Gifted & Talented…and Afraid

I’ve been thinking lately about how “smart kids” are often at risk in ways that are easy to overlook, and what we can do about it. And I would like to hear your thoughts, too.

Emily, circa 1989.

Emily, circa 1989.

In fourth grade, I was one of three students selected to participate in a “Gifted & Talented” program. My parents were so proud; I was one of the “smart kids,” a brilliant writer and a natural actress, and life was going to be so easy for me.

And sometimes, things were easy for me. But sometimes, they weren’t.

Being a “smart kid,” whenever I struggled with something that wasn’t immediately easy, I felt profound insecurity. What if I wasn’t “Gifted & Talented”? What if it was all a mistake? What if I was…an impostor?

With that insecurity always in the back of my mind, getting the right answers, best grades, and lead roles in school plays wasn’t about learning; it was about proving, to myself and the world, that I deserved that “Gifted & Talented” distinction.

Perhaps worse, I was afraid to take risks that might show me off as anything less than innately brilliant. When given more choice in my high school classes, I avoided subjects I found difficult, padding my schedule with all English and Social Studies while skipping Math and Science. I stopped trying out for school plays, afraid of not being cast as a lead. And when college application deadlines loomed, I had a nervous breakdown, so terrified that certain schools might reject me that I couldn’t even bring myself to complete the applications.

And as for writing, supposedly my greatest “natural talent,” I hoarded everything I wrote and never managed to finish or submit a single manuscript for publication. Because even one rejection letter wouldn’t have just meant that my story wasn’t good enough; it would have meant that I, as a human being, was not good enough.

I’m grateful that schools such as mine want to invest in developing students’ talents and gifts. But at least for me, the “Gifted & Talented” label unintentionally contributed to what psychologist Carol Dweck would call a “fixed mindset”: the belief that our traits, such as intelligence and talent, are fixed and unchangeable. You’re either smart, average or dumb; good at something or not. The idea that I could make myself smarter by studying or practicing, or that my teachers actually had anything to teach me, didn’t factor into the equation. Smart = good grades = smart, that was all I knew.

Today, thanks to the work of Dweck and others, we understand intelligence and ability so much better. We know these are things you can improve with learning and time. The categories are not “smart” and “dumb”; they are “learned that already” and “haven’t learned that yet.” As a fourth grader, I wasn’t more gifted or talented than anyone else; I had just learned a little more about theater, literature and writing, thanks to my parents, than many of my peers had. That didn’t make me smart or talented any more than it made my peers stupid.

It’s amazing how this simple shift in the way we think about intelligence can change a child’s life. In the EduGuide program, students complete short, weekly activities enabling them to develop their own growth mindsets. I am moved every week by the responses I see from these students. The activities revolutionize not just how they view schoolwork, but how they view their own identities. No longer burdened by being “one of the smart kids” or “one of the dumb kids,” all of these kids are finally free to learn, improve, and become the people they want to be.

A recent photo of Emily.

A recent photo of Emily.

Although I didn’t get involved with EduGuide until my 30s, it has changed me, too. I do the activities, myself. And I no longer feel the pressure I used to feel, to be perfect all the time. After years of never writing anything for fear of negative feedback, I’ve started answering creative writing prompts on Reddit, and sharing my short stories with the online world. The feedback isn’t always positive, but I read all the comments carefully, reflect upon them, and improve my stories and craft.

Because having room for improvement doesn’t mean I’m not smart or talented. It just means I have more to learn.

And this is where I would like to keep on learning with you. What have your experiences been with this issue? How do you think we can help the “smart kids” truly reach their potential?

Emily Stivers, EduGuide Outreach Manager


4 Responses to “Gifted & Talented…and Afraid

  • I can completely relate to this in many instances. Your posting struck a cord with me. I was also put in the “Gifted and Talented” program as were my younger brothers. I was labeled “the smart kid” starting from 1st grade. It actually made me very insecure for some of the reasons you mentioned. My whole life meaning became about achievement and that is where I got my self worth. I did take all of the difficult classes in high school…and graduated with almost a 4.0 and got a full ride to college. I started struggling with panic attacks in school since tenth grade when I took exams. It only got worse in college and I couldn’t focus on my studying. Looking back I have no idea how I managed to do well with the mental issues I was dealing with. I was taught that in order to be respected or have worth I had to be a doctor, pharmacist, or dentist. I probably took this too much to heart. My father figured that I’m smart so I should go to med school. Deep down I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor, but I felt that I had no way out and wanted to be able to move out of my parents house. The only other way out would have been to get married. I fainted the first day of anatomy lab and should have known it wasn’t right….but I kept trying. I had absolutely no confidence in myself and thought I was inferior to everyone else. Proof showed otherwise, as I was ordered to get tested by a neuroscientist to determine if I was intelligent enough to be in med school. The results showed I was, but no matter how hard I studied I couldn’t do well…nothing was sinking in my head. This shows how powerful self-doubt can be. I decided to withdraw from med school. My father was enraged and demanded I apply to pharmacy or dental school. I did apply to pharmacy school and got accepted, but actually stood up for myself and told my father I wasn’t going. He told me I was waisting my life and all I do is keep making mistakes. I’m now doing my masters in counseling and am a lot happier. In my current job I help other students with their anxiety and study skills. My brothers didn’t experience what I went through. One is a PharmD and the other is finishing up med school. I know I’m a disappointment to my parents. I’m slowly trying to rebuild my sense of self confidence. A lot of the time I do think I wasted my potential, but then I remember that I probably didn’t have any in the first place. When I somehow am able to pay off my huge amount of debt from med school I may be able to move on easier. Can I say that my life would be different had I not been labeled “gifted and talented”? Probably not…I had other issues I was dealing with. Do I think my life would have gone differently if I had more self confidence? Absolutely. But everyone has their own path in life. I’m grateful for what happened because I have grown so much as a person. Besides, I didn’t just get a bunch of debt from med school, I also met the love of my life. Now to tell my parents about him after 2.5 years of hiding from them….

  • Cynthia Kane
    8 years ago

    Thank you for sharing this perspective with us! My daughter is in the ” enrichment” program and I am really happy that she is because in public education, it’s the place to get more stimulating activities and more opportunities for critical thinking and individual attention. Your letter reminds me to guide her with those emotions of pressure and perfectionism and to be more conscious of the label. Thank you!!

  • This brought back many memories from my childhood. From the beginning, I was ahead of my peers, especially in reading and writing. In fact, in first grade in Texas, I was reading chapter books and had my own spelling list, and completed additional, more advanced work than the rest of the class. Then a few years later, I joined a “Gifted and Talented” program, for which one day a week, a group of us would go to a different classroom all day and do things like complex research projects, logic problems, and more. We were “the smart kids.” It also brought enormous pressure to always be the best, always be correct — because when you weren’t, you were called out. “I thought you were smart!” It wasn’t until middle school that I somewhat evened out with other kids, and was just another one of the “honors students.” I remained near the top of my class all through graduation, and the pressure to ace my AP classes and get into a good school was still there. Any grade other an an A was a temporary devastation, something to be ashamed of. All these years later, I still believe I am “smart,” and I do know that I have a few talents, but the experiences of college and jobs have given me perspective on what really matters. It’s unfortunate that kids don’t realize that until they are in their 20s or 30s… or even later in life. And now, we have Facebook to make us all continue our quest to be the most happy, or most successful. Does it ever end?

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