Smart Teens and the Burden of Talent

[This post is excerpted from Why Smart Teens Hurt. To learn more, please take a look!]

Once a smart teen gets it into his head that he is good at something, that “something” becomes a kind of demand, something insistent, something that he is “supposed” to pursue. That knowledge may come at a very young age, as soon as school starts or before, as he sees that he can do math faster than other kids, that he is quicker at chess than all of his little friends (and most of the adults he plays), that he is a better storyteller (the one who puts red herrings into his mysteries, so as to make them more interesting), or the first one to come up with answers in every subject, because his brain is firing on all cylinders.

With that knowledge that he has certain talents comes pressure. Where will this pressure come from? From inside—from the child himself. And, quite possibly, also from one of his or her parents. To take one example, we recently watched as a “stage mother” literally pushed her distraught-looking daughter the entire length of the walkway leading to the stage—a good hundred feet of pushing, all the way to her solo dance performance. That was pressure not as metaphor but as a relentless push in the back.

This demand is highly resistant to reality-testing. Few teens with, for instance, a talent for acting and a love of acting, will countenance the thought, “Only a handful of actors make it, out of the tens of thousands who try.” They know this to be the truth but they can’t allow themselves proximity to this truth. Their love drops a veil over that truth and this “demand plus love” equation has them applying to colleges with the best theater departments.

If that turns out to be more demand than love, how difficult those next years will be! There you may be, a performance and composition major, adding thousands of hours to your cello practice, composing pieces for classes that do not genuinely interest you, wearing yourself out in the service of “the cellist’s life,” becoming clearer and clearer that you are good but not one of the world’s top cellists, and not allowing yourself the thought, which might break your heart but also liberate you: “Shouldn’t I be doing something else?”

It is wonderful that you can do something well. But try to avoid the trap that comes with talent. That you can do something well doesn’t mean that you must do that thing. Your talent may serve you beautifully but it should not be worn like handcuffs. What makes for a good life is that you are living your life purposes, not that you are blindly serving a talent. Hopefully you will make use of your talents in the service of your life purposes: but that would be you making use of them, rather than you being held hostage to them.


For parents

You are bound to discover that your relationship to your teen’s talents is a complicated one. On the one hand, why wouldn’t you take pride in the fact that he is good at something? Why wouldn’t you support him at getting more proficient at that something by paying for lessons, camps, classes, workshops, and whatever else might serve that talent? At the same time, you can see a shadow darkening the picture: how the talent is taking over; how fierce competition is filtering its way into the equation; how life seems to be narrowing to include that talent and little else; and how a pressure to excel is producing anxiety and draining joy. The talent may be wonderful—but it is no unmitigated blessing, is it?

You may be one of the lucky parents for whom this all works out beautifully as your teen’s talent for biology and her love of biology translate into a brilliant research career or a happy life as a pediatrician. But do count yourself among the lucky ones. For many parents, the picture will look much murkier. Support the talent while cautioning against investing too much in it? Abruptly stop supporting the talent out of worry? Let drop that he might love some other things, too? Join with your teen in his dream and do everything in your power to help him achieve his dream, even as you secretly doubt his chances and doubt even whether he is really in love or just trapped by talent? How will you play this?


For teens

That you can run fast doesn’t mean that you must train for the Olympics. Talent doesn’t have to come with some built-in demand. Even if you are talented at something and love it, like playing the drums, playing chess, sketching or solving math problems, that doesn’t mean that you must become a drummer, chess player, visual artist, or mathematician. You may want to and that may be the right choice for you but that is different from must.

It is good to be real. You may be very good at chess, but will you ever progress past one thousandth in the world? Let’s say that you make it to number nineteen or number nine? Will those thousands of hours of playing chess have served you? Let’s go all the way and make you world champion. Do you want to be world chess champion—or have lived a very different life from that one? You get to answer that question any way you like; but it would be good if you pondered it before putting in all those thousands of hours.

Talent is wonderful and talent is demanding. Try to free yourself from its demands. If you can do that, you will have much better positioned yourself to make use of your talents in the service of your truest intentions.


[This post is excerpted from Why Smart Teens Hurt. To learn more, please take a look!]

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