A discussion on metafilter a few days ago brought a really, really good article from the Boston Globe to my attention. “Young + Brilliant, Blessed + Cursed” explores the lives of a handful of child prodigies in the US. They’ve got sky-high IQs, they were chatting with adults before their first birthdays, they want to change the world… but they suffer from the same problems as normal kids, with the additional pressure of being some kind of genius.
According to the BBC article, Gifted but Socially Isolated? the signs of a gifted kid include:
- Asks lots of questions
- Has a very retentive memory
- Can concentrate for a long time
- Has wide general knowledge
- Enjoys problem solving
- Has an unusual imagination
- Has strong feelings and emotions
- Has an odd sense of humour
- Is a perfectionist
Funny thing is, that describes almost everyone I knew growing up. I had an unusual childhood – I wasn’t a genius or anything like that, but my early years were marked by a lot of the same things these kids’ were. I grew up with a lot of people letting me know (right or wrong) that I was smart. That a lot of things I did casually, for fun, were beyond my years or advanced or gifted. As a young toddler I’d engage clerks at the grocery store and ask them for details on products I thought look interesting. I started reading early, and one day I snuck a copy of Walk Across America away from my parents because I wanted to finish it faster than they were willing to read it to the family after dinner. I read a book and learned how to make little decorative runner-sleds out of popsicle sticks and glue, so I made them in bulk and sold them on consignment to local businesses. In grade school, they stuck me in the ‘Talented and Gifted’ program, where we got to skip gym class once a week and solve Mensa brain teaser puzzles. I was cool with that – I was an odd kid, and not exactly built like a future rugby player, so I dug it.
After fourth grade my parents noticed I was pretty listless and frustrated in school – I wanted to figure stuff out, and they had us cutting out shapes in paper and gluing them to worksheets all day. I was home schooled, and for the next however-many-years I was surrounded by a lot of other bright, bright kids who thought that it was perfectly normal for ten year olds to read Ben Guirion’s biography and learn about cryptography for fun. A few months before my tenth birthday – in 1987 – I started publishing a zine because I thought magazines for kids were annoying. I wrote the articles, did the paste-up, and sold it door to door. I kept at it for about six or seven years, too. The zine grew and I was putting out twenty four pages of content bimonthly, angling for interviews with congressmen, sports personalities, professionals in different careers, authors I thought were interesting… I reviewed books. I wrote feautres. Eventually, other magazines started covering what I was doing and that brought more attention. I was flown out to the east coast to appear in The Family Channel’s public service announcements. I co-hosted the 700 Club once. (That’s the secret answer to my personal claim to fame: I’m only three degrees of separation from the deposed former dictator of Zaire). At the zine’s peak, there were about three hundred paid subscribers.
All this time, I was hanging out with my similarly quirky overachiever friends. At the time, one was one of the nation’s top Apple IIgs animation programmers. Another went to Hungary to do crypto research – at fifteen. Another became a midwife, and skydives relationally. Another moved to Kansas and got married, and is now translating Russian evangelistic literature while living in an Amish community. Reading the original Boston Globe article resonated in a lot of ways – particular the following paragraph:
These talented kids get to a stage at which age doesn’t matter anymore, and they’re just like every other bright guy or gal trying to get ahead. Their test scores are irrelevant in a world where things like charisma and character are often the tickets to success. And that realization can be shattering. Many onetime child prodigies I spoke with, regardless of their financial and professional status, admit to a sense of inadequacy as adults. Some suffer from what psychologists call the “impostor phenomenon,” the fear that they are not as smart as everyone said they were.
It hit me, hard, when I read that paragraph. I think all of us suffered from that to some extent, even if we weren’t super-prodigies or something. The moment I decided to stop publishing my zine (late ‘93… right about the time I heard of other people publishing zines, too…) was terribly difficult. I felt as if I was giving up the claim to uniqueness, admitting that I was just another kid in the crowd. I felt as if I was a failure, having not lived up to the ‘intelligence’ and ‘creativity’ everyone had said I possessed. But eventually, that has to happen. “Doing things five years earlier than other kids” is really impressive when you’re seven, but when you hit your twenties, it only means that you find yourself in a world full of people older than you – they’re doing the same work but with more time under their belts, and your youth is a sign of inexperience rather than genius.
I never attended college – by seventeen or eighteen I was grappling with the beginnings of a crisis of faith and a personal breakdown. While I had “good reasons” not to pursue college (I was interested in new media and other fields no one was teaching at the time, I had projects I wanted to pursue, etc…) a lot of it also boiled down to fear. I wasn’t really that smart, I knew. And once I went to college people would know that and I’d crash and burn. I didn’t know if I could take that – in retrospect, I’m sure that I wouldn’t have been able to deal with it at the time. Jonathon Edwards, now a researcher at MIT, describes his years growing up: “I always felt that I was walking this tightrope, that if I made one mistake, I was ruining or dashing this incredible potential.”
So instead I taught myself HTML and graphic design, and got freelance work in the area. Learned to program computers and kept studying any topic that caught my eye. I got jobs, I worked my way up – slowly but surely, shedding the ‘youth’ that made my earlier successes unique. It’s strange and hard, and to this day there are still frequent pangs of fear. I’m an impostor! I’m not smart, not like other people say! They’ll find me out! I’m a failure – because I haven’t left my mark on the world! I’ve squandered my “gifts!” Near the end of the Boston Globe’s article, it talks about a music prodigy whose eventual mediocrity left his mother bitter.
“I consider him a failed prodigy, and with no joy do I say that. I am devastated,” she says. “I am disappointed. My heart is broken.” His failure to do more with his gifts, she says, is “the world’s loss.” In her view, he is deluding himself with a life of trivial pursuits: “He is jovial. He is amiable. He is full of self-deception.”
But Laibow-Koser doesn’t rue the choices he’s made. He would like his musical career to take off, and he wouldn’t mind being financially stable. But his personal life is thriving. “You must understand the fact that I even have a girlfriend, let alone one that I’m probably going to spend my life with, is a new thing for me,” he explains. Happy? “Oh, yeah. Then again, I have a friend who rather frustratedly said to me, `Damn it. You could be happy in a damp cave.”
It makes me smile – Laibow-Koser has found his center, and it’s not about writing a symphony or convincing people he’s a genius. It’s about love, and doing what you love, and building connections. Life is built of living. I relax, and calm. It’s difficult, tremendously so, to leave that behind and be content being who I am. Not a genius, not an idiot… Just me.