I Grew Up Gifted, But My Life Didn’t Turn Out The Way I Expected
BY HEATHER M. JONES
Photo © rawpixel/123RF
May 29, 2019
“It’s a shame Heather never did anything with her life.”
The casual comment from a family member to my dad stings to this day. I was about 30 at the time, and my husband, young son and I were living in my parents’ house. We had moved in while I was enduring a difficult pregnancy and had decided to stay for a few years after. I was working as a daycare teacher. The comment wasn’t meant to imply that I was a degenerate. This family member was voicing the feelings that have so often haunted me in my adult life – I wasn’t living up to my potential.
Potential. It’s a word I started hearing in toddlerhood. My parents noticed there was something different about me early on, and those observations were validated when I received a gifted designation at age five. The school suggested I skip grade one, which my parents declined. I started a part-time gifted program instead, and then transitioned into a full-time gifted class in Grade 5.
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At the time, I thought being gifted was setting me up for success in life. Everything, at least academically, came very easily to me. I was bombarded with comments about how smart I was and how I would certainly be going places and achieving great success in life. I believed it. After all, everything I touched turned to gold. As fellow former gifted child Adam Smith (name changed), 42, put it, “I certainly remember feeling that school was easy, and that concept of ease affected my world view. Since school was preparation for life, [then] life must be easy.”
Outside the protection of academia, I became intensely aware that I had never learned how to work for things.
My first hint that this was a skewed view came in university. I very quickly learned that, while I may have been the “best” in all of my high school classes, I was now in a place where my peers had been the “best” in theirs as well — and in most cases, their best was better than mine. This realization automatically dulled some of my drive to succeed. I would never gain the admiration and accolades I had received my whole life up until this point, so where was the desire to try? Still, I managed to get by receiving relatively good grades without an extreme amount of effort.
Real life hit me like a tidal wave. Outside the protection of academia, I became intensely aware that I had never learned how to work for things. Enough things came easily to me that if I wasn’t good at it, I simply didn’t do it. I’ve learned in speaking with other people who were deemed gifted as children that this is a common occurrence.
Terri Moore, 36, said, “I think the fact that academically things came easily to me, and the praise I got for my academics, made me resistant to anything that needed practice. I never got ‘really good’ at anything as a result.”
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Christina Kimont, 38, speaks of a similar experience. “The fact that I can be immediately good at something has left me as a jack-of-all-trades and master of none, so to speak, and left me rather adrift when it came to finding my life’s purpose.”
That so many gifted children begin to view anything that requires work as not worth the effort takes its toll on us as adults. What was an asset in my school years became a hindrance to me in the real world. I watched the peers who I used to view, often smugly, as “average,” achieve far greater personal and professional success than I after graduation. They had learned the value of working towards a goal, and the skills to succeed at it. I had not. They weren’t afraid to try new things, whereas my fear of failure – something I didn’t have a lot of experience with as a child – held me back from making the attempt.
This fear prompted me to stay in what had been my summer job for over a decade past university graduation. I had the education to land a higher-paying, high-prestige job, but I didn’t have the drive or the courage that benefitted my former peers.
The feelings of personal failure were compounded by the disappointments of people who genuinely expected me to, in their words, “do better” in life. This, too, is common among former gifted children.
For so long, being gifted was viewed simply as an asset — something that made life easier, ignoring the ways in which it can hinder a child’s development.
Pamela Bragg-Larocque, 38, describes her experience with this phenomenon. “I feel like when people knew I was identified as being gifted they seemed to expect me to be more successful, or choose a more challenging career. I have been made to feel like a failure or like I wasted my potential.”
Kimont empathizes. “Living up to my ‘potential’ has been a lifelong struggle. It is the absolute worst thing about being labeled gifted. It instilled pathological perfectionism and crippling anxiety, which both contributed to my concurrent lifelong struggle with depression.”
While plenty of gifted children go on to thrive as adults, the fact that so many of us struggle is enough to reconsider how we handle giftedness. For so long, being gifted was viewed simply as an asset — something that made life easier, ignoring the ways in which it can hinder a child’s development.
Now my son is the one being labelled "gifted," I’m often met with confusion when I express concern over that fact. It’s frequently viewed as a humblebrag. How could anyone not be happy that their child is gifted? But I know the challenges he is going to face. I know how there will come a day when he trades in easy grades for hard life lessons. I know that his brilliant brain will try to confuse and confound him. I worry about him the same way I worry about my other neuro-atypical child with ADHD. It’s hard not being “normal,” even if that difference includes being intelligent.
My pledge to my gifted son is that I will never allow him to settle for easy, just because he can. I will make sure he experiences trials and failures and ensure that he practices getting back up. I will watch for those “extras” that can come with giftedness, and I won’t allow his intelligence to mask them. And I will never, ever shame him for not reaching a potential I pre-determined for him.
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