New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell on genius and precocity.

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This post is part of a larger project, my first full-length work of nonfiction. Details coming soon!

 

5 Comments to Wunderkind Syndrome

  1. October 28, 2014 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Camille, would you mind condensing this post into a brief rant, climbing onto a tall structure in your town, and shouting it as loud as you can? We ALL need to hear this, and for some reason, we need to hear it over and over. At one end of the spectrum is the 19-year-old striving to “make it” before a certain age; at the other end are those of us for whom age 19 has long receded into the distance–those of us who say, “Why bother? I’ve only got another 30 years left of life!” Art is worthy. Make it.

  2. Kathleen's Gravatar Kathleen
    October 28, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Well said, Camille. Another aspect of the wunderkind syndrome that can be damaging happens in all endeavors, not just creative pursuits. When you’re young and competent or even skilled at your job, you often get praised disproportionately (“Look at you, breathing. You’re amazing!”)

    As you continue in your career, your skill and talent usually grow, however people stop praising you for competency and start taking it for granted. This can be a tough shift if you become more motivated by external praise than your own standards and values.

  3. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    October 29, 2014 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    I have always believed that you don’t want to peak too early. If I had accomplished something too awesome at age 19, then the rest of life would have been a let down. When I first read your line about Picasso I misread it as 90, and thought wow that’s awesome. To me the goal is not to achieve something at a really young age, but to still be active and achieving something great into old age.

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.