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 +

Sunday, October 11, 2009

On delayed gratification and human worth.

There is a tendency to hail those who come to prominence quickly. By this I mean not child prodigies, who obviously are noticed early, for their unusual precocity - but adults who "succeed" quickly. So, the young chief executive, the TV presenter in her early twenties, the "novelist" just out of school, the teenaged film star...these types of people are all thought praiseworthy and somehow more eminent for their rapid rise. Yet, something has been overlooked in this perception: the difficulty of the task.

You see, some people do not rise to early prominence, not because they do not have the ability, but because they set themselves much more difficult tasks than those of the ones who come quickly to our attention and praise. It is much more difficult to write a great 750,000 word opus than it is to write a 70,000 word "novel". Yet the latter accomplishment might take a few weeks or months, be published in a year or two and make a "star" out of a twenty year old writer. Yet, the question must be asked - who truly is more worthy of our esteem: the writer who chooses to work on a book, quietly, for twenty years - or the one who churns out light, quick, easy reads to popular acclaim? I know that only one of them is likely to be remembered by posterity - and for a very good reason - for only one of them will have done something truly difficult. Yet, during their lifetime, the one of lighter, fainter achievement may, actually, be the more "famous".

I observe this because of the way I have seen people of great merit treated and greeted by others, online. Sometimes, I have noted mocking criticism of those whose achievements I know to be great, but not yet widely known. They have been directly and unflatteringly compared to others of much lesser achievement, who happen to be widely known for it. I think what is happening here is that people are making a judgement based on what they know, without realizing that there may be much that they don't know. They are also attaching merit to quick superficial achievement because it is "in their face", rather than slower, deeper, more profound achievement which may, in fact, take decades to mature and perhaps a lifetime or more to be appreciated.

It is a simple fact that no modern TV presenter, for instance, is going to be remembered in 100 years time - not one of them. Yet, there are poets, writers, artists, philosophers, scientists, composers and thinkers at work in the world who may live their lives utterly unknown, yet who will be remembered in millenia for what they do, in fact, achieve, unknown to their contemporaries and unappreciated by them. Instant fame, does not mean lasting renown. Yet, instant fame is what people most appreciate. I find it strange that people make judgements on each other, based on the assumption that what they know is all there is to know. They think that by comparing person A, who is famous for a certain set of achievements, to person B who is not famous for their unknown achievements, that they can conclude that person A is superior to person B and that person B is a "failure". This kind of thinking makes me laugh, for it shows the mental shortcomings of the one who "thinks" - and nothing more. You see person B may, in fact, have achieved something of much greater worth than person A - but their work might not yet have been published. The reason that person B has been quiet for ten or twenty years, may in fact be because they have been at work on something that takes ten or twenty years to accomplish. Just because they are silent, it doesn't mean that they are not productive. Person A, however, may be someone whose "achievements" are shallow and quickly put together, each taking but the effort of weeks or months - and so they may seem more industrious, productive and creative - yet the actual comparative merit of the works in question could put person B way ahead, when the final judgement of posterity is made.

Now, this all comes down to my title: delayed gratification. Some people - in fact, most - are unable to delay gratification sufficiently to achieve anything of real merit. They need a quick fix, an immediate return and fast results. They need to see that they have "achieved" something overnight. These people - and they are far more common than the other breed - always aim at shallow targets that are easily achieved, for these are the only things that are achieved quickly, without much struggle. Journalists, for instance, can be like this. I knew one who was: he needed an instant response to his writing and so never did what he always promised himself he would: write a real book. The problem with book writing from his point of view was that the response to it could take years in coming. He wasn't constituted to delay gratification to that extent. He would write fast and see his work in print the following day. The praise would then follow for his eloquent phrasing and he would be happy. Yet, this instant mindset prevented him from ever achieving any work of depth or lasting meaning. He is dead now, so his chance of ever doing so has passed. During his lifetime, he was very famous, yet I rather feel that his fame will not endure for the products of his mind were too quickly crafted, too "of the day", to have any permanent interest. Had he, however, been of a mind to wait, to endure the silence between creation and publication, a silence that can stretch for decades, then he might have achieved lasting renown. Certainly, whether he achieved lasting fame or not, his work would have been more worthy if it had been crafted over years, rather than minutes.

So, this explains my division of people into those who succeed quickly, but whose achievement is often shallow and those who take time to come to note, but whose achievements tend to be more profound and of lasting interest. The difference between them, is that the former cannot delay gratification and aim for shallow achievements, easily achieved; the latter are able to delay gratification, sometimes even beyond the scope of their lives (so that they never personally feel the gratification that is rightfully theirs), but who, ultimately, achieve far greater success and enduring fame. The former are like flashbulbs; the latter are like stars that take millions of years of slow accretion, before they finally ignite in atomic flame. Like stars, the latter burn for ages - and the former are forgotten even as their afterimage fades from our eyes.

The next time you find yourself being critical of someone's achievements ask yourself this: do you actually know much about the person? Are they, perhaps, at work on creations unknown to you? Are they stars, one day to ignite, who will far outshine the flashbulbs to which you compare them?

The tinsel of life, as it were, those who are shallow and bright and famous today, will all, largely be forgotten. Even the greatest of film stars will largely fade from memory, in a handful of decades. The ones who will be remembered may now have much lower profiles, but whose names will grow over time, as their contributions are appreciated. We speak now not of the actors of Ancient Greece, but of their thinkers. We know not their "stars", but their creators. So, too, will it be for our times. The people who will be remembered in ages to come are those we do not, perhaps, fully appreciate in their lifetimes. The deeper the work, the longer it takes to create and the longer still it takes to be appreciated. Yet, eventually, those who have created the deeper works, are the ones who make the greatest contributions, and who are thought of, in ages to come. All the others are forgotten, no matter how "famous" they are in their own lifetimes. An example would be Dan Brown. No-one on Earth will know who he is in 150 years time: not one person. Of that I am sure. Yet, there may be a poet, whose works are not yet published, who has been read by just himself, his mum and his girlfriend, who will be on everyone's lips in a 1,000 years. The difference is that one is a flashbulb, the other is a star. One achieved easy prominence, through shallow achievement - the other a lifetime's quiet, accretive work, building a body of work that changes language, thought and literature. Only one of these is worthy of long-term remembrance - even if that very same one is ignored in its own time.

If you wish, therefore, to have a sense of the "worth" of a person, a good clue would be in their ability to sustain delayed gratification. I rather think that the greater the capacity for this delay, the greater the actual achievements are likely to be, of that person. The ones who thrust themselves early to our attentions, as young adults, are likely to be UNABLE to delay gratification - thus these people are ultimately likely to be shallow in their achievements. The ones we should look out for, however, are those who work steadily away, for years and decades at a time, without a word of encouragement from anyone. It is these people who will surprise us by their work and ultimately be respectfully remembered for millenia to come.

Which would you rather be: a flashbulb or a star? If you have said "star" - do you think you have the patience to wait decades to achieve it? Do you know anyone who has that endurance? What are they like? Are they creating something of interest? Any comments or thoughts on the topic would be interesting to read. Thanks.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind.

We are the founders of Genghis Can, a copywriting, editing and proofreading agency, that handles all kinds of work, including technical and scientific material. If you need such services, or know someone who does, please go to: Thanks.

IMDB is the Internet Movie Database for film and tv professionals. If you would like to look at my IMDb listing for which another fifteen credits are to be uploaded, (which will probably take several months before they are accepted) please go to: As I write, the listing is new and brief - however, by the time you read this it might have a dozen or a score of please do take a look. My son, Ainan Celeste Cawley, also has an IMDb listing. His is found at: My wife, Syahidah Osman Cawley, has a listing as well. Hers is found at:

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 3:00 PM 


Anonymous Dave said...

Come on, say it already. This whole piece is about Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Lol. Just kidding.

In the world I-want-it-now-instant-messaging-internet-generation, there is no such thing as delayed gratification. Real people who does real work doesn't do it for the fame. Those who chase fame gets fame. It's all really whose ego is bigger then most.

8:32 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes. In this sms world there appears to be no ability to WAIT for anything. I think this is highly detrimental to the substance of society.

As for Obama winning a prize for something not yet achieved (that is, "peace"), perhaps I should write something about that. He has, however, made all the right noises, and that is probably what his award is about.

Thanks for your comment.

8:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Success is attracted, not pursued. Real success is one that can withstand the passage of time.

Actually, I believe there exist success that is recognised instantly (or at least in the person's lifetime) and still last for a long time.

12:29 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Perhaps it is possible for a person of genius to have their work recognized and appreciated immediately and to attain lasting fame thereby - however the lives of geniuses tell more commonly of great struggles for success. There is much misunderstanding and incomprehension in the lives of quite a few of them. They didn't attain "fame" all that quickly.

The ones I am speaking of, above, are those of superficial ability who rise rapidly to prominence: they have very little true substance, yet have great fame. Their fame will not last.

2:08 PM  
Anonymous Shannon said...

For certain public figures fame is a full-time job. It may take away from the abilities and skills that initially made the individual famous.

10:20 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Interesting thought Shannon - and welcome back, by the way...I assume it is you, my once frequent commenter!

Yes. Perhaps fame is a negative...certainly Samuel Beckett was not happy with his. Can you think of any examples of detrimentally affected individuals?

12:20 AM  
Anonymous Shannon said...

Thanks for the welcome back message!! I believe I've posted before on my dislike of the entertainment industry. I'm convinced that the spotlight brings out the worst in certain people. There are always exceptions of course. Bono, for example, devotes a lot of time toward humanitarianism and third world debt relief. He has managed to produce quality music for decades. It must be difficult for someone like him to remain genuine in a world that is the opposite of genuine. He seems to be doing a good job though.

3:17 PM  
Anonymous Shannon said...

You are too kind to give me the last word on this comment. Is fame a necessary negative in certain professions? It might be difficult to make a career in music, for instance, without fame (at least on a local level) as well as publicity. Perhaps fame is damaging when it gets to the point of being excessive.

4:33 AM  
Blogger Syahidah and Valentine said...

Fame, Shannon, is an absolute necessity in any artistic career, in which the artist depends for a livelihood on sales of the "art", be it books, music, paintings or any other medium. However much fame might bring problems for some artists, they couldn't make a living without it.

Fame also accompanies the success of any scientific idea - though usually to a lesser extent. So, to some degree it is a consequence and a necessity in any arena in which a person contributes to society or culture. Without the fame, the contribution would not be noticed.

The kind of fame, however, that could be seen as objectionable and somehow useless is the kind of fame of a Paris Hilton. There is no work behind the "noise"...there is just noise. In this case, I don't see much point to it.

Thanks for your comment.

8:34 PM  

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