School always came pretty easy to me. As a result, being a ‘smart kid’ was a part of my self-image most of my life.
This is a very positive thing in a lot of ways, but in others it’s a horrible crutch. My self-esteem was very much tied up in performing at peak in all the little ways the academic world measures a kid’s intelligence (homework, standardized testing, templated essays, etc), and as a result I avoided anything that would require me to color outside the lines. The lines, you see, were important, and if I didn’t get that A, didn’t test in the 99th percentile, then the head-patting would stop and my self-image would plummet.
It’s only after I extracted myself from this cycle that I started to actually do something worthwhile — have fun with life and pursue things I genuinely thought were worth pursuing. Not everything before crossing that line was worthless or horrible, of course, but it was only after I ceased to be afraid of failure — of losing those head-pats — that I was free to be myself, push limits, and engage in the larger world outside of the constraints I’d always worn.
Only by moving past the metrics I was told were important at a young age was I able to develop my own units for measuring success.
Many people I know — especially those who were in ‘gifted programs’ of various flavors — are still stuck in that same rut. Again, I’m not saying this can only be a bad thing: frequent reassurances and boosts to one’s self-esteem are nice, even if they require you to perform based on someone else’s standards. But I do suspect a good number of these people are probably not living up to their full potential as a result of this hand-holding approach.
It’s tough to expose yourself to the potential for failure. I still don’t like doing so, and I’ve looked that devil in the eyes more times than I can count at this point, sometimes succeeding despite all odds, and sometimes taking a predictable fall and having to pull myself back up again. But laying it all on the line is necessary if you really want to bring out the extremes in yourself; to see what you’re capable of.
Until the gloves come off, it’s all head-pats and test grades, whether earned in a classroom or in a padded, child-proof version of the real world.