Smart kids eventually grow up

Piano keys and a music book
My old nemesis, the piano.
I posted this on Twitter yesterday and it resonated with a lot of people, so I’ve reproduced it here for ease of access. I’ve also added a few postscripts based on responses.

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Hey, friend. Were you a smart kid who always heard about how smart you were and are now not feeling so smart? Are you, in fact, feeling fairly shitty about yourself? This thread is for you.

It can be extremely difficult for smart kids to decouple their sense of self-worth from external validation. Especially praise for supposedly innate qualities instead of hard work. You grow up hearing how smart you are from parents and relatives and teachers and other authority figures whose opinions you’re pretty sure matter. They’re in charge, after all!

But praise is a fleeting high, and when you get too much of it too early, it takes more and more to get your emotional fix. And the older you get, the less praise you probably get, because frankly fewer people give a shit, and just being smart only gets you so far.

Worse, if you haven’t managed to get a handle on the whole “hard work” thing instead of coasting on your smarts, chances are you’ve started to fail in ways you never did as a kid. You used to be able to do most things quickly and competently because the bar was low. Crap out an essay/project/whatever in a few hours, get an A+ and impress your teacher, bask in praise, repeat.

Now you start projects but never finish them, or you talk about them but never start them, or you finish them and then discard them because they’re not good enough. You start to question a lifetime of compliments. You think maybe you aren’t so smart after all. You wonder whether you’ve been lied to all this time by people you trusted.

So you end up with this awful combo of craving praise, getting very little praise, and doubting the truth of the bits you do get. It is, to use highly technical jargon, incredibly pooptastic.

“But how do I overcome this problem?” Well, you can buy this book that explains my foolproof method for entirely changing your outlook in 113 easy steps haha just kidding, I have no idea. I mean, I have some ideas, but they don’t all work. Some work once, or you can rotate them with limited success, or they’re not for you. They’re tools, not solutions.

  • You can practice accepting compliments with some variation of “thank you so much, I appreciate it” instead of reacting with reflexive self-deprecation.
  • You can pause whenever you notice you’re talking shit about yourself in your own head and say, “ah, this again,” and shift your attention to something else.
  • You can distance yourself from people who always drain your well instead of filling it–or worse, ones who straight up shit in it. They can go shit in their own wells.
  • You can make goals that are generally within instead of beyond your control, like “submit one short story a month” instead of “sell one short story a month.”
  • You can break big tasks into smaller ones so the big task doesn’t feel like a baseball-sized kidney stone you’re trying to pee out all at once. It can’t be done, friends. IT IS TOO BIG.
  • You can celebrate every time you accomplish something, even if it’s a minor or partial success, instead of freaking out about what’s still left to do. TREAT YO SELF.

What you’re trying to do is gently, lovingly wean yourself from reliance on external validation and instead find fulfillment from internal validation. Self-satisfaction instead of praise. Secondary goal: teach yourself to enjoy process rather than end product. It can’t all be magical unicorn fun times, but laser-focus on a destination can make the journey a slog.

Remember: you’re not alone, and you’re not a failure. Forgive yourself, every day if you have to. Being smart is great, but it isn’t everything. It never was, you just didn’t know it until now.

Anyone else have advice? Tell me things! Seriously, I can always use more tools in my toolbox for coping with this stuff, and I’m sure other folks can, too.

* * *

P.S. Many people have recommended Carol Dweck’s mindset language work, so maybe give that a gander? And here are some other tools that might help you on this journey:

  • Practice giving sincere compliments to other people. This can help you be more receptive to accepting and believing in the praise you receive from others.
  • Go into new things with the expectation that you won’t be good at them. Embrace the suck. If this works, it alleviates the pressure to be perfect and ideally lets you have fun doing the thing instead of worrying about outcomes.
  • Remind yourself that while you shouldn’t give up on things just because you’re not immediately good at them, or because the journey is long and difficult, you do get to choose what you spend your time on. It’s okay to choose NOT to do a thing because there is other stuff you’d genuinely rather be doing.

I’ll add more as I find them. Thanks for reading, and may you be as well as you’re able.

27 thoughts on “Smart kids eventually grow up

  1. The older I get, the more I think I have this under control, and the more it affects me when I realize I don’t. I’m better at bouncing from it now, though, but it’s good to know I’m not alone, and to have more tools in my box for whenever it happens. Thanks.

  2. Hey Valerie!

    I just wanted to let you know your tweet thread really resonated with me and I wanted to thank you for your validating words. I have recently been searching for ways to strengthen my awareness and incorporate meditative introspective time into my daily routine, and I have found a book called “Real World Mindfulness for Beginners” by Brenda Salgado to be a helpful resource. Among many things, it has given me short excercises to practice to incorporate mindfulness into my daily life, which I have found to be very empowering. If you haven’t checked it out, it’s a short read.

    Have a wonderful day!

  3. Another thing I’ve found helpful as an academic is to focus not on process or on my reputation, but on the questions I’m asking and getting the knowledge out there. Like, I want to know the answer, and me knowing the answer isn’t enough—people won’t do as good research or policy if they don’t know the answer too. More generally it helps to think about the meaningfulness of the work being done, not just my ego or fame etc.

  4. Wow! Thank you for this! It is exactly my story. Odd coincidence as I read about Dweck for the first time on Wednesday. For some reason reading it then (with focus on parenting strategies) kind of left me frustrated and put out. This had the opposite effect. From the parenting POV though, we can use descriptive rather than normative approach to talking about what kids do (as detailed in How to Talk so that Kids Will Listen…) Maybe there are some solutions there for adults too.

  5. A book that really helped me see and understand this concept is The Lives of Margaret Fuller by John Matteson. He has this wonderful line in there about how the world wouldn’t love Margaret simply for being intelligent, and how as she grew older, what had once been charming performances of her ability to speak multiple languages became boring, seemingly show-offy, or expected. I was talking with the author about how much it resonated with me, and he said something like, “We all have that thing when we are children that makes people love us, and we try to carry it into adulthood so they will keep loving us. What was yours?” We all latch onto that thing and hold on for dear life, don’t we? Everything we do is just a way to be loved a little more. Thank you for this post & lots of thoughts. -Jamie

  6. My funny but serious recommendations:

    The Disney animated movie Meet the Robinsons is entirely about celebrating failures as learning opportunities.

    A certain Jedi master’s speech about failure from The Last Jedi, which puts failure on an equal footing with triumph as something you can pass on to your students.

  7. I can relate
    My ultimate goal is to find how to live in the instant, because I am always planning and never enjoying
    But I am sad to see that I have to learn how to live again, because I knew all this as a child
    And then I had to take care of my life, make plans for myself, and I feel like I cannot do something while thinking of the thing I am doing. I feel like things go through me but don’t touch me in the way than they did before. As I grew up I was maybe excited about the idea of me succeeding in life and I thought the best way was to think and plan everything, and now it’s like my brain was a friend that keeps telling me about the good weather or what he had for lunch, the kind of conversations I would have avoid. Well I am still looking for a way out

  8. Though I don’t dare to claim this is exactly my story (was I a smart kid?), it does resonate with me. If you don’t find a way out you risk a lot. For me the turnaround seem to have been getting a seven year burnout, getting a divorce, loosing my job and getting at the brink of loosing my life. Not trying to sound melodramatic, I lost all and hit rock bottom. At the moment it seems that I am getting up, finally, after many lost years. Avoid taking the same path.

  9. I guess this is good advice for some people but it’s not a one-size fits all solution. All I had for years growing up and in high school was internal validation. I heard very little from other people. It may have been there but I didn’t hear it. I was driven by my own perfectionism and desire to learn new things. It took me a long time to figure out that hardly anyone thought the way I did or was as smart as me. Some of that was fed by an inability to understand how other people thought or felt or if they even did. I think my problem with the article was that my initial motivation was different from hers and that I was already doing things she suggests as a solution.

  10. Dang. I meant to add a comment to what I wrote but forgot. I wanted to say that was my comment to a friend who posted a link to the page on Facebook.

  11. Hey, so in my case i think it’s been the opposite. When i was a kid everyone use to tell me i was very smart, my teachers my parents and friends. This has made me feel like that was my best feature, to the point I’ve always believed it was my only talent, the only thing that made me “different” from the rest if that makes sense.
    Buy as i got older, specially since I started highschool. I don’t get intelligent anymore, I get “hardworking”. I know there’s nothing wrong with that but somehow that has made me feel like I’m not really intelligent, like the only reason why i get good grades or make a difference at school is because i work hard.
    And all of that has made me believe I’m not really that smart and that i have no big talent.

    1. Ara, I teach elementary gifted ed kids. Don’t feel badly. A lot of research has been passed around in the ed world in the last few years about how praising the child instead of the effort is the way to acknowledge student work. Your teachers are just changing their lingo. That said, know that you are unique. You started out as one of a kind. Because of that, and a few other factors, you have and will continue to make sense of the world in a way that affects that original blueprint. In turn, you will make decisions, not all perfect, however you will make sense of them, too, and hopefully you will continue to become more and more of who you are-a more defined/refined Ara. As a result, the decisions and experiences you have will affect your future and the future of others. It’s a great spiral through time. Teachers know- but not everything! They are finite as well. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You are YOU and they are they. Focus on becoming- and learning- Others’ knowledge can help; your worth, though, comes from just being here, and in my opinion, that you are a thought of God. 🙂

  12. Thank you. I saw this on Twitter. I have been trying to do exactly what you have mentioned and wondering if I was being foolish to think this way. I may still be seeking external validation, but it’s comforting and I’ll take it!

  13. Hey, yes, I can relate.
    The ego in the emotional rollercoaster.
    A tool I’ve found quite useful for the rough times is keeping a night journal and writing down (or coming up with in your head, whatever works for you) three things that i’m proud of having accomplished that day, everyday. Big things, small things (mostly the latter), some days are harder than others, but it eventually boosts me up. The trick is to do it even when (and especially then) the day really sucked, ’cause it helps celebrate the tiny victories, which the ego loves and needs.
    Another big tool is meditation, but that’s for the long run.

    I think it might be key to be a friend to ourselves. It sounds simple but it isn’t so.
    Oh, and to learn to manage expectations. Who knows how to do that, I wonder.

    Thanks for sharing!

  14. Very nice observations, that I can relate to.

    I’m also trying to progress in music, and praise is a powerful tool to encourage someone to continue and progress. Find some friends and peers and support each others. There could be some real damaging comments out there. especially on the Internet, in unmoderated places. They offer no path to progress, only dead ends… So remember if you need to critique, always offer a path to progress, something, achievable, otherwise just shut up!

  15. It’s funny… My best friend was always told she was smart and she is the most confident person i know. She grew up believing she was smart and could deal with everything. She can’t even understand how i can have self doubt, to her that is just ridiculous… One must always believe in one’s self.
    I on the other hand have all the smart kid problems you described. Yet i never believed i was smart. I just knew that that was what was expected, that my parents wanted a smart perfect kid, and i wanted them to love me so i tried as hard as i could to be that. It never seemed enough no matter what i did. I always got good grades, was called smart by others, but never got validation from my family, not even after completing my phd. So all my life i felt stupid and slow and thought most people could figure things out much easier than i did, only they didn’t put in the effort most of the time. I felt like i had no choice but to put in the effort, or i was nothing, useless and worthless, and everyone would see that. So i did put in as much effort as i could, tried my best to be all that was expected. And always felt imense pressure to deliver, and imense fear that sooner or later everyone will figure out i am stupid and worthless.
    At some point at the end of my phd i realized i was self destructing with this belief. But i didn’t know how to get past it. I quit science after my phd because it was such a destructive environment. I got an industry job and got into the same pattern of never being enough. I tried to get out of it, i still am, i just can’t seem to get through to my own brain, it’s working against le! I eventually burned out, and that was another lesson about becoming my own friend. I tried so many things, and have greatly improved my self esteem. But even so, i am on the brink of a second burnout and i realize i still have no idea how to believe in myself… I can’t make myself believe i am a useful member of society… I now know on some deep level that i am worthy and valuable just because i exist, like a tree say is valuable in and of itself. But when it comes to work, to making a contribution, i still feel totally stupid and worthless and have absolutely 0 confidence. If anything, i feel like i know even less now than i did 10 years ago. I have less confidence than i started with! Now i talk with my parents and they say things like “you’re on a higher level, we can’t even grasp the things you say, you’re so smart”, and i’m like “no, i am stupid, don’t you get it?! Didn’t you get it all along?! It was always obvious!” Now that i finally get validation from them i don’t believe it. I still feel stupid, no matter what anyone says, and under huge pressure to be smart or i won’t be loved. Some people say i have impostor syndrome. But i don’t know… I don’t know how to see if i am just nuts or if i am really stupid and lazy as it seems to me that i am… All i see is i never seem to achieve anything and i always let everyone down. I know it is not true, it can’t be, or else i’d be jobless and homeless by now… But i feel like that and i keep waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop. It drives le nuts when people start saying “how can you not be confident, you’ve done a phd?!” As if the phd is some proof of great talent! All it takes is a lot of work and dogged perseverance. Anyone can do it, if they are willing to put in the work. At the end of the day the fact that i was an expert in a tiny area of science 6 years ago doesn’t mean anything today! That was 6 years ago. I am not an expert now, i haven’t touched the field in ages. And frankly i don’t think i’d still have the resilience to do it again, if i had to. I simply don’t think it would be worth the effort anymore. So what does that say about me?! Hard to tell…
    I’ve tried affirmations, gratitude, mindfulness, meditation… They’ve all helped me feel better, and especially made me realize i had some intrinsec worth. But when it comes to how i feel about work and being smart, i feel like i am just as stuck as always… I still feel stupid and slow and under a ton of pressure… And i can see the burnout looming but can’t figure out how to avoid it. It’s scarry…

  16. Last night my lovely 12 year old girl was crying in bed, saying ‘my teachers used to love me, now they’re going to be so disappointed’. The reason? Exactly what you describe – up to this point being able to breeze through her school work and bask in the praise. Now she’s convinced herself that anything she needs to try at is a sign she’s mediocre, so she almost dares herself to do the least possible work to check she can still cut it. And as a consequence got behind and is terrified of being found lacking. I’m showing her this post tonight as it’s exactly what she needs to hear

  17. The weight of expectation sometimes leads to unconscious self-sabotage, so that people will just get off your back and let you live your life. It took me years to realise that I was often the author of my own failures, just so people would stop investing so much hope and eexpectation in me Nowadays I just say no when needed. It’s a good skill to learn, but at 51 I’ve still yet to master it. Thanks for a comforting and thought-provoking post.

  18. Funny, I would have thought that an article titled “smart kids eventually grow up” would be precisely about “smart” kids outgrowing this BS, but I guess the response to this shows that many “smart” kids remain emotionally stunted. How sad!

    I am like Andra’s best friend: the fact that I “grew up believing [I] was smart and could deal with everything” has been an endless source of strength for me. Knowing that my parents were always in my corner, that I was always good enough for them, just by being me, has given the confidence and resilience to deal with the setbacks that I’ve encountered as an adult.

    Of course, after the age of 6, you learn that your parents — and other folks, for that matter — telling you you’re so smart is not something to take literally (i.e., to base your self-worth on). But perhaps that’s just me? Do people not outgrow being celebrated for using the potty? I see this whole smart thing in much the same light, and I think it’s sad that for others, well-meaning praise has caused problems.

    Andra, I’m very sorry that you seem to have gotten the worst of both worlds. But look, the point of a PhD in science isn’t to become an expert in a very tiny area. That is a by-product, to be sure. What I got from my PhD is the ability to teach myself anything. I hope you did, too. Because as you note, science changes very fast, so you cannot assume that what you know today will remain unchanged tomorrow. Have you given therapy a try? I don’t say this to be mean … I don’t think there’s any shame in getting therapy, if you need it. Would you hesitate to go to the doctor if you’d been physically injured?

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