The Curse of the Gifted
I just got my ass kicked. (Literally… in Muay Thai.)
For you mortal peasants, this may not be particularly special or noteworthy.
But it is for me.
I never get my ass kicked. At anything. Ever.
There are two theories in biology which explain evolution: gradualism and punctuated equilibrium.
Gradualism is the theory that a species adapts to its environment through a series of small mutations over a long period of time. Punctuated equilibrium, on the other hand, argues that a species evolves suddenly when an environmental shock causes an existing variation to have a significant competitive advantage.
In a loose, sociological sense, I am the result of gradualism. The series of incremental mutations I have in height, IQ, or otherwise, have made me well adapted to a society that rewards kinesthetic beanpoles and brute memorization. Though I’m not exceptional in any singular way, I have enough of a cumulative advantage to be considered “gifted”.
As a “gifted gradualist”, I don’t do well with environmental shocks. If ever it isn’t advantageous to regurgitate fifty digits of Pi or to touch an arbitrary 10-foot target, I’ll be screwed. All of my evolutionary privileges will be revoked and I’ll be outperformed by someone more “punctuated”.
“Punctuated” people are extremely rare. (Even people who are not as well adapted to sports or school as I am are probably not deviant enough to count as “punctuated”- they’re just less advantaged.) Society is created in the image of the masses, and “punctuated” people are nature’s high-risk bet; they are the outliers with neurodivergences or extra limbs or missing inhibitors.
Life is both more and less challenging for “punctuated” individuals. Some are crushed by this duality, but others develop a resilience unfamiliar to most gradualists. Of course, some “less-advantaged gradualists” also develop resilience in order to bridge the gap with more gifted peers, while others may become hardened against environmental shocks after experiencing an especially volatile environment.
Usually, though, “gifted gradualists” are the least resilient people — and the most affected by environmental shocks. They are prone to resting on the laurels of their advantages, which shield them from the struggles of “less advantaged gradualists” or “punctuated” peers. Hence, the curse of the gifted.
I have the curse.
Resilience isn’t in my nature. I’m more likely to run from adversity than I am to grow from it. I’m great at everything I do because I quit the minute I’m not. When I get slugged in Muay Thai practice I don’t know what hurts more- my ribs or my pride.
I’ve tried to fight my predisposition from a young age. I adopted corny catchphrases like, “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard” because, ironically, I assumed self-awareness would be enough to break the delusional cycle. Eventually, though, I had my rude awakening.
In my senior year of high school I attempted a higher level math course. Despite cautionary tales of previous Icarian students, I overestimated both my mathematical prowess and my self-proclaimed grit. Within the first month, I received my first failing test score. Then another. And another.
I tried to harden myself to the humiliation. I put my nose to the grindstone and dedicated my life to LaGrange errors and y-substitutions. I studied diligently for hours upon hours… only to continuously fail quizzes with single digit scores. I couldn’t believe it; my gifted existence was under attack, and no amount of hard work could reverse it.
Turns out, hard work doesn’t always beat talent.
And I’m not always “the talent”.
Eventually, after countless nights of toil, drudgery, and tears, I passed the final exam. My teacher mercifully gave me an “A” for my efforts (thank you Mr. G.), and I managed to graduate as valedictorian. Then I went on to claw my way out of restaurant jobs and into corporate success without a college degree. Yay for a happy ending where I learn the value of resilience, kumbaya.
Except… I’ll always be tempted to rest on my laurels.
Eighteen years of deluded grandiosity are not easy to override, regardless of how much resilience I’ve had to practice since. I still resent the realization that I have the curse of the gifted, not the curse of the genius or prodigious. I still feel uncomfortable when I suck or when I don’t understand or when someone is undeniably better than I am. I still want so badly to be the best at something, if not everything.
Thankfully, though, I’ve realized:
We can be great without being the best.
It’s more fulfilling to strive to be memorable, interesting, or important, than it is to strive for the hyper-specific metric of excellence. In fact, the greatest people in life are rarely the best at anything; they instead make a meaningful difference by leveraging their unique combination of advantages — gradualist and punctuated alike — to leave the world better than they found it.
Like them, I want to drain my life of everything that it’s worth. I want to stress test my gradualist giftedness. I want to dare, cry, fail, and try. I want to swing hard and eat shit, rinse and repeat.
Then, when it’s my time to die, I want to be utterly exhausted.
That’s how I’ll know…
I was great.