The Burdens of Talent

Do we really have to be crazy in order to be creative geniuses? Can anyone really know? The truth is elusive, but Ilyana Romanovsky is definitely on its trail:


by Ilyana Romanovsky, M.A., MFT

In a cartoon from some time ago, Vincent Van Gogh hears a knock on the door and opens it to find a futuristic stranger  bearing a vial of medicine that could cure mental illness.  He hands Van Gough the antidepressant, and encouragingly states, “it is worth a try.”  Van Gough downs the medicine at once and exclaims while throwing his hands up in the air, “I feel better already! I feel like painting happy paintings!” This cartoon pinpoints a critical discussion surrounding men endowed with great gifts of creativity, or simply put – the burdens of talent.

Children with unusual constitutional capacities often behave differently from their peers in some respects.  For instance, a child might prefer playing privately (versus with groups of other children), or be identified as having a ‘deficit’ due to some peculiarity of behavior.  These behaviors might at first be viewed with skepticism.  But the peculiarity is not necessarily a marker of deficit and may instead be a marker of potential talent.  Furthermore, the talent must be fostered to allow the child to reach his or her full potential.  A clinician is more likely to encounter creative individuals whose parents failed to solve the problems of raising a gifted child rather than parents who mastered it successfully.  The most dramatic example I have seen in my own practice is that of a patient whose parents noted that something was amiss early on, with their son being difficult to respond to any type of soothing and even more difficult to communicate with.  The parents eventually came to the conclusion that their son was intellectually disabled, and placed him in a school for kids with special needs.

Interestingly enough, we can find similar echoes of misunderstandings in the biographies of great men.  For example, the poet and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was thought to be retarded by his parents due to a delay in his verbal abilities.[i]  Albert Einstein was also slow to develop, with the family quickly jumping to a misdiagnosis of his condition.[ii]  Of course, parents can hardly be blamed for being unable to see past seeming abnormalities, concluding developmental delay.  In some instances, it is precisely this delay or an initial “handicap” in kids, especially in formative years, that permits the development of special skills that facilitate creative endeavors in the future.[iii]

The degree to which a child’s differences from his peers will affect his self-esteem depends largely on the parents’ ability to discern those differences as either advantageous or disadvantageous.  This could be particularly difficult to do if a child is truly great.  How could Einstein’s family have known that his delayed abilities would amount to an awe-striking capacity for abstract thought? Or that Nietzsche’s exceptionally broad talent would manifest itself in writings that would inspire millions for centuries to come?  The defects inherent in these virtues are hard to dismiss and further supported by lives of other creative geniuses such as Marcel Proust, an eminent French novelist.

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