How to be a prodigy? Practice, practice, practice

April 2, 2018 — by Jeffrey Xu

As  a two-time Math Olympiad Summer Program (MOSP) Qualifier and current prominent contender for the U.S. International Math Olympiad team, sophomore Brandon Wang is among the elite teenage mathematicians in the nation.

Some would even say he is a prodigy in the subject, a term most often associated with musicians like Mozart and athletes like golfer Tiger Woods, who both showed awe-inspiring talent in their respective fields at an early age.

Yet like other seeming prodigies, Wang disclaims that he has God-given abilities beyond what many normal people have and instead believes that his success has been the result of endless hours of hard work.

Wang started focusing on competitive math in sixth grade, which is quite late compared to some virtuosos in fields such as music or sports where elite performers can begin their mastery at age 3 or 4.

To reach such a high skill level so quickly, Wang took a deep dive into the subject and made multiple sacrifices.

In Wang’s case, he has chosen to take only six classes this year as opposed to the seven he took in freshman year  to have more time to focus on math and other activities.

Wang has found time to excel in other extracurriculars such as history and literature Quiz Bowls and be a part of the school’s badminton team.

Another seeming prodigy is junior Rohan Pandey, who excels in economics, IoT technology and the study of genetics. He is also an avid participant in Quiz and Science Bowl competitions, wowing his own teammates and other competitors with his knowledge.

In pursuing coding, politics and science, Pandey said he has made sacrifices of his social life, admitting he rarely spends time with friends outside of an academic atmosphere.

“I didn’t know that hanging out was a thing until a year ago,” Pandey said. “I guess I unknowingly sacrificed my social life preparing for Quiz Bowl and gaining knowledge in obscure areas that are only described on Wikipedia.”

Pandey concedes his sacrificing of social activities has come easily since he doesn’t care much for parties or other types of social activities.

“I never real went to parties,” Pandey said. “But that hasn’t really bothered me since I don’t think I’d especially enjoy that kind of stuff.”

His passion for knowledge began in elementary school when he often watched science channels on YouTube. In his thirst for scientific and political knowledge, Pandey feels that he has also left behind an understanding of pop culture, which he believes has ties to his restricted social life.

“I think it's much more common in Saratoga to not know what's going on in the music, acting or sports worlds, but not being able to talk about those topics has restricted me from a lot of conversations,” Pandey said. “It's also a bit harder to find people who want to talk to me about things I’m interested in, since they might not know much about them.”

Nevertheless, Pandey is happy with the people he has met and become friends with through his array of extracurriculars.

While many may believe that in order to excel at something, life would become burdensome and full of exhausting work, this was not the case for Pandey because curiosity drove him to read more about topics he enjoyed in his spare time.

Likewise, Wang said qualifying for the MOSP was not the result of tireless “work” but rather him doing an activity that he found engrossing.

“I don’t really do math in the sense that I spend a set amount of hours doing math every day,” Wang said. “I work in waves. This is similar to people who binge-watch shows, so I guess you could say I ‘binge-math.’”

Wang sees this form of learning as beneficial for him because it helps prevent burnout and boredom, which is usually a bigger issue for those who aren’t truly interested in a subject.

So instead of gradual improvement in math, Wang said that he experiences “plateauing most of the time with sporadic jumps in ability.”

“There are times where I won't do any math at all for over a month,” Wang said. “Then there are times where I end up simulating an MOSP-like environment in which I do four to five hours a day of math.”

While those around him may consider him to be a prodigy, Wang disagrees. In fact, he believes that there is not really such thing as a natural-born prodigy in competitive math.

Wang’s views are supported by passed University of Exeter Professor in Cognitive Psychology Michael Howe, who has argued any child has the potential to become a prodigy, given “sufficient energy and dedication on the parents’ part.”

However, more recent studies done by researcher and University of Michigan Professor in Psychology David Z. Hambrick have shown that being a prodigy does have roots in genetics. Basic cognitive abilities play a large role, such as the ability to accurately recall given information in a short period of time.

Rather than having a natural tendency to excel at math, though, Wang thinks his talent is something that is “acquired.” Additionally, Wang has found his late start in competitive math hasn’t hurt him.

“Some people start at a really young age, but for math specifically, this isn’t actually that big of an advantage,” Wang said. “Imagine an elementary schooler trying to sit for a 4.5-hour long Olympiad. It would be hard to get anything done given the little patience a child has at that age.”

Sophomore Christine Lee was exactly that elementary schooler, except her focus was on the violin. Having started the instrument when she was just 5, Lee has gone far in the world of music, having been accepted into the prestigious Music at Menlo summer program for three consecutive summers starting with her summer into freshman year.

Lee practices two hours a day at minimum, and puts in even more time prior to competitions. This kind of commitment has come at a price.

“I still clearly remember when I was in fifth grade, my friends had a sleepover birthday party, but my mom said I could only go a couple hours because I had my first competition the next day,” Lee said. “I was so mad and cried a lot and threw a hissy fit.”

But her mom was right. Well rested, Lee went on to take first place in the competition.

Lee said the sleepover episode taught her that she had to sacrifice certain pursuits in order to achieve others.

Thousands of hours of practice, not innate talent, have led to her success.

“A prodigy is someone who is a total genius at a craft innately, and I feel like I got to where I am though a lot of hard work,” Lee said.

 

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