Words by Anika 25, NSW
When I was nine, my primary school careers counsellor told me the world was my oyster. I could read at a high-school level, I was precocious, and adults loved me.
“What am I gonna do?!” I asked (demanded), pushing my stringy hair back at the roots, thrilled to discover I was effortlessly brilliant.
“Don’t worry,” she reassured, “You can do whatever you want, whenever you decide what that is.” My counsellor’s expression suggested she believed her words, though looking back this may have been less conviction and more matter-of-factness. Her usually slack almond eyes were wide with (what I read as) hope. Perhaps she saw in me an extension of her own success, or perhaps she was desperately trying to stay awake in the post-lunch haze and muggy heat of that drizzly summer’s day.
Whatever her motivation, I took this sentiment and ran with it — headfirst into the belief that I was too good to try, and that life would give me whatever I wanted.
Years later, as a nervous, sweaty and decidedly un-driven 15 year old, I was reassured by my high school careers counsellor that the world was, indeed, still my oyster. I spent my classes daydreaming, and my weekends brainstorming my fantastic future careers: I’d be a world-famous photographer with a fearful reputation and a history of making the latest It Girl; or — better still — I’d be that It Girl, and Alexa or Cara would hand over their crowns; or I could be a screenwriter, dramatically locking myself away for months on end to emerge with a script that was revolutionarily feminist, touching, and an instant classic.
The belief that intellectually gifted children can enter any field of employment they desire as adults is enshrined in our culture, but is deeply problematic.
You’ve probably read the research: intellectually gifted children often make for depressed adults. The reasons for this range from hyperactivity and boredom, to the ubiquitous disease of existential dread. But, another significant cause that cannot be overlooked is the high expectations that are rarely (if ever) met.
At 23, I found myself newly graduated with the Western education special: an Arts degree and a belief that I was creatively brilliant, sure to change the cultural landscape of Sydney in ways society had never foreseen. I had no clue what I wanted to do, so I sent out applications for any creatively-inclined job. Where I finally landed was decidedly less-than. A VR production studio awash with gamer-bro-dude culture and tech jargon, so far from the life somewhere doing something in the arts I had envisioned for myself.
What followed was a year of a relentless, gutting depression.
Just enough to hang over my head like a damp towel; heavy, uncomfortable, and constant. I’m better than this, I’d tell myself. I don’t belong here.
But just where I belonged, and what I was made for, I couldn’t quite articulate.
Week after week, I found myself sitting opposite my psychologist, her sharp, raven eyes framed by gaudy red glasses, too big for her frail head.
“What,” she would always begin, “have you been doing?” It was a seemingly innocuous pleasantry, but we both knew it meant more. What have you been doing… with your spare time? With your creative ambitions?
The answer was, invariably, nothing.
I was waiting.
Waiting for opportunity to come knocking, to find me and my prodigal, untapped brilliance.
“I want to start a zine, I’ve been thinking it could be about fashion, or queer culture,” would be my answer one week. “I’m going to buy a new drawing book,” would pop out of my mouth at least once a month.
It took another year of this endless repetition before my mind, still desperately clinging to a phrase uttered too long ago by a primary school careers counsellor, landed on a realisation.
I was unequivocally, undoubtedly, profoundly average.
Not brilliant beyond my years, not the literary voice of my generation. Simply a gifted child, grown into an insufferable adult. So sure that I would succeed without effort that the mere reality of everyday life had weighed over my head; a depressive cloud of distorted expectation.
The realisation that should’ve sent me deeper into sadness instead pulled me swiftly out. My expectation to succeed was now no more than anyone else’s. My ideas could be brilliant, but they could also be trite, or boring, or just plain bad. I’d be fabulously gifted at some things, and fucking useless at others. All of this was fine. And I was fine.
Telling a child who shows talent at school that they’re guaranteed to succeed at whatever they try is setting them up for a lifetime of disappointment. Instead, let’s be okay with average intellect, aptitude in just some areas, and a strong serve of middling success.
Illustration by Aileen, You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenetc