I recently had the amazing good fortune to have dinner with about a dozen highly gifted adults, mostly women. As one by one we shared stories, I was struck by a thought: Each one of us as individuals was looking around the table, feeling that we were the odd one out, the less gifted duckling in a glorious pool of graceful swans.
Many of you first started thinking about giftedness as I did, in order to understand and meet the needs of your children. Until our son was three, I had never heard of gifted education, much less the emotional traits and needs of very bright children. The first book I read on the topic was Bringing Out the Best: A Resource Guide for Parents of Young Gifted Children, by Jacquelyn Saunders, lent to me by our school’s gifted and talented coordinator. I still remember the relief, the “aha” moment, when I learned that being “sensitive to emotional issues at an early age” and asking “many questions about pain, death, anger, love, violence, etc.” were aspects of being gifted and not necessarily a sign that we were doing something wrong as parents, or that something was wrong with our child.
From that point on, I embarked on what was to become both a personal and a professional journey of passion, that of understanding what it means to live with this thing called giftedness. I focused primarily on the concerns of gifted children, and I immersed myself in every resource I could find. Information about what happens to gifted children when they become adults was not only harder to find, it just wasn’t as interesting to me at the time, except in the tangential sense of its effect on parenting.
In hindsight, though, I can see that I was also embarking on another, more personal journey that I hear echoed in others’ stories. I was pegged as “the smart one” in my class of three students in the two-room country grade school I attended (the other two students were “the funny one” and “the kind one”). I was quirky and imaginative and had a hard time making friends. I remember at some point along the way making a conscious effort to study the other children and to do whatever it took to fit in, a goal I succeeded at all too well. By the time I went to the county-wide high school, I smiled my way to popularity. I was valedictorian and voted most likely to succeed. My high school yearbooks are filled with versions of “You are really nice, for a brain. Stay just the way you are.”
Through it all, though, I wondered when I would be found out as the impostor I feared I was. Not only had I erased much of my real personality, I also never had to work hard to get good grades. This was not because I was brilliant, but because there was little rigor in my classes. The drop-out rate in my high school on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation was very high (it is currently about 50 percent), and the percentage of college-bound students low. It was not that difficult to distinguish oneself.
Sure enough, as a first-generation college student hundreds of miles from home, I hit the wall. Hard. Never having developed the study skills or work habits necessary to handle challenging classes, I was the textbook example of someone with what Carol Dweck has termed a fixed mindset: I believed that my ability was set and ultimately unknowable, something to protect at all costs rather than develop. I acted as though potential alone would be enough for me to succeed, and I had internalized the belief that being smart meant I shouldn’t have to show much effort or even planning. The problem was that by the time I was in college, potential and reputation no longer sufficed. What mattered were diligence and organization and persistence, skills I was sorely lacking.
Not until graduate school and beyond did I finally start to learn to engage and even at times enjoy my own potential and the intensity that is a part of it, to bring it out in the open and to work with it rather than treat it as a fragile, mysterious object. This engagement was and is a sometimes painful process that reminds me often of my own limits. But that is part of the deal. True personal development requires discomfort and setbacks, a lesson that seems harder for some of us to learn than others.
The process of recovering and creating my personality has taken even longer.
This is the part of the post where I am supposed to provide an answer, or at least some insight. For now, though, I have only questions and the feeling that, once again, I am just beginning something. If I still have trouble applying the word “gifted” to myself and figuring out what it means, after over ten years of writing and speaking about the topic, how many others are wrestling with these issues, especially once our children are on their own and the only giftedness that remains is our own?
What is your story of when gifted children grow up?