Hello everyone. My name is Hannah, and I have a confession to make: I'm a former "gifted" kid.
I was favored by teachers, I got perfect grades, and I was just an all-around overachiever. Which means I spent the formative years of my life thinking I was special and basically smarter than everyone else.
Spoiler alert: I'm not either of those things. I had the experience I think a lot of "gifted" kids have when they enter a world no longer ruled by classes and grades and discover they are no more well equipped to face the world than anyone else.
This experience made me super interested when I spotted this Reddit thread with the question "'Gifted' students, what was it like growing up as 'the smart kid?' Has it affected your adult life in any way?" I decided to round up people's responses — here are some of the things former "gifted" kids had to say!
1. One of the biggest effects people seemed to agree upon: measuring self-worth based on grades and feeling worthless after grades disappear.
"Now that I'm out of school, I realize how much of my self-worth I wrongly placed in my grades/GPA."
"I feel this. It's not something you notice until you suddenly realize you don't have an external benchmark (however misplaced) to tell you that you're doing OK."
"Oh my god, yes. ... I can no longer determine my self-worth/happiness through grades."
2. Another common thread was having an issue with work ethic or laziness.
"I had a horrific work ethic because I learned in elementary school that because I was smarter than the other kids, I didn't have to work as hard. Generally they would give us 'gifted' work, and whatever time we had remaining once the work was complete was ours to do with as we liked. The result was...we could just dick around with Legos or whatever. It wasn't until I got older that I learned to 'apply' myself."
"Since everyone is telling you you're a genius and you're special and you're capable of amazing things when you grow up...you spend the first 20 years of your life expecting success to fall into your lap. When you finally realize it won't, you're still stuck with your terrible work ethic."
3. Another issue: A lot of "gifted" kids never really learned how to study, as they didn't have to study until much later in their lives in order to get good grades.
"Lack of discipline, bad work ethic... [I] started becoming more and more lazy and even falling behind everyone else. Even now, studying at the university, I fail pretty much all of my exams the first time I take them, because I never actually learned how to study in the first place."
"When you don't have to work at anything (intellectually), you're completely unprepared for those things that do require work, like essays, partner projects, etc. So you end up missing out on a lot of study skills, which all have a direct corollary to 'adult' skills."
4. Organization is also a problem.
"I certainly lack the organizational skills that a less intelligent person was forced to develop, because previously, I just kept it all in my head. Now, of course, there are far too many things going on, and they last so much longer that it's virtually impossible to keep everything in my head. ... Intelligence is not wisdom, and it is not common sense, and it is not discernment. ... As a standalone product, it does not really add value."
5. Some people described being great at coming up with ideas, but having a really hard time implementing them or finishing things.
"Is one of your top five strength finders assessment attributes 'ideation' and 'can't get shit done because my focus is totally on the next best idea'? Abso-fuckin-lutely."
6. People described learning how to do nothing all semester and then ace the test, but said that attitude was damaging to take into adult life, where there are no tests.
"The hard thing about the real world is just that life doesn't work to where you can do nothing and then ace the test. You have to do every single little step along the way. As menial, and useless as those steps may seem, the real world will always take the guy that averages a C on everything and maybe squeaks out a B- on the test over the guy that says fuck the stupid shit, and still gets 100% on the final test. (Metaphorically speaking.)"
7. A lot of "gifted" kids skipped grades, which they may not have needed to go through academically but would've greatly helped them socially and emotionally.
"Skipped a grade, which I probably could have used to become more emotionally mature."
"I skipped a grade. ... No one saw me as the 'smart kid' but instead as the diminutive 13-year-old ninth grader in precalculus. You learn to keep your mouth shut. It wasn't that great."
"Intellectually, I was waaay ahead of my peer group, but emotionally and socially I wasn't. When I was moved forward a grade, I ended up being the youngest kid in my classes. All of them. So when my classmates were all getting their driver's licenses, I wasn't. When they were all allowed to see the naughty movies, I wasn't. Their parents set curfews that were usually later than mine, because I was younger. And puberty, well, puberty was a very difficult time."
8. Some people felt they were alienated from their peers.
"You are segregated (physically and partially by choice) from average people your age, and you tend to only interact with other smart people who are in the same place you are. You might not learn the necessary social skills, especially since many of your peers don't have them either."
9. One person pointed out that they were seen as gifted and mature because they followed the rules, and that the rewards for this behavior further molded them into a rule-abiding citizen who doesn't question anything.
"Even worse was being told how 'mature' I was for my age; get told enough times, and you start to believe it yourself. Turns out I wasn't mature — just different. I was 'mature' because I did what I was supposed to in class, but in reality I just didn't really dare to disobey; I was mature because I didn't chatter with others during class; [it] wasn't because I was mature enough to know better than others, but because I didn't have any friends to talk with. Yet I was still always told I was 'mature,' which leads you into believing you are walking down the correct path — that you have the correct mindset, and there's no need to change it."
10. Another actually experienced the opposite effect. They realized they could succeed without following the rules others followed in school, and began to feel that no rules in life applied to them.
"I got the impression that no rules applied for a while. I was disabused of that notion by law enforcement in my late teens and early 20s, but the attitude was a disservice for a while."
11. Some people had to get over being judgmental of others and judging them by their intelligence.
"I entered a culture where everyone, teachers, parents, relatives, etc. valued me for my smarts, and so I used that as my yardstick to value other people for a long time. Nowadays I'm more interested in who shows compassion, loyalty, dedication, generosity, humor, etc. Had to work really hard to break the filters."
"I used to be so proud of my intellectual abilities and saw myself above many of my peers. Now I loathe myself for that and am realizing there is so much more to a person than being 'smart' or 'not smart.' I'm realizing I was a little jerk inside, and even if I tried to be nice on the outside, I still probably hurt people."
12. A lot of people find it hard to adjust to higher education because they go from "special" to "average."
"I am a graduate student. Everyone in my program was 'the smart kid.' Some people have trouble adjusting to an environment in which they are now thoroughly average."
13. Some people even said they had an identity crisis.
"I've been thinking so often ever since I left for university: What if I'm NOT smart? What if I'm just a self-centered little prick who spends too much time comparing herself to others? There's no real problem with not being as smart as others, but being 'the smart kid' was part of my identity for so long. Sometimes it gets really scary and hard, doubting who I am and what I am capable of and how I fit with the rest of the world."
"My self-esteem, self-worth, and happiness are being sucked up by this void feeling of mediocrity creeping into my life. I feel cheated, or like a cheater. I was given a head start early in life, but now I'm sort of back to average. I feel like I was wrongly chosen as 'gifted' and that I am a complete waste of resources."
"When people start doing better than you and you become more average, you start becoming a bit disconnected with who you are as a person. For all your life, you've identified as the 'smart one'; now you have no idea."
14. A lot of people struggled with living up to their given identity of the "gifted" or "smart" kid even while they were in school, especially when it came to their parents.
"Have to say the best part of growing up 'gifted' was the 'well, what'd you miss?' I'd get from parents when I brought home anything less than a 100."
"I have always felt an immense pressure from my family (parents and my parents' close friends who are like my aunts and uncles) to work hard and not squander the gift I was born with."
"There is an exceptional amount of pressure on you to continue to meet previous performances, and you feel like even the slightest perturbation in your scores directly affects your status."
15. They also felt a need to please their teachers and the school system at large, and relied on that for their self-esteem.
"One thing I missed going from an excellent student in high school to an average one in college was the attention I'd get from teachers as the 'smart one.' I'd always feel they were generally looking out for me more. Of course, it didn't help that college class sizes were gigantic, but that anonymous feeling got to me."
"Not only that: As the 'smart' one, you used to make the teachers happy. When you go from that to being a very average college student, you somehow feel like a big disappointment to the school system."
16. Many have become perfectionists to the extent that it affects their mental health.
"I am a severe perfectionist. So much so that I sabotage myself because I happen to make a tiny mistake. The only thing I seem to be good at now is work, because I HAVE to have everything perfect."
"My entire life I was top of the class, and I told myself it was OK I wasn't thin or pretty because I was smart. Then I went to a relatively prestigious university, and suddenly I was surrounded by people who were just as smart or smarter than me, but also hot. It ruined me and destroyed my self-esteem. I also developed this pathological perfectionism, which caused/causes me so much anxiety that I'm unable to work and then feeds into itself."
17. A lot of people deal with imposter syndrome.
"Imposter syndrome out the wazoo. Everyone is going to find out that I don't know what I'm doing/am not working as hard as I should be/am not as gifted as they say I am."
18. The pressure to continue to succeed has even pushed some people down the wrong path or into a career they weren't even interested in.
"I skipped four years in school. It took me years to come to terms with the fact that I'm allowed to do what makes me happy, not what people expect because 'you have so much potential.' When I applied to music school, my mother's friends openly criticized her for letting me do it, because they couldn't understand why I wasn't moving into a 'brainy' career path like medicine or law. [I] still get a lot of family members asking why I'm not doing XYZ job that they think I'd be perfect for. TL;DR: Just because you're smart enough to be a rocket scientist, that doesn't mean you have to be one."
"I wish I had figured that out while getting my aero degrees. One of my advisors even told me it would be OK for me to leave to go to music school. Now I'm 40, I left engineering years ago, and I'm about to release my first album. But hey, I'm a rocket scientist too. So there's that."
19. A lot of people described being bored in school.
"We're still learning about subject and predicates in freaking high school? And making posters too? When you factor in the two years of core curriculum in college, it felt like my life was in repeats for the first 20 years. Now I'm so tuned out that I'll never get back the frequency and make something of myself."
20. Boredom may even have caused them to act out or get in trouble.
"It was boring until I discovered drugs and sex since I was acing all my classes anyway. Then I had a kid at 17. Gifted kids don't necessarily have a lot of common sense."
"'We're going to spend a week's worth of classes learning one concept. Gifted Student, you're going to get this in five minutes and sit in the back corner reading for the rest of the week while I get more and more angry and yell at you for not paying attention. I'm going to send you to in-school suspension for one day this week, meaning you'll miss one of those classes. You'll be back in time for the test and still get the highest grade in the class, which will make me hate you even more.'"
"I got into a lot of trouble too. Even though I was a full academic year ahead, I was still not very intellectually stimulated, so I started trying to find ways to keep myself amused. These ended up not being very well thought of by authority figures."
21. Of course, not everyone had a bad experience. Being singled out as "gifted" sometimes put students who may have gone under-stimulated in a perfect position to excel and broaden their perspective at a pace that suited them.
"I got into my state's 'gifted' high school program, which, unlike most of its kind, included all four core subjects instead of just math and science. It was amazing: college-level chemistry, calculus, literature, and geography; interdisciplinary coordination of all four subjects (e.g., we studied logic in math class while covering rhetoric in language and holding debates in a US government course); video conferences with topic experts simulcast to all participating schools; a half-dozen field trips each year; the opportunity to participate on a FIRST robotics team, which was just a magical experience.
The same five teachers for all four years, who became our mentors over time, and the same 20 classmates, who became my best friends. We even did an annual culminating project that required us to do original research to answer a question no one ever had before. We worked on this project throughout the school year, and it counted as the final exam grade in all courses.
These experiences broadened my perspective, brought me out of a thick shell, and got me hooked on exploring the universe. I can't thank those teachers enough. I an incredibly fortunate to have experienced all of this for free, in a public school system, right here in the US. It truly was a model for how secondary education should work, and I owe much of my understanding of the world to that school district."