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Growing Up Gifted and Learning How to Fail

Growing Up Gifted and Learning How to Fail

As a kid, I was always told that I was highly gifted. Starting in kindergarten, I was singled out by my teachers, my parents, and my friends’ parents for being The Smart One. I remember feeling incredibly guilty that my friends struggled with assignments that I found so easy, stuff I never needed to work at. I knew I wasn’t any better or more deserving than other kids; I was better at schoolwork through dumb luck, an accident of genetics or environment. 

I decided that since I had a free leg up, I needed to prove that I was worthy of having those advantages. Like it was my responsibility to grow up and do important things and do them perfectly—because I clearly had the ability to do that, didn’t I? I thought hoarding those gifts, not using them for the greater good, would have made me selfish. I had to make sure I deserved what I got, or else it just wasn’t fair.

When I was in seventh grade, I got into the county spelling bee. I studied for months. While I didn’t win, I came close. I walked offstage, and as my parents told me how proud they were of me, I started weeping hysterically. I remember telling them to stop pretending I wasn't a failure.

I didn't win; there was no reason to be happy, as far as I was concerned. Everyone had told me I was so gifted, so talented, so capable of doing anything I set my mind to. I had knit that concept into the fabric of my identity. That meant I could have won, if I’d tried hard enough. If I’d spent more time memorizing Latin roots and less time watching TV and playing with my friends. I decided I had been too lazy, too cocky. In this way, I transformed my loss from an intellectual one into a moral one.

That became a foundational belief for me, the idea that anything less than perfection was a moral failure. I spent most of high school trying way too hard to be the best, taking all AP classes and doing all the extracurriculars in hopes of getting into the very best college. Eventually I completely burned out. I spent a lot of college just not trying hard at anything. If I didn’t try, at least I’d know I failed because I had decided to. That felt less vulnerable.

Eventually—and luckily for me—I got into theater. Because studying acting felt less explicitly academic, I was a little more comfortable failing. As an actor, I learned to be unashamed of failure, to look at it as an instructive experience, not as something that defined your value or ability. It was a good thing to just try stuff, not to let the fear of failure hold you back from new ideas or choices. That helped.

Even now, in my twenties, I’m still trying to shake my fear of failing. I’m still getting comfortable with the idea that if I’m not an instant, meteoric success, that doesn’t mean I’m a bad or valueless person.

Those feelings of fear and self-loathing came back when I graduated college and saw all my friends taking exciting new paths in their lives, all of which seemed more prestigious or exciting or braver than mine. And those feelings come back now when I find out that a writer who I look up to is the same age as me (or even scarier, younger).

Although it still hurts a little every time I don’t get something right the first try, I’m in a better place than I used to be. It helps to spend time thinking about what I want to be doing, instead of what I think I’m supposed to be doing. It helps to stop looking up old high school classmates on Instagram and LinkedIn. What’s most helpful, though, is to do what I learned to do in acting class: meet failure where you are, breathe through it, and see where it can take you. 

By Kelly Anne Doran, 25

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