I am not a prodigy

Rethinking life in a youth-obsessed culture

Joan Westenberg
@westenberg
8 min readMay 30, 2024

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Photo by S. H. Gue on Unsplash

In my 20s, every accomplishment, no matter how minor, felt monumental — a prodigious feat worthy of praise and admiration.

Fresh out of college and eager to make my mark, I attacked the decade (my decade, surely?) with the kind of enthusiasm and confidence we have accepted as the particular province of the young and uninitiated.

Every job offer, every promotion, and every successful project felt like an earth-shattering achievement.

I was convinced I was on the fast track to legendary status, destined for the kind of outsized success that graces magazine covers and becomes the subject of breathless profiles.

With the benefit of a bit more life experience and perspective (if being in my 30s counts for that) I can see that much of what felt so prodigious at the time was, in reality, the ordinary stuff of early adulthood — landing an entry-level position in my field? Groundbreaking. Moving out of a shared house into my own tiny, overpriced apartment? A masterstroke of independence and maturity. Cooking a meal that didn’t come from a box or a takeout container? I was Julia Child.

And it’s not that these weren’t legitimate milestones and accomplishments. They were, and I’m proud of the steps I took to build a life and career in my 20s. But with a little distance from it all, I can recognise how my perception was skewed by the heady mix of youth, inexperience, and a culture that fetishises precocious achievement.

When you’re in your 20s, it’s easy to feel like every decision carries immense weight and every success (or setback) is a defining moment in the narrative arc of your life. With so much uncertainty about the future, each victory can feel like a sign that you’re on the precipice of something big, the kind of breakout success that will set you apart from the pack.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the value of a different kind of arc.

I no longer feel the same urgency to prove my worth through a rapid-fire succession of prodigious feats. Instead, I’m more content to focus on the slow, steady accumulation of skills, knowledge, and experience that compounds over time into something valuable.

That’s not to say I don’t still get a thrill from a job well done or a goal achieved. But my 30-something self is less likely to mistake the ordinary milestones of building a life and career for evidence of a once-in-a-generation outlier.

Part of this shift has come from watching friends and colleagues chart their professional and personal careers — which often look very different from the ones celebrated in popular culture. I’ve seen that success takes many forms and operates on many timelines and that some of the most impressive, impactful people I know didn’t hit their stride until well into their 30s, 40s, or beyond.

But it’s more than that.

Our society, hierarchies, and pop culture are captivated by youth and enchanted by prodigies. From Silicon Valley tech founders to TikTok influencers, we heap adulation upon those who achieve extraordinary things at a precociously young age. A 20-year-old billionaire, a teen pop sensation, or a child prodigy tickling the ivory keys — these are the figures who capture our collective imagination. Something irresistible about the “young genius” makes us stop and marvel.

It could be the sheer audacity of it all, the improbable sight of someone so green accomplishing feats that would be remarkable at any age. When a college dropout creates a world-changing tech company from their dorm room, or a tween becomes an international singing sensation, it shakes up our notions of what’s possible. Prodigious youth seem unbounded by the constraints and limitations holding the rest of us back.

Maybe it’s the potential such early success seems to foretell. We see in these remarkable youngsters immense promise for even greater future heights. If they can do this much this soon, imagine what they might accomplish with more time and seasoning under their belts. A precocious debut carries the tantalising prospect of a legendary career.

But maybe — maybe — our prodigy worship also reflects the value our culture places on raw, innate talent and “natural” genius. We like the idea that greatness can spring fully formed without the messy struggles and setbacks that shape more ordinary paths to success. We like the idea that some are born for and to glory. The gifted child who masters a skill on the first attempt, the wunderkind who takes to their calling as if they were born to it — in them, we glimpse a purity of excellence, an absence of friction between supreme aptitude and towering achievement. There’s a kind of fatalism at work here that can be comforting.

And, at first, it seems harmless. It looks positive — a society valuing its young. But our obsession with youthful genius isn’t without consequences. Early success can be a decidedly mixed blessing for the young phenoms, bringing outsized expectations and immense pressure to deliver ever more impressive feats. Fail to top your milestones as the years go on, and you may find the world all too ready to write you off as a has-been or a burnout. No matter how much you’ve already achieved, you’re only as dazzling as your latest and greatest.

This creates a relentless urgency, a sense that you must make your mark as early and dramatically as possible before time drains away your lustre. Pile up those precocious accomplishments because you may not get a second chance to wow us. This mentality breeds immense stress and insecurity as maturing prodigies feel the window of opportunity closing on them.

The early achievers struggle in the aftermath of their youthful breakthroughs. The one-hit wonder is a well-worn cliché, but it’s closer to reality — early success is no guarantee of continued relevance and accomplishment. There’s a reason “sophomore slump” is part of our cultural lexicon. Following up on a sensational debut that landed you in the pantheon of prodigies is no easy feat. Many end up as the answers to trivia questions, their moment in the sun frustratingly fleeting. Some of the “prodigies” who burned brightest in their 20s struggled to sustain that momentum over time, falling victim to what might be described as the “regression to the mean” — the tendency for early outliers to drift back towards average as time goes on.

Beyond the individual struggles of early achievers, our cultural obsession with young geniuses may also distort our understanding of success. We’re shown a highlight reel of prodigious accomplishments, barely out of pubescence. But the stories of late bloomers and those who steadily built mastery over decades go underappreciated. Worse, many of us mere mortals may look at teen moguls and adolescent virtuosos and despair that we’ve already missed our shot at greatness.

But we shouldn’t mistake precociousness for the only path to high achievement. For every wunderkind, there are countless examples of people who found their stride later in life after accumulating years of hard-won knowledge and experience. Success has no expiration date, even if the limelight tends to linger on dewy, fresh-faced brilliance.

The reality is, youthful achievement or not, we’re all on the same trajectory — birth, growth, peak, decline, death. It’s the fundamental human condition. While a precious few may hit that apex in their teens or 20s, that’s more exception than rule. For most, our “flourishing” lies further down the path.

When a culture venerates, glorifies and obsesses over youth as the defining characteristic of genius, it can leave us feeling like failures as we inevitably age, even as we continue to grow and progress in our lives and careers. If your early years didn’t bring superstar status, it’s easy to feel like you’ve missed your shot and are forever consigned to a dreary inertia.

But that’s not the case. History is full of figures who bloomed marvellously in their middle and later years. Alfred Hitchcock hit his creative peak in his 50s. Sam Walton founded Walmart at age 44. Julia Child published her first cookbook at 49. Laura Ingalls Wilder began writing her Little House books in her 60s.

No matter our age, we all have intrinsic worth and the capacity for growth, change, and meaningful work. An early rush of accomplishment might be thrilling, but the long arc of life matters most. “Genius” has no age limit.

We shouldn’t crown the fresh-faced as the heroes of achievement and ignore everyone else. Mastery is a lifelong pursuit, and we aren’t finished just because the first flowering of youth has faded, and we’re no longer in the most actively pursued advertising demographic.

If, as we age, we lose the sleek appeal of the prodigies, we gain something substantive in its place — the opportunity for a legacy, for a body of work built on the foundation of all the years that came before. That’s something worth cherishing, even if it doesn’t capture headlines or set the cultural zeitgeist ablaze.

By all means, let’s have our wunderkinder, our dazzling ingenues. But we should make space in our collective imagination for the quieter, slower burns, the later-life flowerings. The life that somehow, against all odds, exists after age 29.

They may not come with all the same breathless hype, but they offer their rich satisfactions.

A well-lived life is less about a spectacular launch than a steady upward trajectory, less about a single defining flash than a sustained glow that builds over time. The glow may be less eye-catching than the glare of a supernova, but it has a beauty and warmth all its own. And it’s available to us all, whether we had our moment in the spotlight or not if we have the patience and persistence to keep kindling it through all our years.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

I try to hold onto the energy and optimism of my 20s while tempering it with the wisdom and perspective that comes with age. I don’t need to be a prodigy to lead a meaningful, thriving life, and the path to satisfaction is often slower and quieter than the flashy debuts and overnight successes that capture the cultural imagination.

I can appreciate the time I had, used and frequently wasted for what it was — a period of exploration, growth, and, yes, accomplishment, but one that was always going to be just the beginning of the story, not the climax. The real outlier achievement, I’m learning, is the ability to sustain that growth and progress over the long haul, to keep pushing forward even when the spotlight has moved on to the next batch of superstars.

It might not make for the most dramatic narrative arc, but I’m directionally OK with that. I’m happy to keep plugging away. My 20s were the first chapter in what I hope will be a much longer story — one with achievements of a different sort, the kind that come from a lifetime of showing up, pushing forward, and never losing sight of the bigger picture.

It might not be the stuff of magazine covers or blockbuster biographies, but it feels like a legacy worth building, one step at a time.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

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