One TL;DR version of my autobiography could go something like this:

Identified as a gifted kid by two different American school systems, I grew up knowing I was smart and struggling with the expectation of academic excellence. I mean, I could get top marks fairly easily – except at math – and I generally did, although the margin of achievement diminished as I got older.

Besides, after year six, no one ever mentioned my giftedness again. Perhaps it had worn off.

By the time I got to University, studying science, I was miserable and so were my grades. The first thing I ever failed, I was expecting – I’d skipped all the tutorials and most of the lectures, and after trying to cram the whole subject the night before, found on the day I couldn’t answer a single exam question. Fair enough – but what bothered me was, why had I skipped everything in the first place? Venomous and Poisonous Animals should have been an interesting subject, it wasn’t even remotely difficult, and I’d known what the consequences for not attending would be; why couldn’t I make myself go to classes?

Then I failed something I’d kinda enjoyed and worked for, with no idea why. (The lecturer, who’d gone on sabbatical, was unavailable to provide feedback.) And there were some subjects I wasn’t even game to try. Clearly, I was getting stupider with every passing year.

Things improved dramatically when I moved into the Humanities – my grades shot back to the expected level and I found great joy in my field – but I still felt a glass wall between me and my colleagues, a feeling that increased when I went on to further study at a more prestigious institution, and which still exists around my few remaining academic friends. These people are smart, funny, interesting, shared similar politics, interests, and tastes, and yet… there was some difference I just couldn’t put my finger on. They were thriving, but the longer I stayed, the worse I felt.

Eventually I tapped out of academia, exhausted by feeling that I struggled with and resented what everyone around me enjoyed; feeling that the monoculture of it was killing me, without even being able to articulate what I meant by that. I wanted to start a family and that was impossible while putting so much energy into a career which, anyway, still wasn’t meeting some vague, unformed needs. The split was as painful and bewildering as a divorce. Where had the joy gone? Where was the love?

It wasn’t until I started learning about giftedness in my forties that this disconnect began to make sense. My kids’ version of giftedness is all about the emotions, the creativity, and the recalcitrance. Though they are bright, they flat out refuse to achieve academically. And now that I understand why, I understand myself so much better. Achieving well academically was a byproduct of interest; without interest, I had nothing. As Jacob Maslow put it,

“Gifted children…are primarily motivated cognitively. When they achieve excellent grades in a certain subject, it’s because their intellectual curiosity was sufficiently fired by the material provided.”

Maslow, 26/10/2018, retrieved 27/12/20

Ah. Yes. That sentence explains my whole history. I could achieve well, when I had my cognitive hooks into something; without that, a grade, a publication, or a promotion, were never enough to motivate me.

Figuring out that that’s how I am, has been like taking off a too-tight pair of pants I’ve worn my whole life.

So now I let it all hang out. Smart enough, I guess: also creative, empathic, and curious, a dabbler, happy doing a whole lot of things not very well, far more motivated by wonder than by anything else. Trying to figure out if I can do that, then changing tack once I can – this is what gifted looks like.

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