The frequency of prodigies in various fields

Prodigies are common in mathematics, but extremely rare in literature, and as far as I know, there are no prodigies in monastic life.
-Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, p.142

I believe that what is often called “talent” is not an inherent aptitude for a particular skill or activity (be it playing the cello or painting or public speaking) per se, but rather an inherent desire or drive to concentrate on, think about, or undertake that thing for far longer and with more intensity than the average person. And so in most cases, the violin prodigy doesn’t have anything worth noting about their fingers or even their IQ. What makes them unique is that they are more or less happy to practice the thing six hours a day without going crazy. Their peers live in the same environment and have similar parents. They are the same stature and eat the same food and talk about the same movies. But when they go to play violin, they get bored or tired after one hour and go on to something else.

So in what areas are prodigies the most common? The activities where one is likely to get “lost” in and lose track of time in a sub-world of immediate feedback. Music is one of those. You can enthusiastically tackle the piano for – literally – all day long and be enthralled with making the sounds more precise. Prodigy trumpet players are virtually unheard of – the dang thing is just too physically demanding to play for more than a couple hours a day. The really top horn players tend to emerge in their mid-twenties, not in their early teens like string players or pianists.

Mathematics seems to be another field that thinkers can just get lost in. Computer science is another. In addition to that, the greatest challenges can be tackled with relatively little equipment – pen, paper, and maybe an old VIC-20. In contrast, chemists emerge far later in life. Doing much of anything in that field requires an incredible amount of gear – much of it untouchable by children.

Literature is another tricky one. It’s not unusual for a young person to devour books, but to turn around and write them? It’s slow going and there can be incredibly long stretches between feedback. A person who falls in love with the piano can sit down and get immediate response. A budding writer can work on something for hours and hours and have only frustration to show for it and a bad first draft. Time to go back to the drawing board and read more books so you can find the right words to use. If anything, I think the best writers were probably the best readers in childhood. That is the prep. The output comes later after a long stretch with seemingly none.

As Norris points out, the monastic life is even more extreme in this regard. Nobody starts out being a good monk. It takes a serious amount of time and forming and most of childhood doesn’t count.