I'll explain this image in a minute.
Okay, everyone. The time has come for me to make a shameful admission: I was a child prodigy.
Most notably, I was able to read at the age of two. This is not an exaggeration. My parents weren't sure if I was really reading or if I had just memorized all my books, so for my second birthday my mom bought me a copy of Go, Dog. Go!, a book I had never seen before, and I read it on the spot. I grew up hearing versions of this story over and over again: how my mom apologized to a preschool admissions director that I read "painfully slowly" only to be told that most kids my age TALKED "painfully slowly." How I stunned elevator passengers at age 3 by pointing out the No Smoking sign and telling everyone that it said "No smoking under plenty of law."
As a result of this impressive start, it was assumed that school would be easy for me. I was raised with the philosophy that anything less than an A was unacceptable because that would obviously mean I wasn't really trying... because I was SMART. This seems like a recipe for achievement, but it really wasn't. In the gifted elementary school program, sure. But once I got into my crazy-advanced magnet high school where I personally knew 16 kids who got perfect math scores on their SATs, "really trying" was not always good enough. And it hurt to have to "really try" next to other kids who didn't have to try at all, because calculus (for example) came so easily to them. That was supposed to be me.
So, when things got too hard, sometimes I'd stop trying entirely. After all, better to say you didn't really try than to say you tried your best and still failed. To try my best and still fail would mean I wasn't SMART. And being SMART was more important that working hard.
What a total crock.
Listen, all of this was subconscious, okay? My parents would never in a million years have said that I shouldn't work hard to achieve my goals... but at the same time it was kind of assumed that I would find my goals pretty quickly and have some kind of head start on the work because I was gifted.
Look at the world around you right now. Do you hear people talking about how hard that sports celebrity guy trains, or do you hear about how he's so naturally gifted? Do you hear them talking about the pianist who spends hours at the keyboard, or do you hear about the wunderkind who's amazing despite having "no formal training at all!"
Sharon Stone once said it took her ten years of paying her dues to become an overnight sensation. I think Jim Carrey said something similar. People notice the breakout, and gloss over the failures. Even stories that seem to discuss past failures and hard work often end up glorifying the moment when things became easy. Would J.K. Rowling's personal story be as exciting if she had been a mid-lister for several years before Harry Potter? No. Her years of living in a car and working her butt off while single parenting have been reframed as, "She was secretly gifted all along, and just needed to be discovered." (Note that Rowling herself does not pitch her story this way. She talks very openly and eloquently about her failures and hard work.)
Here's what people forget:
...there's a stark difference between prodigy and genius.Prodigies can very quickly learn what other people have already figured out; geniuses discover that which no one has ever previously discovered. Prodigies learn; geniuses do. The vast majority of child prodigies don't become adult geniuses.-- An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green
I was a prodigy. So. Freaking. What.
I'm 37, and my peers? By now, they have also figured out how to read. I'm probably still at an advantage for standardized testing, but again... so freaking what? That doesn't mean I'm immune to office politics, or nationwide economic factors, or fear of failure. In fact, it probably makes my fear of failure worse than average, because failure doesn't feel like a single event, it feels like a reflection on my entire person.
What a crock.
FAIL AGAIN. FAIL BETTER.
I caught myself a couple days ago telling my daughter how smart she is. I stopped myself. I told her how proud I was of her for working so hard, for practicing, for being resilient, for trying again.
Write. Revise. Revise again. Fail better.
Submit. Be rejected. Submit again. Fail better.
I don't know what 2011 holds for me. But I know I'm going to try to do things that are hard. Things that are SUPPOSED to be hard. And maybe, somewhere along the way, I'll start being smart enough that it won't scare me anymore.