Breaking free of the curse of the gifted

In what threatens to become a semi-regular series, I give you a plea for help that landed in my mailbox this morning, anonymized, and my response. Querent’s situation is not unique; what’s unusual is his ability to self-diagnose and his willingness to ask for help.

I have diagnosed myself with what you described (here) as ‘the curse of the gifted’. I am currently seeking advice as to how to correct this and would greatly appreciate it if you could help me.

When I was a boy, pretty much everybody would call me ‘genius’. I got top grades in school and yadda-yadda. I am now but a shadow of what people would think of me: I have really hit the point where my brains alone can’t take me any further. I have to work hard, but I don’t know how.

Problem is, I’m so far down this rabbit hole that I’m actually afraid of failure. I know I should be taking risks and doing my best, but I simply can’t. I didn’t leave my country to look for a better future in a bigger one because I was afraid to leave the safety of my parent’s house. I stick to my day job because here there are so many ways to hide from real work and real challenges. I don’t contribute to open source or even start my own pet projects because I know that at the first obstacle I’m gonna drop them.

I often find myself wishing that I still were the “genius” that I was before (which I think to be a clear symptom of the condition), thinking that If something doesn’t come smoothly to me than I shouldn’t even bother.

How to cure this? How to learn discipline? How to learn how to work hard?

Here is how I replied:

I remember being where you are now; I had a doldrums like this in my late teens and early twenties. So the first help I have for you is the reassurance that climbing out of the hole *is* possible. I did it.

I can recommend three strategies for climbing out. Don’t pick just one; pursue all three, because they support and complement each other.

First strategy: Do some hard work to acquire competence at things for which having a genius IQ doesn’t help a lot. Perhaps a physical skill like some form of athletics or dance; martial arts has at times served this function for me. Perhaps an artistic or mystical skill in which the difficulty lies in a shift of perception or attention rather than handling symbolic complexity; for me, being a musician is sometimes like this.

By seeking competence in an area where you have no huge cognitive advantage over other people and your self-image as a genius is not threatened if you fail, you will accomplish two things. First, you will evade your own tendency to quit if success does not come easily. Secondly (and much more importantly) you will have a place to *learn* how to work hard, a place to develop the self-discipline that you never had to before. The mental habits you develop will transfer back to IQ-loaded fields.

Second strategy: Reinvent yourself as a polymath. I never had to do this explicitly myself because (thanks to Robert Heinlein’s influence) I had this as a goal before I hit my doldrums. But if you are the more typical sort of young genius whose abilities have so far concentrated heavily in one field, broadening your base is valuable on many levels.

One level is competitive synergy. There are so many bright people working single fields that some of them are effectively certain to be brighter than you are and able to stay ahead of you now matter how hard you apply yourself. The number of thinkers who are capable of genuinely cross-disciplinary analysis is much lower; by positioning yourself to do that, you greatly increase your chances that you can stay ahead of not just the narrow specialists but the few other polymaths as well.

But if you are fighting the curse of the gifted, the psychology of this move is more important than the competitive positioning. If you are are gifted (say) at mathematics, but have stopped pushing yourself there because failing would damage your self-image as a genius of mathematical talent, it will help you a lot if you are able to reinvent yourself as a polymath genius who happens to do math. This sideways shift lowers the emotional cost of a failure or setback in math, or any other single field.

Of course, to make this work, you actually have to *believe* you are a polymath, and the only way to justify that belief against collapse is to actually be one. Fortunately, this is less difficult than is usually assumed.

Any linguist will tell you that the third language you acquire is generally easier than your second, the fourth is easier than your third, and so on. Learning each language develops common cognitive substructures that make the next one easier. Entire intellectual fields are like languages in this way; mastery in N fields makes mastery of field N+1 easier, pretty much regardless of what fields you’re talking about.

For your next area of mastery, pick something that interests you but is not too close to any of your already-developed areas of mastery; that will give you the best leverage for the next field after that. A math or programming genius, for example, might want to consider developing master-level skills at prose or poetic composition; for a genius based in natural language, on the other hand, swallowing some field in math or hard science would be best.

Third strategy: Develop your will and your courage and your self-image as a person who is *unconquerable*, unstoppable. Logic and brains will not get you out of the trap you find yourself in; if that were possible, you would probably be out already. What you need is intestinal fortitude, sheer guts and bloody-minded persistence.

Of all three this is the most difficult strategy to describe or give concrete advice about, but essential nevertheless. You need to learn to think of failure as a temporary condition, something from which you learn better tactics but which never touches the core of what you are.

The first stages of execution on these strategies will be very difficult. They will require you to work harder than you ever have – which is the point and nearly the definition of the problem, yes? But you will find that success feeds on itself and that small victories create the preconditions for greater ones.

When the path out of the trap seems discouraging, the thing to remember is this: you have the curse of the gifted *because you are gifted*. You are special. You have rare talents in you. Your challenge is to grow the rest of yourself so it matches those talents in scale and depth.

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