In Which I Ramble Incoherently About Perfection and Failure

I don’t even know where to begin.  There isn’t really a beginning to begin at.  I’ve just had some crap rolling around in my brain.  (And I haven’t forgotten the book review – come back Friday for that.)  So, in no particular order, here we go.

Monday, Charlotte posted something that started out as lying about one’s age, but down toward the end, she mentioned being what used to be called a “precocious” child/teen, and which is now often called a “prodigy.”  She wrote:
The problem with all child prodigies however is that we grow up. What was remarkable at 12 is normal at 20 and old hat by 30. For a while, in my 20’s, I lied about my age simply to buy myself more time to fulfill everyone’s expectations of me. I was afraid to grow older and not be able to keep pace with the impossible standard I’d already set for myself.
To which I say:

I have been marinating recently in my own feelings of worthlessness – not in a self-pitying way, but more because the longer I sit with them, the deeper I have to dig to answer the question, “But WHY do I feel this way?”  And I think part of it is exactly what Charlotte is talking about.  I was definitely a prodigy (the technical and TOTALLY POMPOUS term is “profoundly gifted” – think “Good Will Hunting” and “Little Man Tate”).  I started things early, finished things early, excelled without trying.  I earned a perfect score on the SATs – twice.  And I did it when I was 8.  (The school district made me retake the test after the first score, because they declared it “impossible” that I could earn a perfect score on material I’d never been exposed to.  Frankly, I don’t know how I did it either – though I have some theories – but I did.)

But where does a person go from there?  Because it is DEFINITELY true that what was exceptional at 8, or 10, or even 18, when you’re in school, is just not a big deal at 25 or 30, after you’ve graduated.  And the hard part is trying to believe that it’s not due to any failure on my part.  It’s not that I’m any less smart; it’s just that real life doesn’t reward the same things in the same ways as school does.  I know that intellectually, but emotionally, it’s tough to really believe.  There’s a part of me that thinks that if I just tried harder (at what? no idea), worked longer (doing what?), spoke louder (because EVERYONE loves a know-it-all, right?), I could be Special-with-a-capital-S again.  I know that’s not true, and yet I keep thinking that if I could just do BETTER again (better than EVERYONE ELSE, that is), my life would all fall into place.

But somewhere along the way, I stopped being Special, and became . . . smart.  It’s sounds (and is) awful to say that it’s not enough, but . . . it’s not.  It should be, but some part of me desperately misses the praise and adulation, the admiration, the slight awe (yes, really – I was THAT smart) that people used to look at me with.  People still think I’m smart, but it’s different.  The playing field is more level.  (I imagine this is a minor version of what it would be like to be a former child star: the total admiration/awe/fascination, followed by the “Where Are They Now?” specials.)

And then there is the societal expectation that you “live up to your potential.”  But when your potential is effectively unlimited, how the fuck do you live up to that?  You can’t.  In a way, an unlimited potential guarantees failure: you can’t EVER fulfill all that potential.  No one is going to discover the cure for cancer while running for President and curing Third World hunger on the side.  And even as I write that ridiculous scenario, there’s a voice in my head that whispers, “YOU could have.  You COULD.  But you didn’t.  You failed.”

It’s an interesting side effect, this deep-seated belief in my own failure (and by extension, my own worthlessness).  Even looking back, it isn’t anything I would have predicted, either as myself or as an outsider looking in.  But it does elevate even the smallest screw-ups in my head: “You ate a bite of ice cream while you were trying to eat healthier?  Well, of COURSE you did.  You never could live up to your potential.”  “You don’t wear a size 6?  Well, of COURSE you don’t.  You always fail at taking care of yourself.  You never could live up to your potential.”  “You aren’t taking PERFECT care of yourself?  Well, of COURSE you aren’t.  You never could live up to your potential.”  Ad nauseam (and “nauseam” is the PERFECT word, lemme tell ya). 

I expect better from myself: I expect PERFECTION.  Not moderation, not competence, not even exellence – PERFECTION.  Because for many, many years,  I WAS perfect in a way that society told me was valuable – and I’m not now.  I think for me, that’s the crux of Charlotte’s statement about how what was extraordinary at a young age is no great shakes as you get older.  Nobody gives a damn about whether or not you test well when you’re 32.  (And no, the irony of going back to law school at this point in my life is not lost on me, LOL.)

Anyway.  I’m not sure how to wrap this up.  I guess I hadn’t really thought about it in terms of childhood crap until reading Charlotte’s post the other day.  So I’m percolating.  I have a lot to think about. 

Thanks, Charlotte!  (No, really.  No saracasm.  I’m glad for that post.)


*If you have a kid who is so gifted it scares you (as I scared my mom – seriously, who reads at a high school level when they’re TWO YEARS OLD, and at beyond college level by the time they’re 6 or 7?) go buy yourself a copy of “Guiding the Gifted Child.”  I read it as an adult, and it changed my life.  Just knowing that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t a Grade-A FREAK,  made a HUGE difference in my life.  Things like dealing with spiritual and social questions . . . seriously, it changed my life.  Just to know there were enough people out there who were like me to justify a BOOK.  A whole book.  I still don’t know that I’ve met anyone QUITE like me – although I’ve learned to appreciate that different experiences give different perspectives, and I’ve learned that due to experience, other people know more about certain things than I ever could – but it was comforting to know that I wasn’t alone.  Just take my word for it: go buy it if you think you even MIGHT need it.  (Hey, I had the whole, “How do you know God is real?” conversation with my formerly Catholic father when I was seven or eight.  Most people start thinking about that crap toward the end of their teenage years.  If you have a smart kid, a SUPER-smart kid, get ready.  It’s coming.  They have more on their plate sooner than you realize.  Go buy this book.  SERIOUSLY.)


7 responses to “In Which I Ramble Incoherently About Perfection and Failure

  1. Oh Marste this is the book SO MANY PARENTS NEED:

    when your potential is effectively unlimited, how the fuck do you live up to that.

    the title.
    from a youngwoman’s perspective.
    your story.
    your amazing insights.

    Im just sayin’…

  2. My son was a gifted child and he just flunked out of college. Guess who’s fault I think this all is? I needed more than a book, I needed support from people who knew what they were doing, and I couldn’t find any. I didn’t try hard enough to get my son the help he needed and he’s suffering because of it. It’s something I’ll never be able to go back and change.

  3. You’ve given me a lot to think about today.

  4. This: “And the hard part is trying to believe that it’s not due to any failure on my part.” is the key for me. I hate the word “potential” and cringe whenever anyone applies it to me. I too went to college WAY too early and while I could handle the academics, I got myself into a lot of trouble socially. Your comments about lying all the time? So hit home with me. I’m so glad we found each other! We’re gonna get thru this, girl:)

  5. wow. this goes hand-in-hand with my post from yesterday

  6. HA! Miz, I don’t know that I have a book in me. (Then again, it might give me something to do over the next year while I fret about law school exams, applications, etc. ;D)

    Harriet, I’m sending you an email. Suffice it to say, IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT. If anything, it’s a breakdown in the system.

    Hey, Nicole! I hope that’s a good thing . . . 😉

    Amen to getting through, Charlotte! I had some social problems, too – when I was younger, I didn’t fit in, and when I got older I tried so HARD to fit in that I ended up in a pretty destructive crowd.

    Emily, I know, right? It cracked me up when I read that; I had this one done and scheduled to publish, and then there was yours, too! Between you and me and Charlotte there must be something in the air.

  7. Pingback: Well, THIS Isn’t What I Planned on Posting Today At ALL « Take Up Your Bed and Walk

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