It’s questionable whether my fear of risk and failure was innate or taught through my parents risk-averse personalities, or both. I’ve been competitive from a young age, despite not being athletic, instead opting for art competitions and securing speaking/singing roles in school plays. But when it came to success and intelligence, I held this firm belief that the only worthy accomplishments were the ones that came naturally.
Clearly, this is the antithesis of how success occurs in 99.9% of cases.
When I was very young, I was told I was a “bright” child. At age 4, they had me take an IQ test where I had to determine which of the following doesn’t fit: a pear, a banana, an apple, and a hammer (or something like that.) Brilliant four year old me knew that hammers weren’t edible, so I was accepted into kindergarten early — which I wasn’t at all ready socially for, but I’m not sure I ever would have been. The only happiness I found was being better than the other kids at anything. It felt good to be told I was smart, but I didn’t really believe it. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t sit still. My mind wandered. I was restless and did not fit in with any of the kids my age. I preferred talking to adults or spending time alone.
But soon into my elementary years, I began to struggle. Not only didn’t I know how to learn, I was actively trying not to. I should understand these concepts, I thought, not have to “learn” them. In the case of math, I became increasingly frustrated when my memory failed me and I was unable to build on top of previous patterns that just made sense. I made up new patterns. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t.
For book reports, I usually read the last three pages of the book and then made up the entirety of the plot based on how I thought it might go with that ending. The teachers that paid attention didn’t appreciate this. My grades slipped. And slipped. I started to get that dreaded-yet-respectable “not working up to potential.” Ah, so they think I have potential. That’s all that matters, really, isn’t it? My parents sat in on endless parent-teacher conferences to be told that I was bright yet not the best student, that I just needed to pay more attention, do my homework, stop fidgeting so much.
The reality was, I was severely depressed, hating myself more and more with every minor failure, afraid to even try in case I might fail after actually trying — and falling further and further. I focused on doing the only thing I knew how to do — get recognized for my artistic outputs. I wasn’t really that good at art, but comparably to the average kid my age I was a genius. I wasn’t quite as talented in singing or acting, but I still felt better on stage, at least I felt worthy then — at least I had some sort of identity. —
In fourth grade my parents took me to a neurologist seeking answers. They diagnosed me with ADHD and put me on Ritalin. It didn’t help. I don’t remember it doing much at all. I made up my way through the rest of elementary school. All of the world’s history I reinvented. I crashed an entire chapter of history in a night and attempted to ace my tests. I didn’t. My memory, which has since been actually proven severely impaired in information intake, was my biggest weakness and I was too afraid to try really hard and fail. I couldn’t see myself as a failure. I’d rather be the person who didn’t even try.
Well I still struggle with this to this day. I know I have to try — especially when I’m confronted with a task that I don’t understand or that scares me. I have to quickly analyze the situation, my weaknesses and strengths, and move to the fastest path to success. Over the years I developed these rapid coping skills — taking in lots of information and quickly outputting the most useful action in the given moment. Many others are slow and meticulous in their work. I’m fast and sometimes need to slow down but I’ve honed the speed enough that it often works in my favor. For my memory impairment, I’ve managed to be able to take in only the details that matter and store them quickly.
But the fear of failure continues to plague my life. If I can give my future child anything, it will be a healthy appreciation of failure. Of knowing that failure does not make you, well, a failure. The greatest successes come from failing again and again until you get it right. The best things in life are hard to achieve. I think I’ve never seen that kind of work ethic in my family, so I didn’t know what that looked like. My father was just one of those “smart” guys — math-wise, anyway. But, still, he dropped out of his graduate physics program when it wasn’t easy anymore. He wanted me to be smart. He expected me to be. I wasn’t given room to be average.
But I am average. And so are a lot of successful people. Sure, there are those who have super high IQs who are rocket scientists or the curers of disease. There are also a heck of a lot of jobs that require average people being really good at what they’ve learned to do. I wish I knew this and appreciated it from an early age. But I thought the only way to be worthy was to be exceptional. I knew this at least from the age of three as truth, and it stuck with me.
I need to show my kid that being average is something to celebrate. That being consistent and reliable is more important than being incredible. And even those who achieve the incredible do this with a lot of not-so-incredible trial and error. That “smart” = knowing your weaknesses and having strategies to address them (and eventually, delegating these tasks to others.) That failure isn’t failure at all, but only the most important step towards success.