Saturday, July 16, 2011

the girl who disappointed.

Image borrowed from Tahereh Mafi,
an author 10 years younger and 20 years more awesome than me.

This is not a post about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Instead, I thought I'd tell you another secret.

When people look back at things they wish they had done differently, I have an unusual one.

I wish I'd never been told I was smart.

When I was very young, I was told that I was smart. Very smart. Which seems like a good thing to do, to build a kid's confidence. But because of that knowledge, I developed an enormous ego, a crippling case of constant anxiety, and an overwhelming fear of failure.

I never tried anything new or difficult, because I was afraid to suck.

I never had any ambition, because I was afraid I wouldn't reach my goals.

I never chose a career or a life path, because I was afraid to choose the wrong one. I didn't go to grad school because I was afraid it would be too hard.

I basically opted out and coasted along. I was content to let other people think I was smart. I never did anything exceptional because I thought *being* exceptional was enough.

It wasn't.

And I wasn't.

You know how Hagrid and McGonagall told Dumbledore that Harry should have been kept in the wizarding world, and Dumbledore knew better? How he knew that Harry would be better growing up normal and without the heavy yoke of expectation?

Lots of times, I wish it had been that way for me. Being told that I was a genius set me up for failure, or, at the very least, a heraldic sort of mediocrity, at least for the first thirty years of my life.

Let's get one thing straight: I'm not saying I'm a freaking wizard genius like Harry, although I do have several interesting scars.

I'm not saying I'm all that-- I'm actually saying I'm *not* all that and was too scared to try to be *all that*. My own expectations for myself held me back. Who knows what I could have accomplished, if I hadn't been afraid to strive?

The saving grace was marrying Dr. Krog and having children. Motherhood altered my brain in two major ways: fearlessness and object tracking. I started writing, and I think that was the savior of the me that was lost, all those years ago, thanks to an IQ test.

Suddenly, there was nothing to lose.

One day, with Dr. Krog's help, I finally tried something new. Then failed. Then tried again. Then failed. Then tried again.

Then succeeded.

I catch myself sometimes, telling my kids that they are brilliant or clever. And then I shut the hell up and focus on telling them that they're kind or generous, two traits that I would much rather possess.

So there's the good news.

It's never too late to build a cupboard under the stairs.



Fairly Odd Mother said...

Great post D. The first (I think?) chapter in NutureShock talks about this---how kids who are told they are smart/brilliant/advanced often will NOT try to do anything at which they could fail. It's amazing you can see this in yourself and push back against it.

Jon Plsek said... bad...

delilah, the unruly helpmeet said...

Wait, Plsek. This is *your* fault? I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN.

delilah, the unruly helpmeet said...

And thanks, C. That means a lot. The older I get and the more HP movies I see, the better I know myself and the more I'd prefer to let NPH speak for me. =)

Virginia Valerie said...

The things I was told in my youth are the things I hold onto the fiercest, even though they don't hold up to scrutiny. Brava for taking a good look at yours! :-)

Anonymous said...

I can only say I didn't know and I'm sorry. I used to think I was a pretty good parent.

delilah, the unruly helpmeet said...

You were a good parent, mom. It's all in the hindsight. Everything that ever happened to me just made me stronger, and I wouldn't change who and where and what I am right now for anything. love, d.

Anonymous said...

You see,this is why I've always told you terrible things about yourself. I'm always trying to help.

Also, you smell.

urfaqhesse said...

so so true. you rock. xoxoxo

Alice Istanbul said...

You teach me so much, D. I tell Grace she's so smart all the time, because I had the opposite kind of experience in that I was always told I was stupid and lazy as a kid. Really, it turned out I had a learning disability, but we didn't know about such things in the 70s. Thank you for the insight and perspective.

kerin rose said...

I teach part time and always mention to parents attributes of character, such as kindness and compassion that I notice in their kids....and it makes me sad how many would rather I tell them they are 'smart'....sadness....

sort of goes against the common grain, but so true....

Bohemienne said...

Oh gosh, this made me want to cry. When I was little, one of parents was very realistic and constructive in her criticism and praise, but the other would blindly and endlessly praise me, even when I KNEW I had done poorly or hadn't given something my best. To this day I still struggle with praise and taking people's words at face value. But you are so right. Always try your hardest. Don't expect things to come easily, no matter how smart or talented you are. Keep trying.

Shooting Stars Mag said...

Great post. My parents didn't really say anything either way...they got excited at triumphs, but it wasn't a huge deal if we didn't. However, it was hard in school with my classmates and some teachers. Classmates would act like I was some genius and if they saw they did better than me on something they would rub it in. It really annoyed me. And I hated when teachers had some weird expectation of you to always do well...that was hard.


delilah, the unruly helpmeet said...

I love how this post is rolling around like a slow little catamari, picking up other people whose die was cast by praise or lack thereof.

For the record, I think you are all MARVELOUS.

I also think that no matter what you do, your kids will find a reason to resent something, and that's just the way it goes. That's why I'm taking my kids blueberry picking tomorrow. They'll be all, MOM WAS AWFUL, EXCEPT FOR THAT DAY WE ATE ALL THOSE BLUEBERRIES.

Sam Ripley said...

Oh gosh, are you me? This was such a great post. I loved the Harry Potter comparison.

Claire Dawn said...

Another "brilliant" person over here.

The effect it had on me was not that I was afraid of failure. I stopped trying, because I knew I would scrape by naturally. And even if I did get a perfect score, noone would really be excited because they expected it.

GSMarlene said...

OMG! The same thing happened to me, but I never really put it all together - afraid of failure, afraid to choose. The other thing that being told I was smart did was when I went through a slightly rebellious phase (jr high, so just cuz, but also parents divorced and I got tired of being a good girl), I still did well in school and finally decided I didn't even have to try. Mostly I didn't. But then I forgot how.
I also watched my neice refuse to learn to read because my sister decided she was smart and should therefore be reading before kindergarten. She's fine now, but it was a big fight.

Sunny Rising Leather said...

Upon reading this I am SO glad you write :)

Wonderful post.

My mom used to tell me I was 'unique' and 'creative' - two words that unlocked a lot of things in my little heart - but I still held back, still hold back.

Sometimes it's far more than just the kind, well-meaning words of a parent that do the bulk of the shaping: kids can be such interesting sounding boards for each other.