The Pitfalls of the “Gifted” Label

Note: Sorry I’ve been away for so long. I was putting on a conference and gala at work, then moving! We should be back to our regularly scheduled programming now.

Lately I’ve been feeling a lot of pressure to do something awesome. Maybe it’s the season, or the fact that I’ve been feeling more like an adult than ever (with my real, big kid job, and an apartment that’s just me and my boyfriend), or maybe it’s seeing friends around me graduating from law school or getting books published or starting their own blog networks. Whatever it is, I’m wondering what I’ve been doing with my life

It happens periodically. I grew up with a lot of messages that I was pretty smart and would do pretty cool things. So every now and then I’ll remember when I was 11 and wrote my first draft of a novel. I remember hearing about Christopher Paolini and scoffing, knowing that when I wrote MY novel, no one would be able to tell it had been penned by a teenager. I imagined my name being on everyone’s tongue by the time I was 20, as That Girl who had shattered all expectations, been a prodigy.

I don’t talk about it very often, because it’s embarrassing to tell people that when you were a child you thought you would be a famous writer. But it’s not so ridiculous. My parents and teachers were all supportive in the way that makes you think you’re one of a kind special. I was gifted, I was capable of anything, I needed special work and special challenges to match my brain. At the time, this kind of encouragement was pretty par for the course. It was early in our understanding of gifted kids. I’m glad I got support and I’m glad I had people who pushed me to do more.

But I’ve begun to suspect that labeling a kid gifted is setting them up for disappointment later in life. Last week I was at a conference for work, and saw Rebecca Banks Cull and Diane Kennedy discussing autism and giftedness. They said something that really stuck with me. “In our society, giftedness is synonymous with achievement.” Until that changes, when we tell our kids that they are gifted, we are telling them that we have certain expectations for their achievements. Those expectations are almost always financial success, academic success, or other markers of societal status. More than that, many gifted kids get the message that their giftedness is only real when there is an external way to measure it: IQ, a book deal, a position as a college professor, prestigious awards, or success in their chosen field.

For me, giftedness often presented itself as speed. I picked up on things quickly, I completed my work before anyone else, I always finished tests early, and my work was still typically high quality. I assumed that everything else in life would come quickly too. I was told from a young age that I was working beyond the typical abilities of people my age. I was told I developed empathy early, that my abstract thinking appeared sooner than other kids, and that I had a maturity beyond my years.

So here I am wondering why I feel so behind in life.

I don’t think it’s because I’m actually doing anything wrong. I’m at a pretty average point in life for a 25 year old. But after a childhood being told that not only would I accomplish beyond my peers, but that I would do it quickly and easily, it’s easy to assume that I’ve done something wrong when my life just looks average. It’s easy to think that it was all a lie when people said that I was gifted, or that I have been lazy, or that I have squandered my talent. It’s easy to assume that the problem must be with me instead of with the fact that getting things done sooner isn’t necessarily better, or that working and living as an adult is drastically different from school, or that perhaps my talents are not easily measured by achievements.

The biggest problem with that gifted label as I see it is that it gave me the message that I didn’t really need to persevere. Things always came easily to me, and that was praised. So now that things are taking longer, and requiring more commitment, I begin to think that I’m incapable of doing them at all. I’m certainly not going to stop. I’m going to get a book published. I’m going to make a difference in the world somehow. But it feeds my imposter syndrome in a serious way to look back at the expectations people had for me when they labeled me gifted and compare those expectations with the achievements I have today.

I think that it’s always dangerous to give a child a label that implies they will be successful. The world is too random and out of our control to ever guarantee that. Giving a kid the idea that they can make themselves be successful is a dangerous idea, and a set up for disappointment and self hatred. I must have done something wrong, or I would have changed the world by now.

Or maybe, just maybe, those expectations are too high, unnecessary, and irrational. Maybe I’m doing just fine, and patience is the lesson I needed when I was told I was special. Perhaps it’s still the lesson I need. Average is ok. Average people do outstanding things all the time. There is no essence of myself that is gifted, and is just waiting to escape given the right circumstances. Mostly, doing amazing things is a lot of boring work. That’s what giftedness doesn’t get at. The mundanity of accomplishment, and the way that amazing moments of understanding don’t do a whole lot to pay the bills and get you through the everyday. Instead of focusing on what I haven’t accomplished yet, I want to remind myself that I still bring insight and curiosity and creativity to the world. I am still valuable, even if I haven’t translated Linear A yet.

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