Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Perfectionism and Non-Academic Pursuits

FeMOMhist has had a couple of really interesting posts about recent testing that has revealed just what a rare zebra her son is. (She had an earlier post where she made the analogy of having a gifted child to be like having a zebra in a world that expects horses.)

This, in conjunction with some recent events, has got me thinking. It is too early for me to know whether Pumpkin is a zebra or just a rather speedy horse, and it is way to early to know how Petunia will develop. (For what its worth, I myself was probably a fast horse growing up, although I did get "tracked" into the gifted program and that was awesome. My husband was probably a zebra.) So, the musings in this post are not really directly about my kids. They are more general musings that may or may not apply to my kids. Time will tell.

Anyway, one problem that a lot of gifted kids have is perfectionism. The theory is that they are so used to having things come easily that they are afraid to try to do something that they can't be perfect at- or something like that. I am not as up on all of this as I probably should be, with kindergarten barreling down on us and all.

To me, the fact that school often fails to give gifted kids the opportunity to overcome this perfectionism in a safe environment is one of the most troubling things about the thought of trying to navigate a gifted child through standard schooling. I've watched far too many unreformed perfectionists flame out in college or graduate school to take this lightly. In all cases, the person was clearly gifted, but at some point ran into a class or an experiment or something that was too challenging, and just couldn't handle it. None of the cases I am aware of turned out tragically- everyone is living a reasonably happy life, if not necessarily fulfilling the potential that people- and they themselves- saw in their younger selves. But my god, they went through hell for years getting to that point. I wouldn't wish that on anyone, and I certainly don't wish it on my children. I am convinced that it is far better to figure out how to handle challenges and failure young, when most people figure that out.

So it scares me a bit to see Pumpkin suffering a bit from perfectionism. We have been working on this with her, and I think we have made progress. As I point out above, for all I know, school will provide sufficient challenges for her, and give her the chance to learn how to get her perfectionist streak under control.

But still. This is an area of parenting I think about quite a bit.

I've been pondering how my husband and I escaped the perfectionist trap. My husband still has a bit of a perfectionist streak in him, but he (mostly) uses it to ensure he produces high quality work, and is not paralyzed by it. I, on the other hand, am definitely not a perfectionist. I take pride in my work, and I try to do a good job. But I am for some reason rather good at letting things go, even when they are not perfect.

Now, obviously, basic temperament plays a big role here. But I am starting to form a theory about another factor that might be involved. Both my husband and I were fairly active in extra-curricular activities, right through college and beyond, keeping with them even though we weren't anywhere near the top of the field. For him, it was sports- even though he does not have the build that makes him a natural at most sports. For me, it was music. I can't speak for my husband, but I know that one of the things I had to consciously work on and overcome with my music was the tendency to want to stop and go back and fix a mistake. This is obviously not "allowed" in music- you just keep going. I clearly remember struggling with that, and even once I'd gotten to the point where I'd keep playing, I had teachers tell me that I needed to work on my "poker face"- i.e., I shouldn't wrinkle up my nose and shake my head when I hit a wrong note. I never completely conquered that tendency, but I got a lot better. Apparently my "tell" in later years was that I'd raise my eyebrows when I hit a wrong note.

I have long credited this experience with my relative comfort with public speaking. If you make a mistake when you are talking, you just correct yourself. This is so much easier than having to just keep going without even acknowledging the mistake- my God, people might think you don't even know you did something wrong!  But now I think the impact was perhaps more profound than I realized. Could this be why I'm comfortable taking risks and making mistakes at work now?

This train of thought has changed the way I look at the non-academic pursuits we've signed Pumpkin up to take. I used to think of swimming as just a necessary thing (because everyone should know how to swim) and soccer as something we did because Pumpkin wanted to hang out more with her friends (and because my husband had a weird issue with her lack of "ball skills"). Now, I think that they may be more important than that.

Recently, Pumpkin announced that she wanted to stop going to swim lessons. Since she announced this right at the end of the day on swim lesson day, and neither of us had the energy to force the issue that night, she got her way for that one lesson. But as my husband and I talked about what we would do if the swim lesson refusal continued, he hit upon the reason she was refusing to go. There had been a trainee teacher shadowing her regular teacher at the last lesson, and she had let Pumpkin's head sink underwater at one point, which (1) freaked her out, and (2) convinced her she was "no good" at swimming. My husband worked out a plan to get her over that experience, and she went back to swim lessons. A couple of weeks later, she swam across the pool unassisted. She was so unbelievably proud of herself. And we took the opportunity to point out how this was something she thought she couldn't do, but she practiced and got better at it.

So tonight, Pumpkin and I went out after dinner and bought her the gear she needs for the next round of soccer classes, which start on Friday. She's excited for this class, but I'm a bit nervous for her, because it is more structured and competitive than the class she took last year- hence the need for shin guards and cleats (which annoys me no end- do five year olds really need this gear? I need to find the less upwardly mobile soccer class, I think). She has many talents, but so far, we have seen no sign that sports will be one of them. She will no doubt start figuring out that her friends are better at this than she is soon. I no longer think that is a bad thing.


  1. Heh, swimming didn't work for me because I was AWESOME at it and ran out of lessons a few years before I was old enough to do lifeguard training. (And no way in hell was my mom going to take me to 3am swim meets.)

    Here's our post on perfectionism:
    DC's is totally gone. We credit his half day in first grade. (Just wrote a post on that yesterday in fact, will be up in a couple of weeks.)

    But... I didn't have perfectionism for a good portion of my life. Then school got way way too easy and the only way to challenge myself was to aim for perfection. I still sought out challenges, but after a few spectacular failures (I am not phi beta kappa because of them...) I settled for a level that wouldn't let me fail. In some ways that's kept me back. Still, I keep moving forward and mostly have a growth mindset. But a reason I couldn't be a mathematician (besides the fact that it doesn't pay enough) is that somewhere along the way I lost the ability to play with a math proof if I didn't already know there was a solution. It's hard to come up with new things if you're stuck only working on already solved problems. That hinders me a bit in my own profession... but there are other reasons to be in the subfield I'm in besides that.

    A minor rant I have... Why do y'all feel the need to qualify every time you post about your kids that you weren't gifted yourselves? It's like, "My kid is gifted/showing signs of giftedness/etc. but, despite the fact I was never tested, I was just above average. She must get hir smarts from the man in the family because men are allowed to say they're smart." Women are much more likely to have assimilated in school and less likely to have caused problems for the teacher that might result in diagnosis. (A common discovery on Davidson Gifted is that they had the girl tested after her brother was tested and gosh golly she has just as high an iq as she did... and they never would have guessed.) Whether you were above average or gifted isn't that important if you were accommodated, but all this denial before anybody even asks makes me feel as if the patriarchy is raining down with a gentle sleet.

  2. I want to emphasize how hard it is to "get" my more gifted kid's perspective. sciDAD and I have almost the exact same IQ and I'm happy to claim my half of fMhson's giftedness (sorry if I'm hijacking here Cloud :) I'm really really really smart, but 1% smart as opposed to his (asymmetrical) .1% smartness. Similarly sciDAD is a 1% not a .1% too. I suspect fMhgirl is a 1% as well. In my analogy the 1% are regular zebras, rare zebras are those .1% HTH

  3. Nicoleandmaggie: on siblings and IQ tests. My mom had us tested, but never told us the results; once she begrudgingly said they were "above average". But I always suspected that my brother tested higher, because my mother thinks he's the smarter of us two. (She's said so, in fact.) I suffered from a dreadful lack of confidence in my intellectual abilities in elementary school that warped my learning, especially in the sciences and mathematics (ie, I follow the stereotype of girls who are taught somehow that they can't do it, even though they can). I was accommodated at the highest level my school afford, which was pretty low, really (although I almost didn't make it in). Elementary school was harrowing experience for me, intellectually and socially. Later, I learned how to be bored and got with the program, and did better.

    I will make a confession - I've always secretly hoped that my LOs would not be zebras. I want them to be nicely-paced horses. I don't know why, or what it says about me.

    1. That's too bad! I think there is powerful pressure not to "brag" if you're a girl, and by the transitive property, also if you're the mother of girls. I can't remember what my parents told me about my tests at the time. Probably just that I got to go to the same "extended learning program" my sister did. It was much, much later (after I'd gotten a PhD) that I learned that I almost didn't make the cut because my scores were a little too low, but my first grade teacher spoke up for me and said I belonged in the program.

    2. the milliner6:10 PM

      @Cloud, your path is the one that almost was for me. In grade 6 I took a test (IQ presumably) along with 5 other classmates to see if we would go to the middle school/high school for gifted kids in our area. I did not make it in. And my mother told me years later that my parents had actually decided that even if I did make it in to the gifted school, they would have kept me at our very good neighbourhood 'regular' school (where I took the advanced levels of classes offered). I'm not sure if I agree with my parents decision (which was moot anyways as I didn't get in), but I've often wondered what would have been or if where I am now would have been different. What I do know now after years of struggling with feeling like I wasn't fulfilling my potential amongst other things, is that I am in fact gifted, despite that one particular test when I was 12, telling me I was not.

  4. I do think that music helps with the perfectionism and in pushing that gifted kid beyond what they think they could do. I have a gifted son as well, and he has a strong tendency to give up if he can't get something right away. We've started piano lessons, which really push his abilities (especially since the music can get as hard as it needs to as fast as it needs to), and I see it as a strong benefit.

    Speaking from my experience as a smart student, a pretty good musician, and not at all a perfectionist, I think the music is a strong component of the lack of perfectionism. Playing in an orchestra, there is no chance to go back and do it again - you just need to be prepared to do your best during the performance and hope it all comes together. Gives you that incentive to work hard and yet move on after the performance.

    1. Yes! You explained this much better than I did.

    2. the milliner6:14 PM

      FWIW, I am totally a perfectionist and have played an instrument for at least 1/2 of my life (recorder to clarinet and learning guitar off and day the cello...I'd love to play the cello!!!), so I'm not entirely sure about music being a strong component of lack of perfectionism.

      I do agree though that it is an excellent way to learn to push through something (and incentive to work hard and move on). I will have to remember this for DS who has perfectionistic tendencies like his mama!

    3. @the milliner- did you play in a group and/or perform recitals? I think that may be key. I played in orchestra, gave recitals, and participated in competitions. All of these are places where you can't stop if you make a mistake and I wonder if the experience of making mistakes (as I inevitably did) and still doing well in competitions and getting high seats in the orchestra helped me learn that mistakes are OK.

      But I have ZERO evidence for this. It is just conjecture.

    4. the milliner4:45 PM

      Yes, I did recitals all through grade school (solo & group), and was in band in HS. But, I could be an anomalie...or maybe I would have been more of a perfectionist without those experiences. It's an interesting theory though.

    5. My sister is now a professional violinist and has always been the most perfectionist of the three of us.

      I imagine music is one of those experiences that teaches different people different things...discipline was its chief virtue for me.

    6. @Ami, perhaps the key is having a serious interest that is not your main one (for me, my main interest was academics- there was never any question that I'd pursue music as a career), and that there is no way you'll be "the best" at.

      I don't know. Like I say, this is all just musings/conjecture.

    7. That strikes me as maybe closer to the mark...I think it's when the stakes feel high, for whatever reason, that it is really hard to let go of the perfectionist anxiety. It was something of a revelation to me as an adult that I could just mess around with an activity without turning it into a career or at least an income stream. I ran a couple of serious interests into the ground by raising the stakes that way and then panicking. Interestingly enough, it was only after I figured this out that my career finally took off.

  5. Erin-- I think it says that society sucks! As does the American Education System.

    We're doing our best to change the environment for DC so ze doesn't have to suffer and can flourish, and accepting DC as who ze is. #2 and I (and our partners) had our lives changed for the better by being able to go to a special school where we were surrounded by other "zebras". Like the "It gets better" videos with gay kids. (Incidentally, our school was also a safe haven for gay kids... and kids with all sorts of other differences.)

    I've never had IQ testing done, just achievement. My parents are very naturally in the growth mindset and don't believe in fixed IQs-- they're just a starting point. (Though my mom had hers done and it was really high.) And it's true, IQ varies by age and health and opportunities (and temporary spikes like chocolate and classical music etc.). What matters is what we do with our lives. Even people with lower IQs can become smarter (even as measured by IQ!) if they work at it and grow dendrites and get enough to eat and so on.

    One of my best students in my math class last semester recently told me she shouldn't take the second class in the sequence because she's no good at math. I'm like, you *showed* you're amazing in math. And she told me about how her mom has always said her sisters are the ones who are math geniuses and her mom was disappointed in her SAT score, and so on. I'm like, dude, you're a grown-up now and you've shown you're past that. She said she'd like to show up her sisters. So maybe next year.

  6. Nicoleandmaggie - So true. And while I'm a big believer in the public school system, I have to confess that my bad elementary experience affects the way I think about whether or not to put my own kids in public school. Right now they're in Montessori and thriving, the way I did when I was in Montessori, before I was pulled out and placed into a terrible elem.

    My eighth grade math teacher got so angry with me for doubting myself! But it never sunk in that I really could do it. (I pushed myself through high school calc and that was it.)

  7. @Nicoleandmaggie- I can't speak for anyone else, but I truly don't see the signs of giftedness in myself. I think of "gifted" as "thinks differently than others and can see things/make associations others miss because of this." I think I'm smart and fell into the "academically talented" side of the "gifted and talented" programs. I have had my IQ tested (to get into the program, back in 2nd grade) and barely made it in. But, of course, that was 2nd grade.

    My husband, on the other hand, seems to think differently. He has more of the "zebra" traits.

    But you're right, maybe I was a zebra who learned to pass for a horse. I have achieved a lot of success, academic and otherwise. Who knows? I don't think it really matters, except for in the fact that if Pumpkin does turn out to be a zebra, I think her father will have a better chance of understanding what is going on in her head.

    1. Shoot, I keep forgetting that I can reply in place now....

    2. Not having trouble could mean that one was a zebra who somehow got the coping tools down much better-- it's like when people who are in debt say that people who were never in debt can't possibly understand how to get out of debt. (But Dave Ramsey says, "Don't ask a broke person how not to be broke!")

      I just don't understand why if you mean, "I didn't go through these frustrations so I can't really understand them" you say, "I wasn't gifted, I was only above average intelligence." If you're in a good environmental match, you don't have the frustrations. I wasn't expecting to have to go through the perfectionism thing at age 3 with my kid. I didn't get to that until later elementary school. Is he smarter than I am? Well, he did some things earlier and some things later than I did and has had a very different environment growing up than I did because DH and I have a lot more money than my parents had and live in a different state etc., and perhaps most importantly for the problem at hand, a different birth date. So who knows. (And really, it isn't important. We take problems as we come across them. The label helps define the syndrome, but we still have to treat the symptoms separately.)

      And we've changed his environment and he no longer has those correlated problems he was having a year ago (post on this next week or the week after). Is that because he's no longer gifted? No, it's that he's in a better fitting place.

      If you're treating your gestational diabetes with diet and exercise and don't need drugs, that doesn't mean you don't have diabetes, just that you're not seeing the underlying symptoms and won't have a 10 lb baby. And that doesn't necessarily mean you can't help people having trouble managing their own symptoms. (If you haven't eaten wheat for a month, then the antibodies aren't going to show up on a test, that doesn't mean you're not allergic to wheat.)

      When it comes to something like intelligence, and there isn't hard evidence, why go out of your way to say you weren't in that category rather than saying that your experiences weren't the same, if that's what you were trying to say? Women degrade their intelligence too much as it is. Sure, underlying IQ isn't as important as hard work is for achievement, but when we go out of our way to say, "Oh no, I'm not really *that* smart, (even though I don't have proof one way or the other)" it has negative effects on the environment for all women. Like it's bad to admit innate intelligence. Just like saying work-life balance is impossible to achieve does.

      (And that 2nd grade test was probably an achievement test, unless you had it in a one-on-one setting with a trained expert. Not that IQ is fixed either.)

    3. Oh, the 2nd grade test was a true IQ test. One on one with a trained person giving it. I wonder if the school system still has the money to do that? Anyway, I didn't quite make the cutoff. My first grade teacher thought that was because I got spooked by the test. I used to have that problem- it is another thing I think music helped me overcome.

      I didn't mean that I don't think of myself as gifted because I haven't had the negative impacts. I mean I don't think of myself as gifted because I don't see the signs that my brain works in a different way than most people's, whereas I see those signs in my husband- and to a certain extent, am starting to see them in my daughter.

      So maybe I should say I might be a zebra, but I'm very much of the normal zebra variety, not the rare albino zebra like FeMOMhist has.

      I do think of myself as smart. But if I have a profound talent in any area, it is probably in organization- of information and work. This actually clashes with my desire to work on hard things. I keep finding myself working on organizational things in my jobs, because that is what I'm good at and other people find challenging. But because I'm good at it, I don't find it that challenging, and I start to get restless and bored.

      I'm happiest when I have a big steaming mess of disorganized information in front of me, and I can lose myself in it until I see the patterns. Then I can rearrange the information and explain it so that other people can see the patterns, too. I haven't figured out how to get paid to do that yet- perhaps I should have stayed in academic science! But I wasn't drawn to doing the lab research to make new information. I want to organize everyone else's info, and at the time I was making the decision, I didn't see much of a place for doing that in academia.

      And now that I've typed this all out, maybe you are right, and maybe I was a gifted kid- my gifts just weren't as obvious in the standard academic categories of reading and math as those of the kids I look back on and think of as truly gifted.

      As you say, it doesn't really matter how I would label Cloud-as-a-kid. I agree that women should be able to own the fact that they are smart, and not have to pretend they aren't.

    4. the milliner6:38 PM

      @Cloud, ITA that giftedness has components other than 'smarts' and 'intelligence' as it's traditionally defined. If you're interested in exploring your own brand of giftedness more (and even increasing an understanding of your husbands or girls (potential) giftedness), I highly recommend "The Gifted Adult" by Mary-Elaine Jacobsen.

      The book was instrumental for me in understanding my own giftedness (and to be honest when I read the checklist of typical traits on the first page, tears immediately flowed - I felt like I was 'home' and someone really got me).

      The book is centred around the concept of Evolutionary Intelligence, which is made up of Multiple Intelligences (body-smart, word-smart, spatial-smart, music-smart, logic-smart, relationship-smart, nature-smart & self-smart), Gifted Traits (Intensity: Excitability & Sensitivity, Complexity: Complex Thinking & Perception, and Drive) and Advanced Development (Humanistic Vision, Mandated Mission & Revolutionary Action).

      For me, just understanding that giftedness appeared in many ways was revolutionary. Certainly each gifted person has concentrations in different areas.

      Also the book really helped me learn how to manage my gifted traits by neither exaggerating them - i.e. expecting others to always work around my particular needs , or by collapsing my gifted traits - i.e. ignoring my very real need to acknowledge and practice my special traits. It's a fine line to achieve balance but ultimately I've realized that it's the key to my success and happiness in my own pursuits and relationships.

  8. I was fortunate enough to attend a residential school for gifted kids for my last two years of high school. There, I learned how to work hard. How to practice difficult math problems until I understood them. How to consume an amazing amount of biology and chemistry simultaneously. It makes me sad to think of how many gifted kids are denied the opportunity to stretch themselves and brush up against (or perhaps past) the limits of failure. It gives one incredible confidence to know that you can get better. I feel that way with writing now -- I was really unhappy with a draft of my most recent book, and over the summer I just kept hammering away at it until it looked like I wanted. And I knew I could get it there. I just had to work. By the way, if people are interested in gifted issues, I keep a separate blog called Gifted Exchange ( Reading all this, I was just thinking I should do a post at some point on "math guilt." For a long time, I felt like I had a responsibility to the sisterhood to go into it. But it really isn't where my passions lie. I do like writing about math, though.

    1. Yes! It is like we have the idea that if you aren't working in a math-intense area, you aren't really smart. That is silly.

      I admit that I struggle with that sometimes, too. One of the things that will make me sad if I decide to do a career change and go into something that isn't "science" is that I will then be another leak on the pipeline. But that shouldn't be something I worry about- I should do what makes me happy.

    2. the milliner6:43 PM

      @Laura Vanderkam, Yay, yay, yay for your blog. Going to check it out now!

    3. I just want girls to not think they're bad at math! That's probably what I spend about 30% of my teaching time doing (and maybe 80% of volunteer work doing back when I did volunteer work).

      Math as a career by itself is really oversubscribed... graduate school takes too long and the unemployment rate for math phds is not great. (From what I hear, math *majors* tend to get tapped for management because of their ability to think linearly, and don't do much actual math on the job.) But everybody should be able to do algebra, money, statistics, and so on. Everyone should have the opportunity to expand their minds with calculus and the idea of infinity, and not be held back by fear or a belief that they can't do it.

      I shake my tiny fist at that one terrible teacher who first told each affected female student that maybe math just wasn't her strong point.

    4. I loved math up to and including Algebra II. lol Then I took trig and my brain had no idea what to do with it. The next year I was supposed to take calculus and I opted for prob and stat instead. And in college I went social sciences and more statistics. On standardized tests, math scores always lagged behind. I didn't have the drive to push through to understanding what didn't come easily. Clearly I opted for the path of least resistance.

    5. Trig can be taught three different ways. The people who were taught the "memorization" method usually stop math at that point. People who were taught the "unit circle" method can go either way-- it doesn't seem as bad as memorization, but nobody really loves it either. People who were taught the "triangles" method tend to love it and go on.

      I spent from age 15 to age 21 or so teaching girls the "triangles" method. I can still do that lecture. Hell, #2 can do that lecture, she heard it so many times as my roommate (being one of the early recipients herself-- I believe she is responsible for the cowboy hat on Mr. 30-60-90).

      So if your wall was trig, it fricking WASN'T YOU. Most common wall in my tutoring: fractions (though they don't discover it until Algebra and *think* the problem is algebra, but actually it was fractions all along). Second most common wall: trig. Both of these are amazing concepts that are taught incredibly poorly if at all.

      I could teach you trig today in 30 min and you would say, "Why didn't they teach it like that in school?" And I would say, "Because your math teacher sucked. And that sucks." I know this because I have had that conversation dozens, if not a hundred, times.

    6. I want you to come teach me trig! I think I had the unit circle method, but it was so long ago, I don't remember. I'm pretty sure my husband had the triangles method, because he was just talking about that last weekend.

      My wall was Green's theorem, in multivariable calculus. I never really got that.

    7. It took me 3 tries to really get epsilon/delta proofs in calculus. But by the time I saw them yet again in real analysis they made total sense and were easy. There's a reason even math majors see these things multiple times!

      Wikipedia tells me that Green's theorem is a special case of Stokes theorem, which I vaguely remember from Real Analysis (also vaguely remembering the divergence theorem). I must have had it at least 2-3 times, each time with more understanding, though it's been a long time since I had to even remotely think about any of this stuff. I'd have to dig out my textbooks to get reoriented.

      I bet your DH remembers how to use triangles to get those numbers and can show you. Also, I will gift you with a handy mnemonic device that my first boyfriend taught me for the signs: All Students Take Calculus: All of them are positive in the first quadrant, only Sin is positive in the second (that's the one in the upper left), only Tan is positive in the third quadrant (lower left) and only cosine in the fourth quadrant (lower right). With that and your friends Mr. 30-60-90 (1, root 3, 2) and Ms. 45-45-90 (1, 1, root 2) that you may remember from geometry, you can get most of the trig problems people have trouble with. Very little memorization involved, just lots of drawing. Always drop up or down to the X axis.

      I wonder if the khan academy guy does trig the triangle method way...

  9. I've been reading your blog for a while now, and this discussion is absolutely fascinating. Both because I am at the point of observing new learning and patterns in my daughter (18 months old) and feeling quite fascinated by it; and because many of your examples really struck home. I quit dance as a kid because my closest friend was gifted and I wasn't. I always knew that was kind of important, it's stayed on my mind, but no one else seemed to mind. After all, I was good at other things. But now I wonder whether learning to be good at that would have helped me get past some of my perfectionist tendencies.
    Also, I completely get the organizing thing!! It is also why I think research makes a lot of sense to me, and why I like writing papers. Ha, hopefully I can convince someone to pay me for this before too long!!

  10. Hey!! When did we get threaded comments at Blogger??

    I am a perfectionist and I already see this in my 2yo and it makes me afraid for her. I'm only sort of figuring out how to make it work and not get caught up in it, so how the heck do I teach her?! My hubby is doing a much better job at that.

    Re: leak in the pipeline/letting down the sisterhood - I heard that a lot both when I left grad school with my consolation prize master's because I didn't want to stick around for the PhD, and also when I dropped down to working part-time.

    Personally, we can't do things "for the sisterhood" if they're not what's in our heart, like Laura's comment re: going into math. In the end we need to choose what works best for us as individuals. It's so easy for others to judge our decisions. At least I've learned to NOT CARE about that.

    1. the milliner6:48 PM

      I can see perfectionism in my 3.5 yo too (and have seen it when he was much younger too). It is so hard when you hav the same tendencies. It's a struggle for me to manage my own perfectionism. Trying to help DS with it is a challenge, but I'm hoping that helping him (and modelling a good example) will hopefully help me too.

      The one thing that I've decided to focus on so far is placing emphasis on effort rather than outcome. I'm amazed at how easily compliments or encouragement about the outcome roll off my tongue. Argh! It's taking a lot of practice to focus my encouragement on the process instead of the result. But worth the effort I think.

    2. Yep, I'm working on that too (praising effort and process and hard work instead of just the perfect outcome).

      Also, tons of encouragement to get BabyT to even try something new. Sometimes works, sometimes doesn't.

  11. Interesting stuff. As a kid I didn't grasp the fact that you could 'learn' physical stuff the same way you 'learned' academic stuff. I thought you could either do the splits or not, do a chin-up or not, but the idea that physical skills improved with practice took me years. No idea why.

    I score at the top end of the chart when it comes to abstract thinking (very similar to feMOMhist's son I suspect). I remember getting tested for the gifted program as a kid (my mom decided against sending me since it would have meant taking me out of French Immersion, and also putting me on a bus every day), and thinking that their test was a bit silly - and deliberately answering a few of the questions oddly. But then I'd already had years of experience coping with a world that didn't appreciate my abstract thinking - my mom is as far from being an abstract thinker as you can get so I had figured out that my natural inclinations towards solving problems were not what the world expected from me.

    My little one is 5, and I'm definitely noticing a tendency towards perfectionism - not wanting to try again because she couldn't manage it right the first time. It is a struggle. I've actually just picked up my viola again (after 20 years!) partly so that she can watch me being bad at something, but persisting and improving (at least hopefully I'll persist and is so frustrating!), but I'd agree with what other people have said about playing in an orchestra - you have no control over anyone else, you can only do your best, and you have to just keep playing.

    1. Hey! I played the viola, too- all the way through graduate school. Then, in graduate school I decided I also wanted to learn how to play the fiddle, and after I graduated I played fiddle in an Irish session. Now I just think about whether or not I could start playing in that session again. I think I'll need Petunia to be reliably sleeping through the night before I can- the session keeps me out too late!

  12. Re Cloud always saying that she's not gifted...
    I am with nicoleandmaggie here (I think). In my opinion, with women and girls it has to do a lot with confidence.

    I have always though that there are plenty of people smarter than me, at various stages of school and later career. But then whenever some sort of challenge came, I would do better than the peer who I thought superior. I dated a supersmart guy in college (he was a terrible perfectionist); yet I have achieved all that I have ever planned (I am a tenured prof) he is still a postdoc and utterly clueless about what he wants to do with life, has no passion for anything.

    Then my faculty colleagues -- my PhD was not from a fancy place, but I have collaborators whose PhDs are. I always start by thinking they are smarter, that I don't belong, but then eventually it turns out I can always keep up and not only that, they come to recognize me as an equal, someone with worthwhile ideas.

    It has taken me forever to tell myself "Hey, maybe you do belong in the big leagues." And you know what? My work and my ideas are getting better and better the more confidence I have. All the crazy-idea guys I idolize? Yes, they are creative, but there is this fearlessness that enables them to dream big. I am training myself to let go of the fear, and my ideas and my appetites are getting bigger and better...

    It's amazing how much power we have over locking or unlocking our own potential.

    1. I agree 100% with the idea that we can accomplish so much more when we have confidence. For me, gaining confidence has been a classic "fake it 'til you make it" thing. It was also helpful that I went to a famously rigorous college and did well there, after some wobbles in my first quarter. I trace the origins of my professional confidence to that time.

      I fear I have given the wrong impression of me. I am not 100% confident (I wonder if anyone is?) but I am confident in my intelligence and my problem-solving abilities. I just never thought of myself as "gifted"- I saved that label for the kids like feMOMhist's son (and several of my classmates), who clearly just thought about things differently than the rest of us. I thought of myself as smart, and as "talented". I got excellent grades and never struggled academically until I hit college- and even there was never in danger of failing, just of getting a C.

      This thread has really made me think, though. I should read up on giftedness.

    2. Anonymous10:19 AM

      I was a math major in college. There was a kid in our major who was just kind of weird. Also tall, white, and a guy. He really wasn't as brilliant in math as my (female) roommate, who was really a math genius (regular comments on her exams from professors would be, "This proof is much more elegant than what I had as a solution.")... but because he was a bit off people would say he was a genius (and would take a lot longer to realize my small and cute roommate actually was one). He wasn't. Sure lots of smart people are a bit off and in my experiences, on average, smart people tend to be more accepting of weirdness, but level of differentness doesn't perfectly predict level of genius. People just think it does when they don't really have a way of judging.

      There's correlations, and there are different ways of thinking, but it isn't just linear. For example, some gifted people think in clouds... and some not gifted people do as well. Some gifted people are much more comfortable thinking linearly, and most of my students no matter their starting intelligence are also more comfortable when I break things down like that for them. But the pulling answers out of the air and not being able to explain them isn't necessarily gifted, it's just another way of thinking. When a kid is gifted it tends to not be detrimental, but when the kid is not gifted, as a teacher I just pray (s)he passes my required class. (These folks tend to end up being artistic majors, with varying levels of competence in their field.) I don't know enough about cognition to know if that's considered a disability or normal or what it has to do with how people process things, but not all people with frighteningly high IQs are a bit off, and not all people who are different have high IQs (not that IQ is the only measure). Look at Marylin Vos Savant, for example! Or people you know who try to quote Rush Limbaugh at you.

    3. I've also noticed that when a famous guy has a crazy idea in my field it ends up in a top general interest journal. Very often a not-as-famous woman has had that exact same idea but it was published in the Journal of Feminist Economics. There's less risk to them going out of the mainstream than there would be for say, me. (I'm always like... if it were anybody other than [famous Stanford professor]...)

      That irritates me a bit, especially since my field is almost entirely non-blind.

  13. the milliner7:30 PM

    This topic is very near and dear to me. Several years ago when I was having a hard time at work (hard for me...boss and coworkers thought everything was great), I eventually made my way to a therapist who recommended the book I mentioned above. Reading the book and working through my own issues around giftedness really changed everything for me. Realizing that I understand things intuitively WAY before my brain understands it intellectually was a huge eye opener and has really helped me figure out how to work with that when the people around me are not this way. It's a constant work in progress, but just being able to acknowledge and identify what's going on is huge.

    DS definitely has the perfectionist tendency. The other day he was practicing writing letters and he said 'I'm not good at writing letters'. So, of course, I explained to him that writing letters takes practice and that it takes everyone some practice to be good at writing letters. His daycare teacher told me a similar story about the exact same thing. They were starting to write their names and he got really upset when he did the L backwards, and didn't want to do it anymore. This is going to be an on-going struggle for us I think. I can already see that he's starting to favour toys he finds 'easy' compared to ones that are harder for him. I've really started to eliminate comments on how 'easy' something is for him or over-reinforcing (through comments or encouraging words) what he's good at...or at least balance it out with more commentary on his effort vs. the outcome. They practice this at his daycare as well, which is great.

    On the subject of perfectionism though, I must admit I have a bone to pick about the subject. Perfectionism is pretty much always referred to in a pejorative way, which annoys me. For someone who has the drive to perfect, perfectionism is not a 'problem to fix', but a quality to manage (because yes, it can get the best of you if you do not manage it well...but the same can be said about a bunch of qualities that aren't viewed pejoratively).

    My overall gripe is that it feels like the expectation is that this drive is something to supress (and therefore deny in yourself or reprimand yourself for if indeed you do have that trait...not a good feeling). But really, it is something to be both celebrated and managed. The drive to pursue perfection beyond what 'regular' people would has helped many people achieve amazing things. Without that drive, the amazing things may not have happened. But ITA that when it is not managed well or is in overdrive (to the point where the perfectionism is driving the perfectionist or everyone else around them crazy), it needs better management. (I totally get the examples you gave of flaming out).

    Essentially, what I'm trying to say is that there is a middle ground. Perfectionists need room to perfect in at least some areas of their lives (and they also have to understand that not everyone has that drive, and that's OK).

    As a kid, I had a fair amount of non-academic pursuits, and yet, I'm still a perfectionist. I've typically not been comfortable in making mistakes, but I'm working on it and making progress now that I can identify it. I'm much more risk friendly now than when I was as a kid. And I'm not really sure what brought this about. Anyhow, all this to say that I think the interesting thing about non-academic pursuits is that it provides opportunities to try something new and to practice mistake-making (presuming you're trying something new that may be difficult or take practice to master).

    Interesting discussion!

    1. I think your point about perfectionism needing to be managed not stamped out is a great one. I have a perfectionist reporting to me right now. He is an awesome employee. He has (mostly) figured out how to manage his perfectionism, and he also flagged it for me as a potential issue from the very first day he reported to me. So, between the two of us, we can make sure that we take advantage of the good points without having it cause our timelines to slip unnecessarily.

      We have a joke in our department that everyone has a super power. His is the ability to sort through very complex data with a high degree of attention to detail. (Mine is the even less exciting sounding ability to take minutes in a meeting while running it and participating fully. I didn't say these were FUN super powers!)

      For Pumpkin, I just want her to learn not to be held back by the fear of making a mistake, particularly in a situation where a mistake is not really a big deal. I don't want to stamp out the desire to do good work, and to get something as close to perfect as is feasible. As you say, these are the good sides of the perfectionist streak.

      And I want to spare her the heartbreak of a flame out. Also, selfishly, I want to spare myself the heartbreak of watching her flame out.

    2. I'm starting to abscond with the "easy" puzzles and toys when T is not around, because we notice the same thing here. She likes to do the easy stuff over and over and won't touch the harder ones :( We have managed to help her with the 48 piece puzzle a few times, so she'll now put together parts of it, but gets mad or loses interest because it doesn't come as quickly as the 24 piece ones she's memorized. Sigh :(

  14. First, I've never thought of myself as a perfectionist - but at my Hen's night my sisters, mother and best friend produced sashes for everyone with some of my more, let's say, memorable utterances/achievements/dumb-assery. One of them referred to a tantrum I threw went I burnt some cookies - because "I don't burn cookies." At age 26. I also left a design job because I couldn't relax about doing designs for structures that might fail. So perhaps I lack a little insight in that area of my life. Although, re the work, I might have had more confidence if I'd had someone checking my work, but I never got the sense anyone there knew more about the subject of pipeline weight coats than I did. Which was pretty much only what I'd managed to teach myself.

    Second, my issue with my intelligence growing up was that it was very asymmetric. My verbal, language, reading and analysis skills were always way ahead of grade level - but math was kind of average. And to me, by comparison, I thought that meant I was 'bad' at math and therefore I didn't like it. Except word problems, I liked and was quite good at word problems. I actually had to be bribed (with access to the Principals philosophy collection!) to do more than the bare minimum of math when I was in high school. Thankfully, I was at a school where they recognised I needed to be pushed in that area (because everything else was easy) and when I was pushed, I was in small enough classes that I couldn't escape attention and slack off. My math class had 4 students. I had *no* escape.

    Then I started university - and in my first semester of French, History, Asian Politics & Mandarin - I got bored. I wasn't expecting that. I thought it would be challenging and I'd be able to have good class discussions, and instead, it was mostly me & the tutor talking and a couple of other people at most. And then I thought about what I wanted to do for a job at the end of it all - and was a bit stumped. So when I randomly walked past a sign advertising a new joint degree in Asian Studies & Environmental Engineering, I thought - hey, that might be interesting. I got told I couldn't do it because I didn't have the right pre-req's - which was the *best* thing to say to me, because I was like, hell - I can do anything. So I bugged the Sub-Dean until she said yes, I could be admitted. First year engineering was my first real brush with academic failure. I was very, very close to failing out in first semester. But then I realised lots of people who *had* all the pre-reqs were at risk of failing too. I ended up passing that year with a mix of marks from a C (in math) to an A+ (in programming). It was really fucking scary - but ultimately really empowering because I ended up with a first class honours degree in Engineering, even thought I was 'bad' at math. I just finally worked out how to learn math *my way*, which involved thinking about math as a representation of the physical world and writing out equations in words. Seriously. I still have to do this if I need to learn a new equation because I just skip over symbols when I'm reading it's 'words, words, ok I understand that, oh, here's some equations now, whoops brain goes 'la la la la' and then back to understanding words, words, words'

    I have no idea what that makes me, except not your typical engineer. :-)

    On the subject of gifted children - well, at the moment I just get annoyed by people who carry on about how smart my child is. Sure she talks really well and has an excellent memory and good genetics but hey, she's TWO. Let's not load the child up with expectations just yet. Plenty of time for that in the future!

    1. I didn't come into my own in math, really, until I hit college and it got more abstract. I always said I'd make a crappy engineer because I was always losing factors of 2 and minus signs and the like... my bridges would have fallen down!

      On the sports thing below- I didn't really start enjoying physical activity until I found activities that WEREN'T team sports. That way I didn't worry about letting anyone down. But I, too, have many experiences of playing on a team and sucking but no one caring because I was female and willing to play on their team. I played on two different softball teams my last year in college for this reason.

  15. Oh, and I am truly shit at sport and NEVER enjoyed it at school largely because I couldn't do it well. I once threw a javelin inappropriately because I didn't want to do PE. I didn't really get into playing sport regularly until I moved to New Zealand and realised that if I wanted to do something social to make friends and have a life, that was my best bet. I played a lot of social sport through the company I worked for. It didn't matter how rubbish I was, because a) it really was social and b) I was female and they *really* needed women for their mixed teams. I ended up realising I quite enjoyed soccer & touch rugby. I still get frustrated because my body just doesn't perform the way I'd like (too much imagination, not enough coordination - or speed) but on the whole, I enjoy it now.

  16. maybe we need a glossary, but I have to think that most of us with Ph.D.s probably are in the "technically" gifted as defined by the peeps who get to define that shit. An IQ of 130 or higher gets you "gifted" the sort of "averagely gifted." Get above 145ish and you hit extremely gifted, 150ish profoundly gifted. etc Personally I find the labels less than helpful esp, because what I knew about fMhson was that his mind is "different" and indeed it turns out his most recent IQ test isn't even valid for FSIQ it is so aberrant.

    Zebra was a riff on Cloud's unicorn post, and the oft repeated aphorism in med schools, if you hear hoof beats don't look for a zebra. So the zebra wasn't meant to be a numerical reference so much as an indicator of unusualness, which in our case turned out to be supported by the IQ tests

    I never thought of it as perfectionism, but if something didn't come easily to me as a child I gave up. So that is what happened with math. I never got past geometry basically. I ditched most of trig. However when I got to college I had to take something to fulfill the quantitative section of the gen ed, and I did logic, at which I was quite good.

    1. Yeah, I think I am misusing the word "gifted", probably due to my memories of my classmates in the "gifted and talented" programs of my youth. There were a couple who were just so clearly different in how they thought- I categorized them as gifted and people like me as talented. But I have never bothered to learn the actual definitions, and I should.

      FWIW, the kids I thought of as "gifted" were both male and female.

    2. I tested into the public school system G&T program in 4th grade, the first year I started public school. I've always shared the same idea that the "gifted" label didn't apply to me bc there were kids I went to school with who were definitely smarter than me in a way I'd never be. I'm just a horse that reads well. Not a Zebra. Also, I don't hang out with a lot of Zebra's as friends. And neither do my friends so they think I am a Zebra and I just want to tell them I am not freakishly smart by a long shot. I know freakishly smart. I've been to school with freakishly smart. I am not freakishly smart. And I don't think Tate is either but people already say the same thing to him. So I'm torn. I want to have him tested so I can just say, no, he isn't or yes he is and be done. I have always felt like an imposter. I just want Tate to be comfortable with himself.

      Is it really perfectionism when people stop doing things that don't come easily? I would think it a very small group that continues on with initially challenging tasks. Seems to me that is an internal drive of some sort, not a desire to have things be just so. I don't think a desire to avoid feeling frustrated or incompetent (from not being able to do things right easily or at will) is necessarily perfectionism. That just seems human nature. Perfectionism to me is at the end of hours, days, years of practice at something and still striving for better or more. Not an initial this is hard, I'm not doing it right, I'm going to quit that I see in Tate when he wants to write his letters or ride his bike without training wheels right the first time. To me, perfectionists are the people who keep going at that point when most people would stop.

    3. Maybe if you want Tate to be comfortable with who he is, it's time to become comfortable with the idea of being freakishly smart. Yes, there will always be people who are smarter, or seem smarter (though on the inside they also have all sorts of hang-ups... you just have to talk to them when they're sleep-deprived or drunk and they let it all out).

      Comparing ourselves to other people is always going to be a losing proposition. It's not like there's one continuum or one number that defines people. Intelligence, achievement... these things are all multi-dimensional, and we only have so much time and energy and desire to devote to them. Am I smarter than my husband? I'm better at some things, he's better at others, but a lot of that is just that our interests are different. He got higher SAT scores, but I knew a lot more about culture/history/etc. when we were 17.

      And most zebras aren't so bad once you get to know them. Unless you're only attributing zebra-ness to the people who also have narcissistic personality disorder or some other kind of social pathology. People tend to do that. You can't be freakishly smart unless you put it out there, people think. It also helps if you're a guy who acts and dresses the part. That always irritates me, when the tall attractive lazy guys get better placed than the women in my field even though their cvs are shorter (and almost always only have coauthored work).

      Perfectionism is also multi-dimensional, and only some forms of it are pathological. The kind that's a problem with a lot of gifted kids (and adults) is the idea that they have to show they're perfect or people will stop thinking they're smart. So they stop trying if they don't get things right away. It's what Carol Dweck talks about with "fixed mindsets." Combined with a "growth mindset," perfectionism can lead to great things (or turn pathological if it leads to dangerous behavior in pursuit of a goal).

      As always, smart isn't what's important, it is what you do with it. But neither is smart something to be avoided. And smart isn't fixed over time-- the brain is just like a muscle and you can get smarter or stagnate depending on what you do. One theory about why gifted kids are gifted is that they start out more curious and energetic than other kids so they grow more dendrites, which leads to an upward spiral.

      One of the books I checked out on giftedness when I was doing my reading was about how to pass the NYC test for giftedness (I think I was hoping it could tell me what was on a kindergarten readiness test, but it turned out not to be about that at all). Turns out DH and I were already doing all the things it recommended. Talking to our kid, giving open ended questions, letting him explore, reading to him, etc. Contrast that to what one of my friends said she saw working as a social worker with a kid being stuck in a swing and ignored for hours each day. Our kid will have a much easier time seeming smart than a kid who has been neglected and never allowed to grow to hir full potential. Even if the baseline was the same. And that's sad.

    4. I didn't mean to imply I avoided making Zebra friends. Not at all.

      Absolutely getting comfortable with myself is the best way to give support to Tate getting comfortable with himself.

      Also agree that smart is vague and not as important as what you do with it in terms of success in life.

    5. In What's Going on in There, Lise Eliot reviews the available evidence and estimates that intelligence is 50-50: half genetics and half environment. That weighs heavy on my mind when I think about the difference in environment I can provide versus what some people are able to provide. I don't think this is all down to money (although money is a big help)- it is time, and energy, and just knowing what is important, too. I have no idea how to fix this problem, but if I think about it too much, it makes my heart hurt.

      Also- an interesting observation: all of the gifted people I know who flamed out at some point came from backgrounds in which their parents were not able to provide the sorts of interventions I've read about on people's blogposts on the subject. They had school and the standard after school options, and that was about it. I have no idea if there is even a correlation there, though, because my sample size is too small. But it does make me inclined to think that the busybodies who think parents of gifted kids are "ruining their childhood" by pushing, etc. are full of beans and should shut up. If I think my child needs a special program, I'm going to get her in one.

    6. When you have money you don't have to leave the underage kids unattended at home while you work because you can't afford a babysitter and the relative you usually leave them with can't make it! Money = time and energy too. That's why programs like Head-start are SO important. (And the randomized trials of high quality preschool for high-risk kids back in the 1970s ended up increasing IQ scores 10ppt, though those gains did not last through 8th grade, and some were lost by 4th grade. But achievement increases for the girls in the program lasted throughout their lifetimes, recent research is finding.)

    7. Yes! I think it is criminal that access to quality childcare in the US depends so strongly on how much money you have.

    8. Twin mom10:52 PM

      Late comment from Laura Vanderkam's blog: that's why some of us CAN'T/DON'T merge work and family. I wound up with 3 kids under 2 (twins after a singleton) and childcare/sick kid issues just aren't manageable in an inflexible corporate situation. I couldn't afford the kind of childcare I wanted for my 3 kids. I am a fan of optional (not mandatory) joint taxation for married couples.

  17. I didn't test as gifted and my siblings did -- how's that for an inferiority complex?! I did read once (NY Times or elsewhere) that there are fewer truly gifted kids than we think due to varying standards at schools. I don't really know the definition of gifted though, but I do think it's different from simply a high IQ or book smarts? I am smart and did well in school with honors classes, etc, but am not gifted and I'm fine with that. It also seemed strange to me that I tested into an honors program while my gifted siblings did not--but I guess as someone mentioned you can be gifted in certain areas only?

    I guess I was fortunate that my parents didn't treat me differently because I wasn't gifted. I also don't know if my siblings squashed their gifted abilities but both fit in quite easily with regular society and don't exhibit any of the different thinking skills that would make them zebras among horses. They also did well in school but really just seemed like "regular" intelligent people with book smarts. I have met people who are different-thinking and gifted though.

  18. Re: "different" and "smart"... Paul Graham's essay on schools may be apropos. He argues that smart people don't try hard enough to fit in because even though it's painful not to, it still isn't worth it to them.

    But, of course, it is worth it to some people and may be more worth it to girls on average than to boys.

    oilandgarlic-- Results from IQ tests change based on all sorts of things. Results from achievement tests are even more variable. Personally I think the label gifted is useful if it helps recognize and solve problems, but isn't particularly useful otherwise. Intelligence is an ever-changing continuum and people do not always stay in the same bin all their lives. Brains need exercise just like muscles do. And stereotypical creativity isn't the only kind of genius!

  19. N&M: interesting. I always thought intelligence was more set in stone or even if fluid, a gifted person is just, well, more gifted intellectually all their life. Since I believe (or believed) this, I always expected those gifted ones to achieve more in life whether in science, creativity, humanities etc, depending on their strengths and it always surprised me if I see any regular smart person (not gifted) catch up or do as well.

  20. FWIW many places don't even consider IQ and instead rely solely on achievement tests and some sort of percentile like 95th or higher for admission. In schools it is a practical consideration as it is quite expensive to test IQs and for the outside gifted programs they are concerned with the kids ability to do the academic work in their programs as opposed to their potential.

    1. There's a lot of argument within the hard-core community on this issue. Personally, I think if a kid can work hard enough to achieve at a certain level, then good for hir!

      The argument in the other direction is that the class ends up dumbing down if it is based on achievement. And when reality sets in, apparently parents complain when their kids get lower grades than As (which the anti-achievement-test parents sometimes attribute to an achievement test having been used rather than an IQ test) and dumbing down happens. Then the kids who need the challenge don't get it etc. And that doesn't have to happen, but it is difficult to control parents.

      There's also a concern that there's racial bias in the tests, and there is. And SES bias. I wish we gave all kids a better education so they could do better at meeting their own potentials. :(

  21. this discussion fascinated me. by all standards, I'm quite successful academically. top 10 tenured bio prof with multiple glamor mag pubs, but i've never considered myself particularly smart or gifted. and long wondered how i managed to be successful without academic gifts. Perhaps I just assumed that I'm not particularly smart cause i was good at blending in as a child.
    now that I have a toddler, I'm considering the giftedness discussion from a new perspective.

    1. Anonymous11:02 AM

      Imposter syndrome is pretty common... And I think it's encouraged by an atmosphere in which other women down-play their intelligence and so on. (There's some interesting psychological models wherein people take into account the general stereotypes for their group when making beliefs about their own abilities... you get a bump up if you're in one group and a bump down in another.) Not to say that effort isn't what's important, but, like Malcolm Gladwell says in outliers, both practice and talent are important for success.


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