Having It Easy Ain't Easy Part 2

>> Friday, December 10, 2010

Last time I talked about some of the reasons why "having it easy" makes having friends difficult. There are more reasons but the others are also tied to what I alluded to was the other issue here: the stunted or off-nominal social/emotional growth often found with a "genius." I'm considering these factors have to do with both.

Dispassion. The same capacity for honest evaluation required to excel at anything—anything!—is frequently tied to a sense of dispassion. Even someone who is passionate about, say, dance, passionate about excelling, has to look at his own performance dispassionately for improvement or he will never be great. Dispassion is great for excellence but sucks for interpersonal relationships. Passion, for the dispassionate, can be confusing and seem perverse. The objectivity built into the genius frequently leaves him unable to cope, not only with the passionate resentment of others, but with extreme emotional responses of any kind.

He may try to counter emotional responses or motives with reason and be genuinely confused when it fails. He may try to understand the emotional responses using logic and decide that all unfathomable emotional responses are, by definition, stupid. I don't think I really have to work too hard to explain why this would not do much to reconcile a genius with his peers.

But it can do more than widen the gap. It can also be self-limiting. Dispassion in some aspects, and a reliance on logic for everything, can severely limit emotional relationships with anyone, or emotional reactions. Dispassionate excellence is only intellectually satisfying. Do it often enough, and it's not even that (Straight A's isn't thrilling if that's all you ever get). Passion adds meaning to life, interest, color, purpose. Having none came make life colorless, bland and unappealing.

People have emotions, even the genius types. If people begin to distrust emotional reactions on principal, they stand to either squelch/revile their own emotions (which makes a fulfilling life just that much harder to attain) or they feel no responsibility for them whatsoever, no handle on control or limiting them. Which means their natural emotional reactions are out of control, unhinged.

Perhaps I could have saved myself from several paragraphs of explanation by just saying dispassion adds distance, whether it's with others or within one's own life.

Expectations. This is a big one. It plays a part in social ostracism—people expect geniuses to be unpopular and behave a certain way, even if it's not true—but it also plays heavily into a child's development. For instance, an intelligent logical child might be expected to excel at math, but, because they can't spatially envision three dimensions, they become stymied by geometry. The censure (both self-inflicted and by teachers/peers/parents) can be far more severe than that for someone "normal" who had the same problem. My husband, like many dyslexics, was very articulate at an early age. When writing began in school, he went a considerable time being told he was lazy, he wasn't trying, that he was unmotivated, when the problem was very specific. Their expectation of his brilliance (which was valid - his IQ is almost off the scale) led them to expect he could do anything language related (which was not valid) and a presumption, if he didn't, that it was willful.

Expectations, even within a field of excellence, can also be unrealistic as children and adults continue to push the bar up, only to find no satisfaction but rather even more egregious demands. Parents planning to live their dreams vicariously through their children are notorious in this aspect. Coincidentally, expectations in a particular field may also be for a particular kind of result, one that may be at odds, particularly for a creative genius. The genius can readily become frustrated at always being asked to provide Y, which he finds limiting, or gets criticized for providing something that doesn't fit neatly into a box, even though that creativity is part and parcel with genius.

One of the most devastating ways expectations can adversely affect a genius is by parents/mentors confusing their smarts with maturity. Parents of a gifted child (and teachers) can often feel emotionally distant (see dispassion) and assume their child really doesn't need nurturing, emotional support, love. Not so. It is quite possible that a gifted child won't know to ask for nurturing and support—how would she know?—or might not even realize she was lonely or lacking because she's never known any different. The parent assumes, because the child might not be demonstrative, that the child needs no demonstrations of care or concern. A parent might even be put off by that perception and make it self-fulfilling.

That same sort of thing, expecting a gifted child to be effectively an adult, is also carried forward in other ways, where a parent expects judgment or adult-level dedication from someone who is still a child. Logic does not take the place of experience in many ways and the emotional challenges a gifted child might have actually makes them less likely to address an emotional or social dilemma effectively, not more. Too often, and we see this with prodigies in music and athletics frequently, the parent expects devotion to the art, judgment, skill, self-control to just be part and parcel of the gift, instead of something that must be developed. And that is frequently not the case.

Ironically, the same people (parents, the occasional teacher) who expect them to have the dedication, work ethic and judgment of an adult are frequently the same people who seem determined to control every aspect of their child's life, dismissing what a child might want (or need) over what's "good for them." It's a conundrum that, even now, I can't wrap my mind around, yet I've seen it played out time and time again. Children, forced to take adult-sized responsibilities and meet adult-sized expectations, but given no autonomy or control over their own destiny. That is one resounding recipe for a screwed-up kid.

All work and no play. When my daughter was born, I had a very disheartening realization. I did not know how to play. I couldn't recall playing (though I had a vivid imagination), not with dolls or games or anything except as an indulgence to my siblings or others. This concerned me because I understood, intellectually, how important play is to the development of children. Fortunately, my second husband is a professional-quality player and helped me learn the basics and provided play for my children. Maybe too much, but that's a different story.

My point is that play is often overlooked while people are "nurturing" genius. And that's bad. Play is a great method of social interaction, where one's talents or brains aren't necessarily a handicap. There are many aspects and types of play that are cooperative rather than competitive. Play is a great way to foster creativity and give the mind a break from constant overuse. Play can be a good place to learn some of those emotional responses in a relatively safe environment, even develop some passions. Play is a good place to learn about other aspects of life, beyond books or one's special bailiwick, hobbies, outlets, pastimes that can help fill an otherwise dreary life. Too much of one thing is pretty darn limiting and sometimes unfulfilling.

Cynicism. One of the real risks to being a genius is becoming cynical. As you become dismissive of the passions and emotional railings of others, you can't help but notice how many people want to use your skills or make you look bad so they can look better. It's very easy, especially if you've had limited emotional connection with others, to ascribe the worst to the motivations of others and/or see the world as collection of users.

It's not just the expectations (which can quickly escalate into the absurd), but also the sense that you are just a tool, with no value other than what you can do. If the people around you are primarily focused on what you are (Genius, Prima Ballerina, Quarterback), it's challenging to see yourself in any other terms or to think that you have any value as an individual. It's not much of a step from that to begin looking at others the same way, as means to an end, as tools, as things. It's dehumanizing. I have actually been called "a machine" on performance evaluations. It sounds like a compliment (in terms of performance) but it's a far cry from being seen as an individual.

Self-reliance. Self-reliance is good, right? Ah, all things in moderation, grasshopper. Learning to depend on yourself rather than others is something all children (not just the gifted ones) should learn to do. Gifted kids are often called upon to do so early (see "Expectations") and more extensively than other children because, in large part, of the expectation of maturity (whether or not they are also being controlled). Combine that with a sense of cynicism (most people just want to use me anyway) and the belief (whether real or perceived) that someone can only accomplish things if he does them himself, and you have a perfectionist control freak.

This has many issues associated with it, not the least of which is an inability to ask for help when needed, whether with a project, or in the larger world. Any failure, even if the task was impossible, is taken as a personal failing and the results can be collapse, despair, suicide, depression, pick one. It is unreasonable that one can always handle whatever is tossed at one, no matter how capable. A bright star on her way to glory at a dizzyingly young age can be completely sidetracked by an unexpected pregnancy. And clueless how to deal with it. A man with everything to live for who has the world in his hand can find it gone in a flash with kid's diagnosis of leukemia. No one of can control every aspect of our lives (God, can you think how boring it would be if we could?), but there are many of us who leap to take responsibility and shoulder burdens that are more than can be born.

Of course, social ostracism can limit the pool of resources one can draw on, but frequently gifted people don't even turn to the people closest to them, determined to figure out a solution alone. And that, my friends, has done a great deal of damage, especially when they fail.

And that's more than enough for today.


  • The Mother

    "Play" is overrated.

    I can't do those inane children's games, either. I simply can't sit through them. But you can teach your children to play things that are intellectually stimulating, or you can bug off and let them do their stuff without you.

    My kids, luckily, quickly gravitated toward "play" that was actually interesting.

  • Stephanie Barr

    I'm not sure if I agree or not because I'm not sure if we'd be speaking at cross purposes.

    I'm not a huge advocate for structured play, especially for gifted children, nor do I go out of my way to encourage "intellectual play." When I think of play, I think of whimsy and creativity and imagination.

    When I was growing up, I had books and I had writing, which used pretty much 100% of my leisure time. Oh, and movies. Or I'd go on walks with my dad and discuss stuff. But I never remember letting loose and just having a blast doing something without an agenda or a purpose or getting lost in words.

    My two youngest can play for literally DAYS in two big bags of shredded paper. I don't know how they do it, but they're happy and having fun and endlessly entertained. They think of far more uses for the discarded scraps than I could ever think of and will play with the dregs (because it takes weeks to get it all out of our house) with as much joy as the heaps. They have two indoor tents we got them that they run in and out of, giggling like mad. I have no idea what they're up to but they are having a blast.

    I don't think that's overrated, but that might just be me.

  • Shakespeare

    I love play... but I don't do it enough. Silliness isn't overrated, I think.

    I compare it to exercise. There are three camps with those who exercise.

    1. It has to be torture, or it isn't real exercise--i.e., if you like it, then you must not be doing it right.

    2. Exercise is stupid if it doesn't accomplish something--in other words, don't take a walk, for that doesn't accomplish anything. Instead, clean out your attic.

    3. Exercise should be fun. If it isn't fun, then it isn't worth doing.

    I'm in the #3 category. If it's a have to, I might as well make it enjoyable. And my kids have learned to have fun their way, too. I try to help them find what really appeals to them, and do that with them (if they want me to).

  • Jeff King

    I'm with shakes on this one...

  • David

    100% with you on play ... which can take many forms. One of the reasons I didn't learn to play properly was that there wasn't anyone around who played in the same way I did, and I couldn't engage with the way most children played. The first time I realized that there was actually a place for the way I liked to play was when I took a theatre class and the teacher remarked that he'd never seen a child my age who was so brilliant at improvisation. Because that's what I liked to do in my spare time ... create split-second scenarios and characters and act them out. Nobody liked to do this with me, though, so I figured it wasn't an okay way to spend my time.

  • Stephanie Barr

    I never jumped into drama, per se, but I played what if and frequently held conversations with myself.

    Or is that what you're saying? If so, you weren't as alone as you thought you were, David.

  • David

    No -- I mean that I created elaborate scenarios and played multiple characters in them ... often in sort of a set of ongoing serials. Sometimes I'd even invent songs. Sort of more like the character of Bryony in "Atonement," except I didn't have people around who wanted to participate.

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