“I peaked in 5th grade”. Sounds like a joke, right? Unfortunately, for myself and many other people labeled as “gifted/talented” in their early years, it’s a lot closer to the truth than you may think. Chances are, you probably know someone (or, you are someone) who did well academically back in their early school days, and maybe even got into one of those programs for “gifted and talented” kids. They (or you) had a “reading level” higher than normal for their grade: high-school or college-level? Well, none of that really matters today; right now, there’s a good chance they’re sitting in a depressed haze playing video games and smoking weed, while still thinking they’re better than everyone else for some reason. I’ll admit to being part of this group.
So, who’s to blame for this? Myself? The smothering expectations my parents put on me, or the incompetency of my teachers? My low socioeconomic status, and tumultuous home life? All of these may have contributed to my downfall — however, what I think did the most damage was being labeled as “gifted” in the first place. I believe that this pushed me into a certain mindset; one that needs to be changed, if I want to get back on my feet.
This oft-shared “Gifted Kid Burnout Bingo” is the image that really sums up this phenomenon. Why would these “gifted” kids, who supposedly showed so much promise in their early years, end up depressed, anxious shells of their former selves in adulthood instead of the high-achievers they were supposed to be? Why do so many people seem to be able to relate to “Gifted Kid Burnout”, anyway? I think I’ve managed to figure out one of the biggest causes of this issue.
Research done by Professor Carol Dweck (author of Mindsets: The New Psychology of Success) shows that giving kids positive labels such as “gifted”, “talented”, or “smart” in their formative years pushes them into what she calls a “fixed mindset”: believing that qualities are “set in stone”, “fearing challenge and devaluing effort” — with a fixed mindset, people “[don’t] want to do anything that could expose their flaws and call into question their talent”. A lot of parallels are already appearing between the fixed mindset and Gifted Kid Burnout. Realizing the harm that labels can do, positive or negative, and moving on to adopt the “growth mindset” would be incredibly helpful to anyone who was slapped with words like “gifted” which define their intelligence andtalent. This growth mindset rejects labels (even positive ones like “gifted”) and instead, as Dweck states, “[believes] that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.” The growth mindset pushes people to make themselves smarter — the fixed mindset rests on its laurels of already being “smart”.
Dweck describes measuring people’s mindsets by this question: “Did they believe their intelligence was a fixed trait or something they could develop?” If they believed in the former, they had a fixed mindset; if the latter, a growth mindset. The fixed mindset opposes the growth mindset’s idea of developing traits through effort; Dweck observes this fixed mindset as believing “success is about being more gifted than others, that failure does measure you, and that effort is for those who can’t make it on talent.” She claims that any advice about “effort being the key to success” can’t be put into practice by anyone with a fixed mindset, because “their basic mindset… is telling them something entirely different”. Dweck asserts that fixed mindsets can and need to be changed into growth mindsets, which will help us be able to finally fulfill our potential — we have to let go of the “cloak of specialness… built to feel safe, strong, and worthy” that you probably have if you can identify as a Gifted Kid Burnout.
But of course, not all gifted kids end up as failures or burnouts, and work to become quite successful. They may not believe that effort and intelligence are incompatible, but the fixed mindset is still toxic: Dweck says, “they may feel that their talent makes them superior to other people. And they may be intolerant of mistakes, criticism, or setbacks — something that can hamper their progress.” Sounds familiar; I’m sure everyone knows someone who fits this description. You might also argue that having the right mindset isn’t everything, and even if you try as hard as you can, it’s still possible to fail. I’d definitely agree; people with more resources, opportunities and free time can put in more effort into reaching their goals, and have a much better chance of reaching them. In Dweck’s words, “rich, educated, connected effort works better”. However, I’d like to add that it’s all too common for people to use this fact as an excuse to stay in the fixed mindset and let it blind them from seeing what can be accomplished with effort, even in the worst of circumstances (I am a victim of this).
Personally, I believe I’m the poster child of Gifted Kid Burnout. In elementary school, I took some kind of aptitude test, then got placed in my school’s GATE (short for Gifted and Talented Education) program and my parents, teachers, and peers were constantly telling me how smart and talented I was. On top of that, I’m Asian, so excelling academically was kind of expected to be my “thing”. Of course, throughout high school and early college my grades took a nosedive harder than Bryce Dallas Howard in Black Mirror (in Mindsets Dweck observes that “it is precisely the kids with the fixed mindset who panic and run for cover, showing plummeting motivation and grades”).
It’s a miracle I even made it into community college; I essentially dropped out of high school after multiple suspensions and eventually re-enrolled into an online high school (which I ignored completely to play video games). Then, as a last resort, I was dragged by my parents to take the CHSPE (a high school exit exam) which I barely managed to pass. Today, I still struggle to complete my assignments on time, and my grades are mediocre at best; I can also check off almost everything on that Bingo board. So, how did this happen?
There is something called the “low-effort syndrome”, as described in Mindsets. Dweck suggests that students with a fixed mindset see the hard transition to higher education as something that “threatened to unmask their flaws and turn them from winners into losers”, so they stop trying in order to protect their egos. As Dweck states, “They view the adults as saying, ‘Now we will measure you and see what you’ve got.’ And they are answering, ‘No you won’t.’” So, like a student described by teacher John Holt, my “intelligence became disconnected from my schooling”. Of course, this low-effort syndrome can have many other causes, including rebelling against adults (which was also one of the causes for me), but I think that Dweck’s description fits my experience well.
So, what about the unwarranted superiority complex? People with the fixed mindset tend to believe that great geniuses are born that way, and they don’t need effort to reach their goals — as they’d say, “things come easily to people who are true geniuses.” When asked to picture Thomas Edison, people would say things like this: “He’s leaning over a lightbulb. Suddenly, it works!”, or “He’s working on the phonograph, trying things. He succeeds!”. When Dweck asked them if Edison was alone, they would answer yes. They described Edison as “the only one who knows what he’s after”, or as “kind of a reclusive guy who likes to tinker on his own”. Of course, the truth was quite different: Edison had thirty assistants, and his inventions were time-consuming and definitely did not happen suddenly. The myth of the “lone, brilliant person suddenly producing amazing things” is extremely pervasive in our collective consciousness, yet it seldom appears in reality. Dweck emphasizes, “The fixed mindset is so very tempting. It seems to promise children a lifetime of worth, success, and admiration just for sitting there and being who they are.”
Around middle school, I had a particularly cringe-worthy phase where I staunchly believed I was some kind of ultra-talented genius, who was superior to everyone else and would definitely go on to do great things. I was a devoted follower of the concept of a “lone, brilliant person”; and I was in full-blown narcissist mode, treating everyone like they were below me. Looking back (painfully), I can kind of see how this happened: I was praised by my teachers for my academic ability, given special privileges, and no one ever praised me for working hard. Indeed, I was able to get this praise with almost no effort, while I saw all my classmates putting their noses to the grindstone.
It’s easy to see how people labeled as “gifted” can end up seeing themselves as better than everyone else, even when they have nothing to show for it. They may not be putting in much effort, but since they’re so smart, they’re probably going to do great things one day, and they won’t have to really try for that, either. So why try now? They make excuses for their lack of effort, and their failure to apply themselves.
In reality, nothing really happens without effort. Dweck describes people who successfully switched from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset: “Instead of being held captive by some intimidating fantasy about the Great Writer, the Great Athlete, or the Great Genius, the growth mindset gave them courage to embrace their own goals and dreams. And more important, it gave them a way to work toward making them real.” Where was this advice when I needed it?
Here’s another example, something that was said to Dr. Dweck after reading her work (I think this person would also have identified with the topic of this article):
“It was painful to read your chapter . . . as I recognized myself therein. As a child I was a member of The Gifted Child Society and continually praised for my intelligence. Now, after a lifetime of not living up to my potential (I’m 49), I’m learning to apply myself to a task. And also to see failure not as a sign of stupidity but as lack of experience and skill. Your chapter helped see myself in a new light.”
So, if you suffer from Gifted Kid Burnout, a combination of constant praise for your high abilities and not needing to put in effort to succeed academically probably gave you the fixed mindset , which I think is the root of your problems. What can be done? Ironically, the cure to Gifted Kid Burnout is letting go of the idea that you or anyone else can be “gifted” — Tony, the “recovering genius” described in Mindsets, says this: “Understanding that a lot of my problems were the result of my preoccupation with proving myself to be ‘smart’ and avoiding failures has really helped me get out of the self-destructive pattern I was living in.” You must break free of the labels of “smart” and “talented”, and realize that the most admired Great People in history weren’t born destined for greatness; they worked hard to get there, and had lots of help along the way.
Dweck poses this question: “…it’s frightening to think of giving up the idea of being superior. An ordinary, run-of-the-mill human being isn’t what you want to be. How could you feel good about yourself if you’re no more valuable than the people you look down on?” If you’re a Gifted Kid Burnout, I suggest that you look at yourself from an outsider’s perspective, and you’ll probably realize that you are one of these “ordinary, run-of-the-mill human beings”. But, there’s really nothing wrong with that: as Dweck correctly states, “many of the most accomplished people of our era were considered by experts to have no future”. Realize that effort, not your inborn intelligence, is what will bring you closer to achieving your dreams, and that your intelligence was never even set in stone. Think of it this way; you may have had a better start, but what‘s bound to happen when you’re walking, and everyone else is running?