Gods and prodigies, freaks and geeks: building identity

Wunderkind, genius, prodigy. Freak, geek, nerd. How we label exceptional people and ourselves affects our identity and what we think about the reality and value of our talents, and the possibilities of expressing them in the world.

One of the most positive experiences for me in high school was my friendship with an artist (painter, sculptor) who called himself by the name “Odd” – a name his family supported, since that was his choice.

Tina FeyIt struck me as remarkable he would so clearly embrace being different, an outsider. In the late 1950’s, that was not such an easy thing for me to do. Especially as shy as well as an introvert and highly sensitive.

[See my article on the distinctions: Shyness, Introversion, Sensitivity – What’s the Difference?]

Now, there is much more acceptance about being outside the mainstream.

A news story (“Tina Fey Gets the Last Laugh”, Fox News, April 25, 2004) said, “Back in the late 1980s, Fey and the other ‘AP-class brainiac nerds’, as she called her clique, used to sit together in the lunchroom at suburban Philadelphia’s Upper Darby High School, making up nasty nicknames for their classmates.”

Of course, not many brainiac nerds gain the level of power, recognition and opportunity to express their talents that Tina Fey, thankfully, has.

But the Wikipedia page on the term Geek has an encouraging item: “Nerd Pride Day has been observed on May 25 in Spain since 2006. (May 25 being the world premiere date of Star Wars and also Towel Day i.e. Birthday of Douglas Adams) The holiday promotes the right to be nerdy or geeky, and to express it in public without shame.”

The related page explains “día del orgullo friki” is celebrated among Spanish frikis (an equivalent of geeks and nerds).

School may not encourage advanced potential

The school climate, according to many reports,  makes it  hard for many gifted teens – especially girls – to feel secure in being different. They find it difficult, even painful to be loners or in an unpopular clique.

In my interview with Kathleen Noble, Assistant Director of the Early Entrance Program, University of Washington in Seattle, she addressed challenges for gifted people, especially girls and women.

She commented, “In order to take one’s own life seriously, which includes making decisions about how that life is going to unfold, whether it’s going to include partners or children, or what kind of work, you have to see life as a deliberate quest.”

The starting point, Dr. Noble declares, “is always self-awareness, which is not narcissism. And for gifted women, that absolutely includes the recognition of giftedness, because most women who are gifted, as you well know, think they’re freaks, and feel horribly different — isolated, alienated, ostracized, ‘What’s wrong with me?’

“And I believe it is not possible to live deliberately, heroically, consciously, without saying, I am not a freak; this is who I am, and I to have to find a way to be this.”

In his article Saving the Smart Kids [Time, Sep. 20, 2004], John Cloud pointed out that Americans “don’t seem to have any problem with teenagers who show genius in sports (LeBron James) or entertainment (Hilary Duff). But we have a deeply ambivalent relationship with intellectually gifted kids.”

[From my High Ability site post Do gifted and talented people get appreciated and supported?]

Most public schools may not have advanced much since then for recognizing and nurturing people with exceptional talents. Aside from inadequate academic instruction for the many students at the upper end of the curve, a more important aspect may be the emotional undercurrents and attitudes we get in school about our identities and capabilities.

[From my article Getting out of school alive.]

James FrancoSpeaking of his role in the television series ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ actor James Franco said it echoed his own high school experience. “I was a little freak, a little geek. High school was a big party the first couple of years, but that gets old, so I broke away and just was a loner. I did a lot of painting, and I was a member of a local art league.”

From my post James Franco on being a loner.

James Franco was enrolled in Yale University’s English PhD program, and has earned a master’s degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and Columbia University’s MFA writing programs.

Read about more multitalented creators like Gordon Parks, Julia Cameron, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jane Seymour, Natalie Portman, James Franco, Mayim Bialik, Jeff Bridges, Viggo Mortensen, David Lynch and others in my post: Multitalented Creative People [an excerpt from my main book].

Accepting yourself as different

“I guess I spent many of my early years learning a difficult lesson: when you know for sure that you can’t blend in, you realize you also can’t pass as normal,” writes Julia Mossbridge.

“You can either truly honor your uniqueness or invalidate yourself. In my adult life, I have come to celebrate exactly who I am as an expression of God’s creativity. But it’s been a long road getting there.”

From her article Spirituality for Geeks [apparently no longer online].

One of the issues is bullying.

“Many gifted children and adolescents are targets of teasing and bullying. Some of their peers and teachers may perceive them as ‘too verbal’, ‘too bossy’, ‘too smart,’ ‘too nerdy.’ Because gifted children and adolescents tend to be highly sensitive to others, their reactions to being teased are extremely intense.”

From the SENG article Teasing and gifted children, by Patricia A. Schuler.

Gods – or just exceptional people

What do we make of people who gain eminence in a field and are called a genius or prodigy? And what about those who are called less positive names like eccentric or weirdo? Or crazy?

Jane CampionOne reaction is exemplified by director Jane Campion, praised for “The Piano” and other films, who once commented, “I never have had the confidence to approach filmmaking straight on. I just thought it was something done by geniuses, and I was very clear that I wasn’t one of those.”

[From post Building self esteem and identity – what we tell ourselves about ourselves.]

Many highly talented and creative people experience impostor feelings and beliefs about themselves and their abilities, and experience ongoing insecurities, despite notable accomplishments. See articles:

Getting beyond impostor feelings.

Jodie Foster on impostor syndrome and faking it.

Talented and insecure.

The gifted genius

We have been presented with Mozart as an example of the “gifted genius” – with an unearthly talent not visited on most of us. Not so much a role model as a “God” we could not hope to emulate.

Tom Hulce as MozartBut in his book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin notes that by the time Mozart wrote his Piano Concerto No 9 at age 21, he had been in rigorous, deliberate, many hours a day training with his father for 18 years. Working out as a musician since the age of three. His compositions at earlier ages were basically exercises, copying other composers.

Another enduring myth – promoted in the movie Amadeus – is that Mozart was “gifted” with entire compositions in his head, and could just remember and transcribe them in finished form, without additional work.

“Surviving manuscripts show that Mozart was constantly revising, reworking, crossing out and rewriting whole sections, jotting down fragments and putting them aside for months or years,” Colvin writes. “Though it makes the results no less magnificent, he wrote music the way ordinary humans do.”

There are other examples in his book of exceptional accomplishment, based on talent, certainly, but also on committed, laborious and deliberate practice for years, not some visitation from a muse.

He concludes, “What you believe about the source of great performance thus becomes the foundation of all you will ever achieve… Above all, what the evidence shouts most loudly is striking, liberating news: that great performance is not reserved for a preordained few. It is available to you and to everyone.”

High ability and achievement are not so magical or divine after all. We just need to acknowledge our abilities and work at developing talent we have, just like any other worthwhile endeavor.


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