The Cost of Being a Prodigy

Bill Abbate
Photo in the Public Domain from WikimediaCommons

Can you imagine being able to read the New York Times at the age of 2 years old? How about speaking eight languages by age 6? At age eight, he invented a language called "Vendergood" for his second book, the Book of Vendergood. This language was based primarily on Latin and Greek while drawing on German, French, and other Romance languages.

What would it be like to be accepted at Harvard University at nine years of age and asked to wait until you are 11 before attending? After five years, this young man graduated cum laude from Harvard. While this may sound like fiction, it was the reality for a young man born in 1898. He was a child prodigy in every sense of the word.

The prodigy

William James Sidis was born in New York City and died at 46 in 1944 from a cerebral hemorrhage. His father was a famous psychologist, and his mother a doctor. His childhood was not full of happy memories. He described his parents as "pushy and aggressive." His time at Harvard proved difficult, and the constant media scrutiny he received was unwelcomed.

Sidis avoided the public eye during his adult years as much as possible. He worked a series of menial jobs, moving from one position to the next whenever someone discovered his identity. He once stated:

"All I want to do is run an adding machine, but they won't let me alone." William Sidis

He wrote several books using assumed names. A fascinating piece of information about Sidis is he alluded to dark matter before it was formally theorized. He also predicted the "black hole" in his book, The Animate and the Inanimate!

He was one of the few prodigies to possess multiple abilities, although his greatest strengths were mathematics and linguistics. He mastered more than 40 languages during his life, becoming conversant in 25 languages and dialects. Other than his writing, his contributions were few for a person of such extraordinary intelligence and talent.

How high was his IQ? In the 1946 book Psychology for the Millions, written by Abraham Sperling, he wrote about Sidis's IQ, stating:

"The very highest [IQ] that had ever been obtained" Abraham Sperling

He also stated:

"Helena Sidis told me that a few years before his death, her brother Bill took an intelligence test with a psychologist. His score was the highest that had ever been obtained. In terms of IQ, the psychologist related that the figure would be between 250 and 300. Late in life William Sidis took general intelligence tests for Civil Service positions in New York and Boston. His phenomenal ratings are matter of record." Abraham Sperling

His life was filled with anxiety, especially when he was young. As an introvert, he preferred being alone, and at his graduation from Harvard, he told the media:

"I want to live the perfect life. The only way to live the perfect life is through seclusion. I have always hated crowds." William Sidis

During an interview with the Boston Herald, Sidis reportedly made vows to remain celibate and never marry. It is believed he did remain celibate and finally found peace in his later adult years. Biographer Amy Wallace, speaking about Sidis, stated:

"So I think he really went from being completely traumatized as a young boy to becoming a happy man." Amy Wallace

Amy Wallace's book, The Prodigy: a Biography of William James Sidis, America's Greatest Child Prodigy, was the basis of the script for a movie about Sidis's life – Good Will Hunting, released in 1997.

Final words

A significant takeaway from looking into William Sidis's life is that raw intelligence, as measured by IQ, does not make a life regardless of how high it is. In fact, as seen in Sidis's life, it can hinder it in many ways. A high IQ can be a curse or a blessing and is no guarantee of living a life of happiness or achievement.

Today it is widely recognized a high IQ is only a measure of one type of intelligence. IQ alone does not make a person who they are. In different forms, intelligence, such as emotional, interpersonal, intrapersonal, spiritual, and others, can be far more important to living a good life.

"It takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently."― Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881)

There is little you can do to improve IQ; however, it is possible to improve most other forms of intelligence. Focus not only on improving the types of intelligence you find most appealing but those other areas of life that matter most. May You find your way to a better and more fulfilling life!

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Semi-Retired-Leadership/Executive Coach -Personal & Career Growth Expert -Editor and Leadership Writer at Illumination -Author

Richmond, VA

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