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'In The Key of Genius': In Tune with Happiness

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Vivian Diller, Ph.D. Headshot

'In The Key of Genius': In Tune with Happiness

Posted: Updated:

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

The beautiful piano performance by Derek Paravicini "In The Key Of Genius" would be impressive even if he wasn't challenged by blindness and autism. But curiously, that's not what struck me most about this young man in this TEDTalk with his teacher, Adam Ockelford.

Perhaps because of the work I do -- counseling child prodigies and their families -- I've had the fortune to be exposed to a number of extraordinarily talented young musicians. Or maybe as a psychologist, I tend to look beneath the surface of what I see (or in this case, what I hear). Whatever the reason, what impressed me most was not Paravicini's piano virtuosity, but his unbridled passion. That, and the warmth that flowed between him and his teacher. Mr. Ockelford narrated. Derek performed. It was their interpersonal duet that was captivating.

This is the thing; Paravicini actually appeared as if he was enjoying himself while he played -- unusual for child prodigies these days. Mr. Ockelford seemed proud, but relaxed and encouraging -- unusual among the people we find behind the scenes of prodigies. This relationship is no small achievement when you consider the often demanding and pushy people who attach themselves to precociously talented children, be it in music, sports or other performing arts.

We live in a world in which the drive toward success has become so compelling (and the standards that define it, so narrow) that we often disconnect from what actually makes us happy. Children are viewed almost as if they 'have that special something' or 'don't.' The ones that do, are often encouraged to become outstanding at all costs. The ones that don't, are sometimes viewed (and view themselves) as inadequate, forever yearning to be someone they're not. Derek appears to be an example of a young child whose natural talents were noticed early in life, but were built upon in the context of a nurturing environment.

As I researched Derek's trajectory toward this extraordinary TEDTalk, I learned that his talent led the way. His childhood caretakers noticed his perfect pitch and an uncanny ability to imitate sound. It usually starts that way for children with precocious talent. Parents, teachers or coaches become aware of the boy with a voice of an angel or the one who throws strikes and runs faster than other kids his age.... the girl who wins spelling bees, chess matches, or for that matter, is a better athlete than her male peers. These are kids who exhibit natural talent, ('gifted' as they are sometimes called). They typically love what they do well. Sometimes it's all they want to do. They relish the attention and the rewards. Others around them do too. It's all quite intoxicating.

But if you look carefully at what happens next -- usually between the ages of 10-15 -- the process often changes and new challenges arise. Who is enjoying themselves more, parent or child? Coach or student? To whom does the outcome matter more? Does the pursuit of expertise or fun take priority? What sacrifices must be made in this pursuit -- education, after school activities, social functions, vacations? How much does the entire family rotate around one child -- even if there are other children with needs of their own? What are the consequences of it all?

Too often these children find themselves caught in a web of narcissistic relationships. They feel enormous pressure to perform and live up to standards based on their early success. They sacrifice important aspects of their childhood. Tragically, they can lose the passion their gift once created, as it evolves into something other than that.

Having worked with both excessively talented children, as well as children with special needs (often within the same family), I can tell you that the child with the extraordinary gift can end up being the unhappy one. No doubt, all parents want their kids to be successful and happy -- whether naturally talented or not. Surely, those with a special talent can be taught to combine drive with joy. But in the culture we live in today, it's hard to find that balance.

While this TEDTalk reminds us that no one is disabled when it comes to remarkable creativity, the more important achievement is being encouraged to love what you can achieve.

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Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.

For more information, please visit my website at; and continue the conversation on Twitter @ DrVDiller.

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