How to Quietly Grow Into an Adult Prodigy


Would you like to become a prodigy?

You will find the path in one of the most unique and useful stores in history, that of the Bronte Sisters.

Their story dispels several myths about extreme talent while also providing a roadmap to extraordinary mastery.

The origins of literary “genius”

Emily, Charlotte, and Anne Bronte are considered, by many, to be the greatest writing family in history. They are mentioned alongside the likes of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.

The Brontes appeared out of the mist in the mid-19th century, taking the publishing industry by storm. They produced titan classics like Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Agnes Grey, and more.

Given their young age, you’d have thought they’d tumbled out of the womb with a pen in their hand.

How did they become so good? Their story contains a secret you can deploy.

The female assassins of English Literature

The Bronte Sisters by Pierre Mornet (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite their individuality, there are marked similarities in the quality and style of the Bronte Sister’s writing. It is no coincidence.

If anything, it is their secret ingredient.

The Bronte’s were private, and because they died so young, mystique and legend surrounded them for more than a hundred years. They were compared to other child geniuses like Mozart and John Von Neumann.

The popular view was that they lived in a remote area, far out in the darkened woods. Because they were educated at home, they were unable to access books from the outside world.

There was an also Disney-esque narrative of the girls writing to keep themselves entertained while living under the suffocating press of a single father.

These assumptions were wrong — but not entirely.

They took practice deeper

The Brontes grew up in a creative home with a supportive father.

They began storytelling at an early age. In a testament to their childhood imaginations, they wrote in tiny notebooks so their toy soldiers could read the stories too.

They created their first world, Glass Town, with their brother, Branwell, a talented writer who died before he could leave his mark on literature.

Writing stories was a collaborative affair. The siblings took turns reading each other’s work. They gave immediate feedback and wrote playful jabs at those stories in sequels.

The sisters were prolific. In one 15 month stretch, they wrote 22 mini-books that were roughly 80 pages each.

You’ll likely need a magnifying glass to read these books. The girls used micro font to protect their work from prying adult eyes — and it served a critical function.

The strict laws of grammar and adult storytelling were kept out — for the time being. By deterring adults from reading their work, it allowed the writing to stay fun. And by staying fun, they kept doing it.

The false assumptions

The sisters weren’t child prodigies.

The stories they wrote in those mini books were awful. They were childish and full of errors. They were as bad as a child’s story should be — and that’s OK.

Their writing showed imagination, but it wasn’t original. The girls borrowed narratives and tropes from works like The Arabian Nights and Blackwoods Magazine, which featured stories of expeditions into 19th century Africa.

Their dolls and toy soldiers became avatars for characters in a shared world.

Those characters became the first writing pseudonyms used in the family magazine, unoriginally named Branwell’s Blackwood Magazine.

The most remarkable part of this story

When you review the stories from their childhood onward, you can map the progression in their skill.

Their shared world branched off into separate parts. Each one became more sophisticated over time. The characters developed exciting motives.

The girls’ spelling and writing mechanics improved. They added political undertones and social commentaries.

Two sisters made their own separate world, away from Gondal, which their brother had created. In this new world, you saw more female-driven character arcs.

As the girls entered their teen years, you saw the complexities of adulthood emerging: romance, drinking habits, and lover’s quarrels.

The thing that stayed the same: the girls never stopped writing.

They were not child prodigies. They were normal children who learned to enjoy their craft and keep their noses to the paper.

The Bronte sisters wrote in a friendly, welcoming, and competitive atmosphere. Their home was much like that of a company art studio, which painters rave as a place for rapid artistic growth, trading tips while also trying to one-up each other.

As a writer, I can tell you the Bronte sisters did themselves a massive favor with writing mechanics.

People subconsciously conclude that writing a book is a singular ability. It requires dozens of skills: worldbuilding, research, note-taking, brainstorming, narrative, plot, dialogue, and more.

These seemingly similar skillsets involve very different mental muscles and learning curves. The Bronte sisters put in the badly needed early mileage by making writing fun.

Free from pressure, grades, adults, and deadlines, they got their headstart and set themselves up to thrive.

They hacked the creativity curve as you can too

The Bronte sisters learned creativity precisely as they should have: not by trying to capture the most original idea ever known, but by borrowing.

The best ideas are usually recombination of cliches into novel concepts. For all its glory, Star Wars is a patchwork of other stories. Creativity is an act of Frankensteining.

Yet it takes patience and time to do this without being tacky or derivative.

When an aspiring writer holds Emily Bronte’s debut novel, the smash hit, Wuthering Heights, they may feel an avalanche of intimidation. They don’t realize Emily had been writing consistently for more than 15 years prior.

Mozart had more than a thousand hours of practice before turning six.

Mountain climber Alex Honnold’s magnum opus, climbing El Capitan with no ropes, wasn’t a random act of foolhardy. His whole life had built up to that moment.

Author via Inde Wire

Famed Comedian, Jim Carey, grew up in a household where comedy, making impressions, and having fun were encouraged. By the time he stepped on stage, he’d already been living in a state of practice.

Talent seems divine, having fallen from the sky and into its recipients' lap. But what you are often seeing is the symptom of perseverance.

Do not fear creating terrible things. The greatest masterpieces are often incubated, rewritten, and patched together from the author’s inferior work.

One of the greatest sequels in movie history, Aliens, was a rewrite of James Cameron’s screenplay Mother (about two mothers battling each other).

Skill is an iterative process and in creation, nothing goes to waste.

One of the main characters in Wuthering Heights, Heathcliffe, was first born in Emily’s childhood story in Gondal. And like Heathcliff, the rugged man had only one redeeming quality: his love for a woman. Emily found ways to improve him and brought him over to another world.

Talent matters. It would be sloppy and pandering to say hard work will put a trophy in anyone’s hand.

Not everyone will be Mozart. But if any of you practiced for two hours a day for two years straight — as Mozart did from 4 to 6 — I reckon you’d impress a few strangers too.

The key to mastery is simple

For the love of God, be patient with yourself. Being awful is a prerequisite to being great. Bask in the glow of your incompetence and celebrate your gains.

Your paintings should be blotchy.

Your golf swing should look like you're swatting a fly.

Be a total hack. Copy what masters do but don’t expect to be a master too soon.

New endeavors are often spoiled by overly ambitious expectations.

The takeaway

Make it fun. You’ll need to escape the shadowlands of competency.

Do it with a partner, group, or coach, where there is shared learning and competition. You’ll experience rapid improvement.

Find your limits. Then observe where mistakes emerge.

During piano lessons, my teacher pushed me to my ceiling on speed, then slowed the piece down and we practiced the isolated parts I stumbled over.

Then, we incrementally sped up.

March forward until you latch on to a handhold of skill. Once you do, you’ll feel the joy of having improved.

You’ll find yourself doing that hobby more and more. And then, like a Bronte — you’ll indeed be on your way to your first masterpiece.

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