Having It Easy Ain't Easy Part 1

>> Thursday, December 9, 2010

I told you there were downsides to having it "easy." My first thought is that there are two serious issues. The most obvious one is emotional isolation from other people, which tends to be blamed on either the smarty-pants or the "envious hordes," depending on which group you're in. The other is a potential for a lack of any sort of emotional fulfillment, a stunted emotional growth that can be related to the emotional isolation but also part and parcel of a life that has too few challenges or the wrong kind of challenges.

Note that when I talk about geniuses here, I'm not just talking about people who are book smart (though I do include people who are exceptionally book smart and/or logical - not the same), but also prodigies in music or athletics or a particular academic field, people who make something (if not several somethings) look so easy that it seems they have no troubles at all.

I can't address it all in one post and I also can't seem to get a handle on separating the two. Some of the same factors play a part in both isolation and emotional growth. I won't touch them all and some won't apply and some will to any particular individual. These are the ones I've seen first-hand, factors that increase that isolation and make it hard to fully develop.

Being different. This is the easiest to explain, starts the earliest, lasts the longest. It's also the easiest to overlook because, as people mature, they come up with other rationales to explain why they dislike someone even though being different is really at the core. Smaller children are less reticent about the core differences and words like freak and weirdo are used liberally. But the belief that there is one kind of thinking, one way of doing things that "everyone" should do, is still alive and well even among adults.

Fresh perspectives, new ideas, different ways of doing things, dispassionate evaluation, even genius—all can be readily dismissed along with the people who have them. For children, they're dismissed for no better reason than because they're different. For adults, it's frequently because it "hasn't been tested" or "challenges core values" or "goes against logic" even when the logic challenged is entirely unsound. People like to understand, to know, to feel they have a handle on things. People who don't think the same way, who are not readily comprehended, threaten that and frequently pay the price by being ostracized.

There's also an impact on the genius herself other than ostracism: that sense of no one being like her, no one understanding her viewpoint. It's a very isolating feeling to believe no one in the world sees things like you do. You don't belong anywhere.

Resentment. In this case, resentment is the attitude that it's unfair one person can excel "so easily" when others struggle. Note that this also manifests when dealing with people who succeed through hard work, but it's particularly pronounced when someone excels in a particular challenging field or when someone is academically superior "effortlessly." Busting the curve, making others "look bad"—almost always ascribed to malice—are considered crimes against fellow students, deliberate slaps all because the genius has an unfair advantage. It's difficult to fight because geniuses do have an unfair advantage (someone who understands math instinctively, for instance, does have an unfair advantage over someone who struggles to understand concepts) but the difference is made worse when the system is designed for children to compete against each other.

The problem isn't that it's untrue, at least to an extent. It's that it's no one's fault, either the genius or the kids who feel lessened as a result. Without a convenient target, however, resentful students have no choice but to blame the genius, as if he had anything to do with the advantage other than using it. A genius cannot use his genius to its greatest extent without causing resentment. In fact, once it's been identified, he cannot use it even minimally without resentment. Perhaps at all.

Arrogance. One of the most frequent complaints about genius in any field is arrogance. I won't lie; I suspect most geniuses are arrogant at least in the sense that they're well aware of their capabilities and even their limitations. There are also, any number of truly arrogant geniuses, in the sense that they feel their genius in whatever field proves that they actually are smarter and superior to the insignificant flotsam around them. It may not look like it from the outside, but there is a difference.

Don't get me wrong. Both can be tough to swallow from the outside. People who know what they can do and do it generally look good, even when they have notable limitations, largely because they're aware of them and steer clear of them. False modesty serves no dispassionate purpose (outside of relationships with others) and gets in the way of honest self-evaluation. Even the best of geniuses can be dismissive or intolerant of error or slower efforts (despite the effort that might have been exerted) others make. They shoot down ideas that don't make the cut without compunction. They are slower to be impressed with achievement. Part of that may be that they're just not competing with anyone but themselves; part of that might be dispassion that comes with pure logic—more on that later.

Those inflicted with the latter kind of arrogance, however, give the rest of us a bad name. I can kind of see it especially if you excel in a particular field. One can't expect Mozart to sit comfortably back as someone butchers a piece of music on the harpsichord when he could have played it better at the age of five. It is frequently difficult for prima donnas who are truly gifted to working effectively with those that are not so gifted, without being impatient and rude.

Note, however, that you certainly don't have to be truly gifted to be a prima donna. In fact, in my experience, that kind of attitude is almost inversely proportion to the amount of talent someone has (with some exceptions). If I find someone like this, he is usually either a true genius in some very narrow field who mistakingly thinks that makes him a genius in everything. (Not so!) or she is a person who consider herself a great deal more smart/talented than she actually is. In my experience, people most often jumping to the forefront to trumpet their intelligence are the ones whose intelligence is, at most, moderately high. People who are truly brilliant don't need to tell anyone. Many wish they were better at hiding it.

There are a significant number of geniuses (most of the ones I know) who are well aware of their abilities, yet don't treat people like crap. Part of that is because no one is good at everything. If you're smart enough to see this, you're smart enough to realize others have strengths and weaknesses, too, that they're not lesser, just different. They go out of their way to understand that strengths in those around them and are the types most likely to work well with others.

Sometimes, the arrogance is a direct result of the ostracism, a defense mechanism to defend a sense of self-worth in a critical world. Focusing on what one can do and telling yourself everyone else is jealous may be all one has to avoid a sense of worthlessness. This arrogance/impatience on the part of the genius undoubtedly contributes to their emotional isolation from others, something they do that makes their ostracism more pronounced. It's an ugly cycle made worse by . . .

The perception of arrogance. One of the most frustrating things about being on the genius side of things is that just acting normally is considered an act of arrogance. This goes hand in hand with the resentment described previously. Speaking using complete sentences, good diction and vocabulary becomes a calculated slur on those around one. Performing well on a test, getting a difficult task completed handily, correcting other people's problems, finding problems that didn't exist—just doing a job right can be viewed as an insult to everyone else, everyone who didn't do so.

For folks who are looking for arrogance, there's no distinction made between knowing one's own worth and thinking one's god's gift to the world of whatever. Short of playing dumb or completely hiding one's gifts, you can't win with this sort. They will see arrogance in everything, especially if they are the ones being corrected or overruled. However, even among the more tolerantly minded, the ones who might appreciate the notion that someone is intelligent, there is still a lingering sense of "less" when confronted with someone who sounds superior in some way. If a genius, unwittingly or no, makes someone feel inferior, especially repeatedly, it's only a small step in logic to deduce the effect was intentional.

Defenses. One cannot stress enough how challenging this ostracism can be on a genius, even among others of "his own kind"—the hierarchy is often less forgiving among geniuses and intellectual achievement does not equate to emotional maturity (which I'll go into in a later post). For some, the isolation is completely debilitating and they grow up emotionally crippled, either leading to lifelong psychological issues or overwhelming arrogance bordering on sociopathy. For others, it's just painful, one of the prices of excellence.

Some choose to hide their abilities or distract from them. They become class clowns with witty comebacks and negligent study habits (which may still not protect them from good grades, but might distract). I've seen several very bright boys go down this path.

Another frequent defense mechanism is playing dumb, way dumb, in fact. I'm sad to say, I see girls do this more than anyone, though I hear that it's also common among some minority groups. There's many women who have felt under particularly intense pressure to pretend an ignorance they didn't have or face near complete isolation. I find that ineffably sad, especially as my daughter is one of them. I can't tell you how painful it is for me to see my sharp quick-thinking daughter turn into a trash-talking moron whenever in the company of a "friend," even though I know how painful her isolation was for her her first few years of school. There is always a price and many a girl who spends her life playing dumb eventually discovers its no longer an act, her abilities and knowledge leeched away through misuse.

There's more features, many of which contribute both to isolation and to emotional challenges for geniuses, but I'll leave that for next time


  • Jeff King

    Now... thats a post... I'll be here for next time, thx.

  • The Mother

    There are a two points I would like to make:

    1) On perception of arrogance--I think that a large amount of that falls under the concept of social awkwardness (the "geek" stereotype does come from somewhere). While I am not implying that all exceptional folks are also socially inept, I do think that almost all find it rather difficult to have "friendly" conversations with barely educated parents at their kids' soccer games.

    2) On community--How we perceive ourselves, let alone others, is based on the people around us. Raised in a small town with few intellectual equals, it's not hard to see how the gifted might develop a few unattractive qualities.

    Plopped instead into an environment where everyone is like them, their difference is minimized. They grow up on a more even keel.

    I think it's vastly important for parents of gifted kids to get them into environments where they are NOT so fabulous. I suppose some would say this is pushing their academia over the social, but I think that's backwards. In the right academic background, they have the chance to develop socially.

  • Stephanie Barr

    The Mother, I'll be talking about emotional/social stunting during the next post or two. I don't disagree. I just haven't gotten there yet.

    On the second point, however, I'm not sure that I entirely agree. We moved all over when I was growing up. I was frequently in groups of "gifted" people and often in groups of "regular" people. I learned more among the "gifted" (though never as much as I learned on my own). I actually felt more accepted among the "regular" people. I'll be talking about this more in the next post.

  • The Mother

    I will tell you my kids find it exactly the other way around.

  • Stephanie Barr

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Perhaps they think more like "normal" smart people than I did. Or they have less competitive peers.

    I am not omniscient and probably should have started this discussion with a caveat. I'd be speaking from my own observations and experiences. "Gifted" people aren't any more cookie-cutter than the rest of the populace, individuals with individual responses, needs, etc.

    Which means I have to appreciate the challenges of a school system in trying to educate so many children who have such diverse needs.

    And I might be talking about the grouping with gifted rather than normal in the next few posts rather than the next ones. These things are getting ungainly. I keep wanting to say more and more, rather than reasonable amounts.

  • Anonymous

    Birds of a feather...  Social acceptance involves far more than intellectual similarities.  Even gifted groups will create a pecking order and delineate based on countless other traits they see as being different. 

    One question I read into your post is whether it is more important (1) to bring up children in such groups that will minimize "being different" so that they may develop social skills in a friendlier (less bullying) environment or (2) to allow a more diverse environment so as to force them to learn that it's acceptable to be independent, to be who they really are rather than who they think the crowd wants them to be.

    Should they pursue path one while young and vulnerable and then slowly attempt path two only after they've developed strong social skills and can withstand the blowback from expressing their real differences?

    As a protective parent I want my children to feel safe at school, to enjoy learning and to develop at least a few meaningful friendships but I also want them to feel confident about expressing their individuality without a crippling fear of reprisal by (to them) the vastly important "in-crowd."  How/when to achieve a proper balance is the difficulty for me.

    Mike Hawthorne

  • Stephanie Barr

    Mike you're the second person to bring that up. I can't tell you the definitive answer because I don't know. I think the answer is complex and not necessarily the same for all "gifted" children. I've got another post written up along the lines of this post I'll put up later today, but I'll address that specific question (so that you and Mother can pelt me with arguments/questions) on the very next post.

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