Destructive Personalities & Prodigies


Bulls & Wives– Tom did not appear to be a destroyed man who has no hold on the outside world, but a man with intimate knowledge of someone who was. When he informed me that his dad lived a relatively long life that surprised me, because I thought Tom’s personal knowledge of self-destruction had to be so intimate that it came from a dad. I figured that his dad had no idea how the system worked, and that frustration led him to destroy anyone and everyone within reach, before he eventually destroyed himself. I was wrong, his dad lived a relatively long life. I didn’t reassess, however, because I knew how to read my tea leaves. I just had to wait to found out how I was right. When Tom later informed me that his mother died a long slow death, I almost yelled, “I knew it.”

“Cirrhosis of the liver,” he said. I didn’t say anything, but I felt vindicated. I figured that Tom’s frustrated dad destroyed the only woman he ever loved, because she was within reach, and she was his alternative resource.   

My first guess was that Tom’s dad physically abused the woman, but that often results in a divorce, a separation of some sort, or even a suicide of one of the two parties. I knew that wasn’t the case with Tom’s parents. I knew he witnessed a slow, methodical destruction of someone he loved, and he felt powerless in the face of it.

A man who physically abuses his wife is also a bad guy, and my guess was that Tom’s dad did everything he could to avoid that label. My guess was that Tom’s dad rejected her in the small, insignificant ways those in his profession and in his personal life rejected him, until it manifested in ways he couldn’t manage or control properly. A little nip here and there made Tom’s mom feel a little better for a couple minutes. When the dad’s insignificant rejections began to snowball, her little nips followed suit, until it was too late.   

My guess was Tom saw her destruction very close up, during those young, formative years that leave an imprint nothing can erase. My guess was that he spent his life trying to avenge her, but he never figured out how to do it, and he spent the rest of his life cheering on the bulls in a bullfight.

The Phenomenal Phenom- “The worst thing about being the President of the United States at such a young age (Theodore Roosevelt assumed office at 42 and left office at 50), is what do you do with the rest of your life? How does one top being President of the United States?” That is not a direct quote from former president Theodore Roosevelt, but it is the general sentiment. We could argue that Roosevelt spent his whole life chasing windmills. He spent the first forty years of his life chasing his dad’s legacy, or the legacy he imagined for his dad. He spent the latter ten years of his life chasing his own legacy or trying to improve upon it. What does a man who assumed the most powerful position in the world in what he assumed was the middle of his life (he died at 60) do to top that act?

We move to a much less significant, but interesting corollary. In 1994, an actor named Jim Carrey was on top of the world. He had a year so successful that no other actor in his profession would dare even dream, and it happened when he was all but 32-years of age. In 1994, three of the films he starred in (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber) went to number one in box office sales, in the same year. Some fans of comedic movies mark two of those films some of the best comedic films of the generation. Although we don’t consider The Mask in that elite pantheon, we recognize how original that film was. We also recognize that without the unique talents Carrey displayed in that movie, the film wouldn’t have worked at all. It’s been 26 years since Carrey’s breakout year, and we can assume he will live another 26 years, but what can he do to top 1994? We have to imagine that Carrey looks back on 1994 as a bittersweet memory, because it happened so early in his career, and he probably thinks he didn’t appreciate it as much as he should’ve.

No one will feel sorry for either of these two, but imagine achieving such relative peaks at such a relatively young age. Relatively few recognize such achievements for what they are in the moment. We can only assume that Roosevelt and Carrey assumed that this was a new way of life for them. They probably assured others that they knew it wouldn’t last, but beneath that rational veneer, they probably assumed that they were such unique talents that it might. They probably grew accustomed to living how the other half lives. They were probably welcomed into rooms with proverbial and actual trumpets. Some part of them probably got so used to it that they considered it silly, until it went away, and they missed it. How does one top being the biggest star in the world? How does one top being president of the United States? Teddy only lived for another ten years, and while he packed a lot into those ten years, including another presidential run, it sounds like it might’ve been tough for such an ambitious man to live to a thirty to forty more years thinking he plateaued too early. He probably also knew that he could never top what happened in what he thought would be the middle of his life.     

Pining for a Prodigy– “I think you might have another da Vinci on your hands,” someone says when they see our kid draw something that sort, somewhat resembles a squirrel. Our normal, rational side thanks them for the polite sentiment, and we attempt to dismiss it as nothing more than that, but we can’t control the twinkle in our eye. Kids mature at different rates, we think, who’s to say that our kid isn’t some sort of prodigy? We consider the possibility for about twelve seconds, because we want the world to know what we know, our kid is special. Our flirtation with this notion is brief, because we’ve tried to do something creative, and we know how hard it is. Even though we won’t rule out the notion that our kid could do something special, it’s so far off that it’s not worth considering at this time. There’s far too much for a prospective artist to learn to inform his immature brain before he ever reaches for the creative ignition switch. No matter how many ways we turn his drawing, it’s gibberish, and we can’t will it into something great. He’s just a normal, happy kid. 

I’ve been obsessed with the creative process most of my life. I love reading about what drove the da Vincis, the Joyces, and the Mozarts of history to create their artistic masterpieces. With Mozart as the lone exception, most artists don’t do anything of note in their early years of life. One could also say that all of the other stuff they learn in their early, formative years, informs an artist’s art better than any school devoted specifically to the arts could do.

A teacher here and there might have encouraged them to draw, write, or sing more in their free time, but most artistic output of kids in grades 1-6 can be accomplished on their own time. I encourage artistic creativity in my home, but I don’t want my kid spending an inordinate amount of time in school drawing sharks and Spongebob. He needs to learn the foundational tools to help him in life. Reading, writing, arithmetic, a level of science he can handle, and some history is all my kid needs right now.  

The obsession I’ve had with the start-to-finish creative process is now decades old, and I’ve yet to stumble upon an artist other than Mozart who cited anything that happened in their elementary years as a direct source for their great works. The bios of most artistic geniuses suggest that they succeeded in the arts in spite of what happened to them in school. Most of my favorite artists created their best pieces in a rebellious reaction to those who never believed in them. They had some something to prove to the people who didn’t believe in them. It drove them more than any amount of encouragement could. It’s almost grist for the artistic mill for most artists to embarrass those who considered what they do as silly. If their parents believe in them, and they entered them into a school devoted to the arts that might have deprived them of the righteous anger that drove them to be better than they were in the first place.

How many movies about prodigies depict parents who thought their young prodigy was wasting his time with paintbrushes, a piano, or a pen? How many of parents wanted their kids to do something more substantial with their lives? When the prodigy turned out to be something substantial in the arts, the parents looked like the bad guys, and no parent wants to be a bad guy. The parents also looked like fools in the end for not recognizing their prodigy’s prodigious talent, and no parent wants to look foolish. So, we recognize our child’s doodle as something more than it is, and we do everything we can to encourage them to pursue that talent.

“He could be the next Mozart,” they say when our kid fiddles around on a piano. “Did you know Mozart created his first symphony at five years old?” That would be great, we say with that twelve second twinkle in our eye, but I’m still going to focus my kid’s mind on becoming a math whiz, relative to his age. I would rather see him display an unusual aptitude for spelling and reading than I would re-engineer his life according to some exception to the rule that occurred almost three hundred years ago. 

“I just wanted my kid to have a well-rounded education,” parents say when I ask how they selected their kid’s school. “I liked the way [this school] sandwiched art and music between the reading and writing and arithmetic.” If they added that they just want their children to find some way to express themselves creatively, I would have no argument. I think if I learned how to express myself creatively when I was young, I might’ve been a healthier and happier kid, teenager, and young man. Maybe. When I found a creative outlet, I thought I needed it all along, but I was taught art and music appreciation at a very young age, and I didn’t appreciate it back then.  

“It’s important to encourage creativity,” they say, and I have no argument. If my kid develops a creative outlet, such that he believes in himself a little more than I did, I will applaud him. I’m an artist who devours and regurgitates artistic pieces, but I would never choose an elementary school that devotes itself to expanding my child’s mind artistically. That just seems so far-fetched that it’s not even worth considering.