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Genius Burnout

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Some people seem destined for greatness, but whether they actually achieve it is another story. A Child Prodigy may have an innate talent in something such as science or art — but despite that reservoir of potential, they may simply end up living the life of a normal person, if not doing much worse. Such failure may occur for many reasons: being unable to shake a big mistake, experiencing one bad day that leads them down the wrong path, cracking under the pressure of being the metaphorical Chosen One, becoming isolated from others and deciding it isn't worth the hassle, not being as clever as they thought they were, or reaching middle management and being unable to go beyond that.

There is a good chance they still have all the skills that made them notable in the first place, but instead spend their life tinkering with remote-control cars instead of designing supersonic jets. This kind of character may end up as a lost cause, cautionary tale, unexpected mentor, or person who finds an opportunity for redemption when something new comes along.

Compare I Coulda Been a Contender!, Almighty Janitor, Tall Poppy Syndrome, and Jaded Washout. Distantly related to the Hollywood Hype Machine, Former Child Star, and White-Dwarf Starlet.

There is some Truth in Television to this trope. Prodigies are often labeled as such because of how swiftly they master a current field — but this doesn't mean they have the intuition to be revolutionary instead of imitative, making their age more noteworthy than their actual accomplishments.

Due to issues with speculating about the life and mental health of real people, No Real Life Examples, Please!.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Dragon Ball, Gohan (Goku's son, who is a temporary protagonist) suffers from this following the post-Cell Arc time skip. While Vegeta and Goku spent their time training, Gohan himself says that he's gotten rusty since his fight with Cell. Almost an Averted Trope during his training with the Elder Kaioshin, but he ultimately doesn't amount to much.

    Film — Live Action 
  • Death Becomes Her: Dr. Ernest Menville is introduced as a brilliant up-and-coming plastic surgeon, who makes the mistake of becoming involved with White-Dwarf Starlet Madeline Ashton. Years later, their marriage has made him an alcoholic which cripples his medical career, leaving him working as a mortuary cosmetician (though to be fair, he still excels at his job).
  • Good Will Hunting shows the main character working at a concrete pit and as a janitor at MIT, despite having a Photographic Memory and being gifted in top tier mathematics. The main conflict of the story is that he had such immense potential to do whatever he wanted, but stuck around with his blue-collar friends out of loyalty (some of it misplaced). His best friend gives him a speech about how he feels like they are dragging him down, and if he didn't come into work one day that wouldn't be the worst thing.
  • Downplayed in Independence Day. David Levinson graduated from MIT but now works for a media company troubleshooting network problems. It's actually a passable job for someone of his credentials, but he gets some grief for being a "cable repairman."
  • Kid Detective (2020) has Abe Applebaum, who was a smart teenage sleuth in the vein of Encyclopedia Brown, recognized by both the police and the mayor of his hometown. In a deconstruction of Kid Detective, his cases never went above petty theft even as he became an adult Private Detective — and his failure to solve the disappearance of a middle school classmate haunts him. He remembers how as a kid he would lie awake at night amazed at how far ahead of everyone else he was, while now he wonders "What happened?"
  • The Royal Tenenbaums has an entire family of Genius Burnouts: Etheline Tenenbaum raises her children to be focused on achievement, which ends up crippling their personal lives. Financial whiz Chas succeeds in business as a teenager, but is overcome by paranoia after his wife's death; playwright Margot loses her inspiration and cheats on her husband with a long string of men (and women); and tennis champ Richie can't overcome his feelings for Margot (his adopted sister) and tanks his entire career after she marries. The plot eventually concerns them finding redemption with help from their ne'er-do-well father Royal (himself a once-successful lawyer who eventually got himself disbarred and briefly incarcerated).
    Narrator: All memory of the brilliance of the young Tenenbaums had been erased by two decades of betrayal, failure, and disaster.

  • Ascendance of a Bookworm: Myne is an illiterate five-year-old Medieval European Fantasy peasant girl with Past-Life Memories of reaching her early twenties in modern-day Japan. One of her first acts after acquiring the memories is surprising her mother by figuring out her new world's numbering system over a single market run. After hearing her mother's remark, she wonders if this trope will happen to her.
    "... Oh wait, am I going down the child prodigy path here? At age ten I'll be God's gift to mankind and at age fifteen I'll be a genius, but once I hit twenty I'll just be a normal person."
  • In The Magicians, students accepted into Brakebills are among the best and brightest of all the Teen Geniuses surveyed for the entrance exam, a necessity considering just how difficult it is to learn and control magic. However, instead of actually using their powers and intellect for anything remotely constructive, far too many Brakebills graduates go to seed. Part of this is due to the fact that such students tend to be highly competitive, challenge-oriented individuals who flourish while studying but fall to pieces without something to focus on. More importantly, it's also due to the fact that once mastered, magic can do almost anything, making postgraduate life extremely unsatisfying. Many graduates descend into a life of mindless hedonism: some pursue meaningless hobbies, some (like Quentin) take serious risks in pursuit of adventure, and some even leave the magical world altogether and pose as muggles, most commonly while sponging off the Brakebills' old boys network in an effort to avoid actually having to work. As such, Quentin's character arc over the course of the series involves him gradually clambering out of this decline and finding something important to devote his abilities to.
  • In the Millennium Series, Lisbeth Salander is the best hacker in Sweden, a hugely successful private investigator, and possibly one of the best mathematicians in the world — but whenever she actually has to use her talents in a significant way, she burns herself out and spends weeks or months afterwards lazing around. It doesn't help that she's had very little formal schooling, and thus has never really had to learn how to maintain a balanced schedule.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Big Bang Theory: Sheldon Cooper was a child genius prodigy, a fact he won't hesitate to point out given the opportunity. While he has had modest success in his field of Theoretical Physics, for much of the series Sheldon is nowhere near his stated career path of being a Nobel Laureate in physics and has actually failed to make any distinct contributions to his field since his teen years. In a few episodes, such as dealing with being fired or being one-upped by a budding teen genius, it becomes evident just how afraid he is of not actually living up to his own hype. It's only when he partners with Amy that he finds himself making scientific strides again.
  • "Love Me Tender", an episode of The Golden Girls, features a different kind of genius — namely, a Sex God named Eddie. He's a bland, homely, uninteresting man who still pines after his ex-wife and has no hobbies or interests to speak of...and yet, for reasons even he can't understand, he's totally irresistible to every heterosexual woman on Earth, and an absolutely phenomenal lover to boot. He's now in his fifties and admits that he's completely burned out on his talent: he's tired of having an endless stream of flings, can't create a lasting romantic relationship because he has nothing going for him but sex, and knows that eventually all of the women actually worth dating break up with him because they realize his situation ("I knew you'd break up with me, Dorothy — the good ones always do").
  • In the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Hothouse", the team investigates a murder at a prestigious school where every student is a genius. Among the suspects is a dropout who got burned out by the heavy workload and now spends his days tooling around with a theremin.
  • In The Librarians, Cassandra Cillian displayed a knack for science and math at an early age, and was on track for a prestigious career until she discovered that she had a brain tumor that would kill her by the time she was thirty. The revelation that she was dying, combined with the years of emotional abuse her parents put her through in order to try and boost her potential, completely killed off all of her ambition, and she ended up working as a hospital janitor before being recruited by the Library.
  • House:
    • One episode had a scientific genius who took pills to suppress his intelligence and worked a menial job because otherwise he couldn't stand the intellectual difference between him and his girlfriend (comparing it to having sex with a baboon).
    • A renowned cancer research scientist was a patient of the week and Wilson confronts her because she had dropped out of the medical field entirely to pursue minor hobbies. She explained how heavy a toll that research took on her personal life, and even though she was at the forefront of a potential breakthrough, she couldn't see it through to the end.
  • In Psych, a major reason why Shawn Spencer became a slacker is that his dad spent years forcing him to use his gifts for observation and deduction in order to train him to become a cop. Shawn even aced the detective exam when he was a teenager, not realizing that it was supposed to be impossible to ace the test. The result of that stress and growing antagonism with his father burned Shawn out and drove him to embrace a less active life.
  • Titus, Christopher's mom Juanita apparently spoke four languages, had a 180 IQ, qualified for a Ms California pageant in the '60s and was a Supreme Chef. She was also diagnosed as manic depressive schizophrenic. Her manic episodes were well-known by the local police, and while she was smart enough to convince psychiatric boards she was okay, she went downhill fast as soon as she stopped taking her medication. She eventually took her own life as a way of atoning for her behavior. This was based on Christopher Titus' own mother.

  • The "Weird Al" Yankovic song "Skipper Dan" is about a man who excelled in acting school and seemed to have a bright career ahead of him, only to end up working at a Disney ride, giving the same cheesy spiel thirty-four times a day to apathetic tourists.

    Web Original 
  • Basement Gary is a homemade cartoon made in 2008, and won the Playboy Animation Contest. Basement Gary is described in the opening song thusly: "He got an A in science / But he failed at life / Base-ment Gar-y." He lives in a suburban basement with his framed diploma, but barely able to scrape rent money together. Viewable (but NSFW) here: [1].
  • Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality: One of Harry's worst fears is to "flash and fade like so many other child prodigies." However, being Harry, he believes that the reason why prodigies (and adult geniuses for that matter) fail is that they never found an important enough problem and the will to solve it, meaning Harry ends up driving himself harder and harder.

    Western Animation 
  • My Adventures with Superman: Hinted at—while Amazotech has revolutionized various fields thanks to his inventions, the company has been losing money recently, and Ivo is close to broke personally, causing him to risk everything on the Parasite suit, which was developed from alien technology and appears to be largely the work of his subordinate, Alex.
  • Recess:
    • "A Genius Among Us" (itself a Whole-Plot Reference to Good Will Hunting) has Child Prodigy Gretchen realizing that Hank, the Third Street School's janitor, is a mathematical genius after he solves a seemingly-impossible equation left on a chalkboard. The two become fast friends, but when news of Hank's brilliance gets out, he's recruited by NASA, the U.S. Armed Forces, and major universities to come and work on all manner of top-level projects. Hank politely declines by invoking this trope, explaining that if he did mathematics and science all the time, he'd lose his passion for it and eventually burn out. He happily stays as Third Street's janitor, although he and Gretchen still meet to discuss math every once in a while.
    • In "Old Folks' Home", the kids volunteer at a retirement home. Gretchen meets an elderly man who has apparently been silent for years. After trying and failing to come up with topics that might interest him, she sarcastically suggests that they discuss subatomic particles — and he lights up immediately. It turns out the silent man was one of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project (the research and development of the atomic bomb) during World War II. He goes on to explain that he stopped talking years ago because he hasn't found anyone smart enough to justify "the expulsion of carbon dioxide," but remarks that Gretchen "seems possessed of a mind" and eagerly chats with her.
  • The Simpsons:
    • Lisa Simpson is a precociously brilliant eight-year-old with aspirations to attend a top-tier university. Despite this, she has a deep-seated fear of ending up a failure. Various Flash Forward episodes depict her as either attending a prestigious college or going into politics, or being stuck in Springfield married to Milhouse.
    • In a Documentary Episode depicting various kids in Springfield and how their lives have changed over the years, a character named Eleanor Abernathy is seen to be on a fast track to success, earning both legal and medical degrees. A first Jump Cut shows her to be exhausted and relaxing with a glass of wine and her feline pet, saying she's thinking of getting another cat. Another Jump Cut reveals that she became the recurring Crazy Cat Lady, saying random nonsense and throwing cats at people.