The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Thursday, August 09, 2007

A life of achievement

I live far across the world from where I used to. A couple of days ago, I spoke to my mother in England of our recent doings, here in Singapore.

I mentioned that we had met Singapore's oldest living person, Teresa Hsu, who is reportedly 110 years old - a supercentenarian (according to Channel News Asia and herself).

My mother didn't seem very impressed. "Oh, we had one of those here, too, recently: 108, she was."

"They are very rare." I pointed out, to her, perhaps hoping to elicit an enthusiastic response. "We brought Ainan.", I went on, exposing my wish to let her know that I was trying to provide interesting experiences for him, as a father. She appeared not to notice my intent.

"Yeh, but a lot of them are very ordinary people...they don't do much."

Now, I understood. My mother did not think that the length of a life conferred any merit on the person - only what they had done with their life, had the power to do that. My mother measures the value of a life by what is achieved, not by how long it is lived. For her, the life of achievement signifies that you have striven, overcome and excelled: that you have, in fact, "done something".

This called to mind, my childhood, in a parental home that only measured results. By this I mean, the only thing that mattered was how well you did. This attitude is one that has advantages and disadvantages, which I am not going to go into. Yet, it was revealing for me, to see the same attitude applied to the life of a centenarian. To my mother, if the centenarian had not ALSO achieved something remarkable in her long life, then the long life, itself, is not to be considered remarkable. Simply living long has no value for her.

Is she right? Is it more important to achieve much, than exist long? I suppose, in one sense, for sure, she is correct. The lives of many geniuses of the past, were not long - but their reach through time, by their influence on mankind, is long indeed. They changed things. They "made a difference". Such people did not become remarkable by their tally of years, but were remarkable by what they achieved in the, often short, time allotted to them.

My mother, though she has probably not thought the thoughts of the paragraph above, being, as I believe, not interested in geniuses, she has thought the global one that what matters is what gets done - how "successful" you are - in whatever way success is measured.

Very few of us will ever be able to look back on a 110 years of life. As I have noted before, there are only 78 verified such people alive today. So, in that sense, supercentenarian status is rarer than genius (at least, I hope it is, otherwise there is not much hope for us on the genius front.)

Even though a genius may not live as long, their actions will have much more effect upon the world, than a supercentenarian - unless that Methuselah is also a genius - or gifted in some way. The ideal, of course, would be for a genius to also be long-lived - for then their body of work would be all the greater and the benefit to mankind, so much enlarged.

My mother wasn't talking about geniuses though. She was talking about the everyday efforts of people who strive and become, achieve and do. She was talking about professionals and businessmen - about the doers of the world. Those are her ideal. Yet, her remark applies to all kinds of achievement.

The long-lived person contributes in many ways that a shorter-lived one cannot. They may educate the generations that come after them - if they were foresighted enough to have children - or the young of others, if they were not. They provide perspective on the modern world, which no history book can do so vividly (for they are often surprisingly clear of mind and early memory). If they had a life-long purpose, or project, or organization that they were involved in, they can contribute so much the longer and so much the better for their experience and wisdom. There are certain things that it takes a long lifetime, with its global perspective, to truly understand.

As my mother pointed out, however, many long-lived people have lived quiet lives. Their contributions seem of a modest kind. It is these that she does not respect. Perhaps she feels that they have wasted their privilege and opportunity in having thirty or forty - or more years - than other people generally have.

I would agree with her, that it is a pity to have lived so long and not made the greatest contribution that one can. Yet, this might be assuming too much. People vary in their gifts. Perhaps that modest looking contribution IS the greatest contribution they could have made. We should not, therefore, take a stance of censure.

The lesson here, is that one should strive for a life of achievement, no matter how long one is fated to live. If one aims for such a state, then the life that results will be of merit and worth - no matter how long and short it turns out to be. That would be a life lived well.

None of us know how much time we have - whether it be long or short - so make the most of it and do something worthwhile, with every year of it. Be, as my mother would wish, "an achiever".

Best wishes all.

(If you would like to read of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and eight months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and one month, or Tiarnan, eighteen months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted children and gifted adults in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 10:12 AM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your Mother seems to have missed the point on what makes a 110 year old amazing. It is not because of what they have been achieving for the last 110 years that makes them special. It is because these extremely elderly people are evidence of the amazing outer parameters that the human body is capable of when given a certain mix of DNA.

To get to 110 (to get past late 90's even) one needs to have an immune system that is as close to perfect as human evolution has been able to come up with so far. And one needs to have a cellular repair system that is far more effective than the one most humans are given by their DNA. Just as Ainan's powers of deduction and memory show the outer limits of what the human brain can do, given certain DNA, people such as this show the outer limits of what the human immune system and cell repair mechanisms can do, given certain DNA.

It may gall your mother that people are astonished and fascinated by a nearly perfect immune system, but people will always be astonished and fascinated to see people living on the outer limits of what evolution has accomplished so far. It isn't her personal accomplishments people are astounded by (although there may be plenty your Mother isn't aware of, given 110 years), it's what human DNA can accomplish in certain configurations that grips people.

10:08 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

My own take on this and related matters, is that it is interesting if someone is unusual, special or exceptional in any way. Having a particularly effective immune system and DNA repair mechanism certainly counts as worthy of interest, in my book.

So, I agree with you, that it is remarkable to have lived so long, when the rest of us are often finished four decades earlier.

My mother's point, however, was an expression of her value system.

Kind regards

10:55 PM  
Anonymous Robert said...

Perhaps you misunderstood the message. Read again: "We have one of those here, too." LOCALISM. Somehow, at a basic level most humans are quite 'tribal' and biased in favor of what is near them. Nay-saying is a sort of defense mechanism: perhaps your mother felt threatened that someone in Asia was living a long time.

Ok, point #2: I'll agree that length of life does not confer merit when the person dies in the ordinary range, but just as having a high IQ is to be recognized, so it makes sense to recognize persons who have lived the longest. Also, I disagree that these persons are 'only DNA' as alluded to by a previous commenter. Indeed, supercentenarians are persons who have striven, overcome, and excelled: Marie Bremont, hit by a car at 103, lived to be the world's oldest person at 115. Amy Hulmes, at 94, was told by her doctor that she had 'two weeks to live'. Nineteen years later, the doctor died; she was still living. Susie Gibson, at 95, rescued a drowning boy...she lived to 115.

Let's not forget that supercentenarians are special, also, not merely because of what they did or did not do, but because they 'connect the present to the past.' Bettie Wilson, at 114, could still tell interviewers about her mother's experience in slavery. Another had a picture of her father...a Civil War veteran...on the wall. And finally, while some 'supers' may be 'boring', they can all tell us their successful strategy for living to an age that only about 1 in 4 million reach in even the most advanced nations.

Robert Young
Senior Claims Researcher
Gerontology Research Group

6:03 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Mr. Young,

It is good to hear from someone working directly with the oldest old.

Do you think there is much hope that the Supercentenarians will become significantly more common in the decades ahead? Are we close to being able to extend life, in worthwhile measures?

How rare is it to have two centenarians in one's family (two grand-aunts of mine): 104 and 102 (and counting)?

It would be interesting to hear from you.


7:49 AM  

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