On the Perils of Early Promise

This month’s More magazine has a memoir that hit home with me, and will with many of you, too, I suspect. My So-Called Genius is the story of a woman, Laura Fraser, who…well, I’ll let her tell you:

“I learned the word precocious long before other kids my age. By the time I was 5 or 6, I had heard it often — I was always younger than everyone around me and ahead of my peers. Being defined by a long, difficult adjective made me special; it made me, in some essential way, who I am.

“I read early and voraciously, squirreling away splendiferously big words to spring on adults whenever I needed attention, which was often. I thrived on being called “smart” and “cute.” A psychologist said I had an IQ of 165, a number I thought was as immutable as the color of my eyes. I whizzed through school, skipping grades, racking up awards and honors. By 15 I was writing a column for my hometown newspaper. All the way back in third grade, my teacher told me I would become a great writer — at an early age, of course — and that’s just what I figured would happen.

“All those early predictions, my dazzling promise? They haven’t quite panned out. Despite having published hundreds of magazine articles and two nonfiction books, at 47 I’m no longer an up-and-comer. Peers I was ahead of early in my career have caught up or passed me by: starting their own companies, writing more books, buying vacation homes, embarking on lucrative second careers. Legions of people younger than I am are much more accomplished, and I’m mightily annoyed whenever one of them publishes a best-seller or wins a Pulitzer Prize. Day by day I seem to be losing my smarts, and we won’t talk about my cutes.”

Fraser’s story has some incredible parallels with my own, and I suspect with many of your stories, too. She also discusses how having too high expectations placed on you, even by yourself, can foster perfectionism, procrastination and creative blocks:

“If your entire identity is wrapped up in the magnificent things you’re destined to achieve – as a great writer, musician, scientist, politician, chef- the thought that you might produce something mediocre can be devastating. Better, it seems, to hold on to the idea that you could be great than to risk being merely good, or to fail altogether.”

Really well worth reading. (And, guys: yes, More is a “women’s magazine,” but read the article anyway.)

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