The Cult of Prodigy

Roxane Gay at Salon:

There is a cult of bright young things, a cultural obsession with genius, a need to find beacons of greatness in an ordinary world. In a December 2002 article in The Atlantic Monthly, Marjorie Garber writes, “At this point in history genius has become a commodity, an ambition, and even a lifestyle.” She also notes that, “Deep within us lies a certain strain of longing for genius, a genius worship, that might be described as messianic: the hope that a genius will come along to save us from our technological, philosophical, spiritual, or aesthetic impasse.” When young people display remarkable intelligence or creativity, we are instantly enamored. We want or need geniuses to show us the power and potential of the human mind and we’re so eager to find new people to bestow this title upon that the term and the concept have become quite diluted.


Jonah Lehrer is part of a system that allows magazines, year after to year to publish men, and white men in particular, significantly more than women or people of color. He is part of a system where the 2012 National Magazine Awards have no women nominees in several key categories. He is part of a system where white editors belabor the delusion that there simply are few women or writers of color who are good enough for their magazines because said editors are too narrow in what they want, what they read, what they think, or just too lazy to work beyond their Rolodex of writers who look and think just like them. He is part of a system that requires an organization like VIDA to do an annual count that reveals a disheartening, ongoing and pervasive practice of a certain kind of writer predominantly gaining entrance to the upper echelons of publishing. He is part of a system that exhausts itself denying these problems exist or that these problems matter.


Lehrer may or may not be a genius, but we wanted him to be one. We wanted him to do right by the narrative he is a part of and to be a bold part of the system that helped make him. For a while, Lehrer did his best, with his sharp haircut and designer glasses and confident talk about how we think and create and imagine. We probably also lost sight of the difference between a spokesperson and what is actually spoken. As Garber also notes in her Atlantic Monthly article on genius, “If we remind ourselves that what is really at stake is creativity and invention; if we can learn to separate the power of ideas from that of personality; then perhaps we will be less dazzled by the light of celebrity and less distracted by attempts to lionize the genius as a high-culture hero — as essence rather than force.” The cult of personality, of bright young things, is dangerous. It blinds us. We keep getting further and further away from ideas, from great writing that is nurtured and thoughtful because we’re more interested in the men behind the ideas.

It’s ironic that Ms. Gay published this article at Salon, which has a big stable of “bright young thing” writers on staff. She is correct, but the problem is much bigger than she realizes. It isn’t just the writing field that is obsessed with boy geniuses, it’s our whole culture.

True genius is both rare and erratic. Genius carries no guarantee of mental or emotional stability. “Genius” and “wisdom” are not synonymous. Wisdom is intelligence enhanced by education and tempered with experience.

We have raised a couple generations of young people who all think they are the best and brightest. They want and expect instant gratification, including all the perks and rewards of success. All too frequently they get the rewards even though they didn’t earn them.

There was a time when young people were expected to start at the bottom and work their way up. Now they expect to start at the top, pushing aside those who are older and more experienced.

Intelligence is a talent, and talent is a good thing. But it needs to be developed and combined with character and discipline. In the academic world there are shortcuts (some ethical, some not) that can be taken and intelligence can substitute for effort. Students can use the notes of other students and they can party all semester then cram for tests at the end. They don’t need to learn anything, just remember it long enough to pass the course.

The real world is different. Intelligence is often less important to success than hard work. The process of “working their way up” weeds out the slackers and those with character and personality defects.

No one epitomizes this cult of prodigy more than Barack Obama. He is also the poster child for what is so wrong about this obsession with “bright young things.”

By any reasonable measure Barack Obama was not ready for prime time in 2008. At best he was a rising star. He should have been nurtured, mentored, tested and watched. Had that traditional process taken place his character defects would have become evident before he was given the reins of power.

This morning someone asked “Where are all the Democrat’s rising stars?” That is one of the myriad problems with the current Democratic party – they have no “farm” system, no process for grooming the leaders of the future.

A political party, like a business or any organization, should look beyond today and plan for tomorrow. This means both identifying and preparing talented young people for bigger and better things.

Caveat – this IS NOT about picking winners. The process needs to be competitive in order to weed out those who are unfit or unworthy. As the Bible says, “Many are called but few are chosen.

The process needs to be without pity. Rising stars need to be given opportunities and increasingly more responsibility, but they must sink or swim on their own. They cannot be coddled or carried. Today’s rising stars become tomorrow’s tested leaders.

Hillary Clinton was once a rising star in the Democratic party. She teamed up with Bill and together they built his career. She was a “power behind the throne” as the First Lady of Arkansas and then the United States. Then came her time and she moved into the Senate as Bill moved into private life. She won two elections and was in her second term when she ran for president. She had literally spent her life preparing for that job.

But she was shoved aside to make room for an alleged prodigy.

Imagine if the voters had been allowed to choose the nominee. Hillary would now be president. Barack Obama would either be vice president or would still be in the Senate. I have no doubt that Hillary would be a shoo-in for reelection, even if the economy was still struggling.

That would mean that Barack Obama could not run for president until at least 2016 when he would still only be 55 years old. That would be eight additional years in the spotlight, eight more years for him to either sink or swim.

We would have had the full benefit of Hillary’s talent and experience, then when her time was almost up we would have voted to choose a successor. By then party should have made sure we had more than one option to choose from. But it would be OUR choice, not theirs.

That’s because when the party picks the winners they usually pick losers.

This entry was posted in Barack Obama, Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

55 Responses to The Cult of Prodigy

  1. well done myiq, well done. What you write is so true!!! Here’s a dream ticket of nurtured talent:

  2. Lulu says:

    Perhaps we are seeing the end of the cult of youth. There are a lot of good things about being young but having smarts is not one of them. Experience is surviving your mistakes.

  3. simofish says:

    Glad I finally found your blog !!!

  4. votermom says:

    Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. – Thomas Edison

    You didn’t build that. – Barack Obama.

  5. votermom says:

    Today is the Chick-Fil-A buycott day.

  6. votermom says:

    Awkward! Obama campaign has him landing at National Guard base in Ohio that is targeted for steep budget cuts.

  7. yttik says:

    Good post!

    What are we looking for with our prodigy obsession anyway? A savior, a messiah?

  8. Glennmcgahee says:

    The process you described is exactly the way the political system should work. Its unfortunate that the media decided to by-pass that route altogether due to being scared of a LADY!
    Hopefully this year, the Democratic Party will learn a great big lesson and start listening to us little folk out here in the ballot booth. That should be their only rule – to Miss Donna Brazille.

  9. DandyTiger says:

    Great post! Honk, honk!!

  10. myiq2xu says:

    A History Of Black Violence
    By Ta-Nehisi Coates


    There are no words.

  11. Nice work, myiq, and I certainly agree.

    I also thought you would appreciate this post from BafoonJuice, especially the first comment on it.

  12. cj says:

    Great post! The Democratic Party will eventually implode under the weight of its own hubris. There are no rising stars because the fossilized dinosaurs at the top won’t let them in. They never wanted change, they were sitting way too smug & self satisfied in their own rotten status-quo to ever allow real change. That’s why they went with smoke & mirrors in 08.

    But they never saw the danger. They assumed the defeated Republican power structure would stay as static and stale as they were and that smoke & mirrors would last them a generation. They were wrong. So take a bow Sarah Palin & the Tea Party. All the heckling and jeering, all the ugly temper tantrums in the world won’t stop the revitalization of the GOP, and the Dems still haven’t come to grips with that fact.

    • Glennmcgahee says:

      Can remember the media saying the Republicans were done for years and years. Then 2010 happened….. and Sara.

    • This is the sad truth that confounds me — they either don’t want change or are wrapped up in their own hubris that they don’t see they need to change. I also suspect that this is due to the further division among the parties as the Republicans are becoming more the party of business, as small business owners increasingly flee the Dem Party. I can’t even tell you how many small business owners I know who would have voted for Hillary in 2008, and were forced to vote for the republican instead. After all it takes innovation, creativity, and a strong flexibility to incorporate change to be a successful business owner aside from the financial acumen. I’m increasingly puzzled that the Dem leadership doesn’t get this. And Brazille’s comment about no longer needing us, should get her kicked out of the DNC leadership. She has been an abject failure.

  13. Glennmcgahee says:

    I thought some may be interested in a positive article about Mitt Romney from the LGBT community that you will not hear about from any mainstream media publication. Seems Mitt was very inclusive of the gay community in his Olympic committee organization:

    • Thanks for posting that. I’ve shared it on my FB timeline, and it’s scheduled to go out at Romney Democrats this evening. It’s good info from a credible source.

  14. cj says:


    David Burge‏@iowahawkblog

    Embarrassed London Mayor Boris Johnson gets stuck on zip line; luckily, the stadium was only half full of witnesses.

  15. leslie says:

    Really great post, myiq.

    It’s interesting to think of TehOnce as working at anything. So when you suggested that he might still be a senator – or the VEEP to a President Hillary -until he was elected in possibly 2016, my thoughts immediately went to “I doubt it”. . .

    I remember when MO said that this would be our “LAST CHANCE” to have TehOnce as president. I think he wouldn’t have done anything even slightly resembling work even if it did mean becoming president one day.

    • myiq2xu says:

      As Veep Obama could coast along doing little or nothing for up to eight years. Nobody notices how much golf Biden plays or where he goes on vacation. He could take MO along as he visited other countries on an extended world tour/vacation.

      Best of all (for him) his primary job would be making speeches.

  16. HELENK says:

    most companies that make money have a policy of the good managers surrounding themselves with good people. The also hire young people and start training them to be the next good manager so that there is continuation in a company. They hire smart people who want to succeed and want to learn and want to work with others not against them

  17. HELENK says:

    this article says a lot about the backtrack bunch and their thinking

  18. Mary says:

    Great article!!

  19. r u reddy says:

    I remember reading that before 2008 Obama himself wanted to be a Senator longer to learn “senatoring” and so forth. It was Harry Reid who told Obama over and over that 2008 was Obama’s one golden now-or-never moment to run for President. Why did Reid so strongly want Obama NOT Clinton to run for President? How many of the other millionaire owner-leaders of the DemParty Establishment also wanted Obama NOT Clinton to run for President? And what was their reason?

    Pelosi’s crass vulgar reason is simple enough tounderstand. She owned ( still owns?) something like 3 million shares of AT & T stock. If the FISA lawsuit had gone forward , it might have lowered the book value of her stock. She very likely told Obama that the price of her support for him through the nomination process would be his vote to pre-kill the FISA lawsuit. To me, that kind of logic feels about right for Nancy ” the Speaker” Pelosi. But what was Reid’s interest?

  20. westcoaster says:

    what ever happened to the glory of “standing on the shoulders of giants”? Has it turned into “squash that bug” with drones and Race to the Top? Has the Sesame Street of the 70’s that used to talk about cooperation and neighborhoods been equated with communism and replaced with Elmo’s World?

Comments are closed.