Tuesday, December 29, 2020

On Underachievement

Yesterday I posted the books I read (completed, not just opened) in 2020. All of them were nonfiction, as per the usual. Why do I read nonfiction? Mainly because I love it. I love information. I love learning. My favorite toy in childhood was our World Book Encyclopedias (1965 edition).

People tell me I should read fiction. Fiction makes me anxious. I can't explain it other than to say I feel like I need to be learning. Always learning. Maybe I am making up for something.

When I was 11 I went through a battery of psychological testing to find out what was wrong with me. What was wrong with me was anxiety and depression (and OCD, though that wasn't a diagnosis in 1975) and the fact that I had a high IQ. I was classified as gifted.

To get into my high school (a private all-girls school which was then grades 7-12), we were given an IQ test. Then our entire grade was divided into five classes, depending on IQ. Everybody knew which class they were in. I was in the top class with all of the smart people.

Within a year or two that literal classification broke apart. Some of us in the "smart" classes fell away while some of those in the more average classes excelled. By ninth grade I was in danger of failing certain classes such as geometry (I put together my end of semester theorem notebook while drunk). I honestly didn't care. I didn't care about school at all.

It wasn't until my junior year that I started opening a book and trying to learn. Unfortunately, my eating disorder made it hard for me to think clearly and was able to retain almost nothing that I learned. My grades got better as a senior and I was able to pull myself up in my class ranking so that I graduated as 42nd out of a class of 67 (yes, that was AFTER I pulled my ranking up).

College wasn't a whole lot better. Those preliminary classes didn't make a lot of sense to me and I was still bogged down in so much angst over life that I just.didn't.care. I wanted somebody to love me. That was it. Again, it wasn't until my senior year in college that I opened a book and actually began learning the stuff that interested me.

So, why do I read nonfiction? Well, to a certain extent it is what I love. And yet, I think so much of it is trying to make up for lost opportunity. I had an incredible education placed before me and I pushed it away.

I suppose I was (and perhaps still am) the classic underachiever. An underachiever is someone whose performance is considerably less than their ability. The only ability that I have ever had has been academic (oh, and dieting, but we all know where that got me).

In trying to understand my underachievement I came across this article about gifted children and depression. Reading these words were like looking into a mirror.

Gifted people of all ages have unique traits that may make them vulnerable to this form of depression. They tend to be highly sensitive, intense, empathic, passionate, idealistic, and likely to analyze things more thoroughly than most people. When they notice injustice, mistreatment of others, poverty, and abuse of power in the world, they can feel hopeless and alone and wonder why those around them appear to be unconcerned about these things.

That was me. That IS me. There are so many things in the world that I see and need to process and want to address that I just don't have the time or energy or mental or emotional bandwidth for some of the more common activities that are our cultural metrics for success. I lack the drive many people have to perform. I lack the ambition. I lack the energy. Alas, I also lack the confidence.

But reading this article helped me understand that my underachievement wasn't just because I was lazy or incompetent or crazy, though I was told that I was all of those things, it was because I was, and am, wired differently. And when my wiring met my circumstances, the result was not a stellar report card. So where does that leave me now? I think I will still want to read nonfiction. My appetite for information and understanding is as strong as ever. But hopefully I will quit beating myself up for all those years of wasted education.

And maybe, just maybe, I'll pick up a work of fiction, just for the fun of it.


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