Confessions of a Gifted Ex-Child

Posted on 22 December, 2008 at 10:04pm

butterflyIf you grew up in the eighties or onward, you probably heard the term “gifted child” a lot. Maybe you even had it applied to you. Generally, all it meant was that you got to skip normal class once a week to go to a much more interesting and fun class. I was one of those kids. In Illinois, “gifted” simply means you scored in the top 8% on standardized tests (you know, the ones that test your ability to use a #2 pencil correctly), but I didn’t know that when I was a kid. The very word itself is misleading. I thought it meant I had a gift — something that was given to me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I read Gladwell’s latest book Outliers. I won’t go into the details of what he says in the book, because it’s worth checking out on your own. But the basics of what he discovered when he studied exceptionalism can be summed up in two sentences. Experts practice a lot, and must have the opportunity to do so to become experts. And seemingly arbitrary factors such as when you were born or where you were raised can have a big impact on your success.

Suddenly the truth of the gifted program becomes clear. For some reason or another, some kids got a jump-start on their intellectual development. The top 8% were identified as efficiently as possible and accelerated. I guess that’s the best public school can do, and I’ll never fault them for that. They simply can’t help everyone. But it certainly does reveal a few things about the pattern I have observed as the lot of us age into gifted ex-children.

As you grow up, the special programs tend to disappear, and by the time you reach college it’s assumed that you are capable of finding something suitably challenging on your own. Additionally, your exceptional intellectual growth as a child has probably slowed down and the other students are catching up to you. You may even be starting to see them pass you. Just like that, the gifted label is gone. Children are gifted. Adults are ambitious, hard-working, and driven.

So what happens to you now? The understanding that you are somehow different from the people around you has already become a part of your subconscious. You might struggle to fill the void of the “gifted” label with something else. “Nerd” or “geek” maybe. You might feel pulled towards engineering and computer science, where the myth of exceptionalism still thrives. Or maybe you just let it go quietly, and mourn the death of your childhood potential. It was nice while it lasted.

But the fact is, you were never gifted. No one is. No one is deemed worthy of some special gift that makes them better than everyone else. And the myth that you were may – may – have prevented you from doing the things that you needed to do to become truly great. Like working hard. Seeking challenges. And not taking anything on faith.

I spent four years in college doing more or less nothing and wasted every good educational opportunity I had because I believed I was too good for it. Because it’s hard to hear that getting good takes work – no more, no less. I’m lucky in that I have a singular love for what I do that kept me plugging away at it, but I still struggle with the notion of hard work and practice. I get angry at myself when I don’t do something perfectly the first time. I have to coach myself to keep trying. It gets better slowly but only through extreme, sometimes painful awareness of the fact that I am not gifted.

But in a way it’s kind of nice. I always felt guilty, that I never deserved whatever “gift” I got. Now I know that it’s just a frame of mind — and that can be taught. And where there are people willing to teach, we are all gifted.

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The Discussion

22 Comments on “Confessions of a Gifted Ex-Child”
  • Hi “Almost-Katey!” Interesting article. I remember that gifted thing in school. At my school it was called “GATE.” I had a friend in it. I didn’t do that well in elementary school. But I remember being a bit jealous that my friend was in it and I wasn’t.

  • Wow. This essay describes my experience exactly. Starting in elementary school I was placed a year ahead, and allowed to teach myself in Math and Science. Early on I concluded that my abilities were almost entirely mindset-based. That didn’t prevent me from trying to live up to the gifted label. I learned to get by on as little work as possible, so that I could make everything look effortless and thereby live up to my reputation. By the time I entered college I started to buy my own deception, and had a hard time investing effort anymore…

    I was also troubled by the use of the word ‘genius’ in my high school. It was used to mark someone as different, in some inexplicable way. By using and repeating the word, the speakers built a consensus that the ‘genius’ had something different within them, something that was impossible to understand. At the same time they were denying themselves the faculties of ‘genius.’ I wanted to yell at them that they were no different, and contained all the same potential. I didn’t know how to do this without offending or seeming pretentious.

    One other doubt stopped me. How is anyone to know the experiences of another? It is easy to assume that everyone has it just as easy as yourself, and devalue the effort that they expend. This would be a kind of ‘grey privilege,’ if you will. Though there no way to know for certain, I’m not going to discount the theory that gift is hard work. At least one genius seems to agree:

    “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” — Albert Einstein

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  • No–this is bullshit. Some people are gifted; others aren’t. Just as some people are gifted athletes, musicians, or models. You can’t always tell right away, and there are all kinds of complicating factors, but that doesn’t change the underlying reality that some people are simply born with different (more OR less adaptive) mental patterns, capabilities, and sensitivities than others. We all have gifts, we all have talents–but yes, some of us genuinely do have exceptional minds. Ignoring that for a social falsehood-of-convenience doesn’t make it untrue, any more than “colorblindness” erases the very real problems of a world where people have different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. What matters is not extending the very real differences to imply something inaccurate…like, say, “Girls are bad at math” and “Engineers lack social skills.” “Gifted people always succeed intellectually” is one such inaccuracy.

    I think of high intelligence (and, in a different way, being seen as intelligent–the two things don’t always overlap) as a form of privilege. It doesn’t make you “better” than anyone else in a broad sense. But it doesn’t mean you’re “just like them,” either.

    I think the problem you identify above (Gah, life is suddenly hard WTF) comes when being gifted is no longer enough to guarantee success. It doesn’t mean you were never gifted or that you suddenly aren’t any more. It just means being gifted used to be the only thing you needed, and now you have to grow. So go for it. Enjoy. Be gifted at failure for a while; lots of outrageously successful people have road-tested that strategy and proven its worth.

    But don’t ever lie about yourself, or let anyone else do it to you. Giftedness is real. Learn what it is and deal.

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