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Gifted Kid Burnout: Finding Value in Life Beyond Your GPA

In grade four I was a huge reader, so much so that I had already finished the entire Harry Potter series. When my class took a test called the CCAT, I remember being told that I did very well and that I would be talking to someone who would ask me some more questions. This someone, a psychologist, did some memory and logic puzzles with me, and at the end I was told that I was ‘gifted.’ I still don’t really understand what they did, or how they came to that conclusion, but even for my little grade four self, it felt cool to be singled out as ‘different’ than everyone else. They told my teachers that I needed to be challenged more, so sometimes I was given extra test questions, or even weekly vocabulary words. I was told that this didn’t mean that I was smarter or better than anyone, just that my brain worked differently, maybe a bit faster, than everyone else’s. I was even offered a spot in a ‘gifted class’ at another school, which I declined, wanting to stay with my friends at home.

All through high school I made sure to be in as many AP classes as possible, participating in extracurriculars and telling myself I needed to get the highest grades possible. Telling a ten-year old that they’re different seems fine, but before you know it, you’ve created a person who feels that they are being held to a different standard than anyone else. To me, there seems to something wrong with giving a child a title that follows them; causing teachers to hold them to a higher standard, while peers dismiss their accomplishments because, again, that is what is expected of you if you are the ‘smart kid.’ 

Lots of children go through this, and even if you weren’t designated as gifted, not that it means much, lots of people go through life as the ‘smart kid’ who was super involved, or whose parents expected great things. Now we find ourselves in university, where pretty much everyone was the smart kid, everyone is capable, and everyone wants to get involved. 

Ever heard the words ‘gifted kid burnout’? 

It’s when the kids who grew up with so much expected of them reach university, where to stand out you have to be exceptional, which usually comes at the cost of your mental health. Most memories I have from first year are how well I did on assignments, midterms and exams, and which grades were the most disappointing. University students tell themselves that they are here to learn, get a degree and move on to the next step in our lives. I know far too many of my friends who have lost sleep or let their mental health suffer, myself included, in the name of getting that degree. 

There is so much pressure on a person, on top of the standards we put on ourselves, when everyone around you expects you to succeed. We are all going through one collective gifted kid burnout. We’ve reached university and are now realizing that it’s hard to get 90’s on everything, and we are all too tired to try any harder. Then, we feel bad about ourselves because we didn’t reach high enough, or we didn’t reach the potential that has been expected of us for so long. 

The pressure to be exceptional, for anyone who has or is experiencing that great ‘gifted’ kid burnout, is that much harder to handle in university. It is not the same as high school, and I promise you, you cannot do everything. I didn’t perform how I expected to, I performed normally, and that was the end of my world. I immediately felt like a failure, like so many of us do when we realize that the perfection that was expected, just isn’t attainable anymore.

So, what do we do…? Therapy is probably a good option for everyone, but in terms of right now? Recognizing that your expectations are unrealistic is a good first step. It’s important to realize that the standards that you’ve held yourself to, and the ones others have held you to, are unfair. You are allowed to fail, and like you’ve probably heard 1000 times, failure is healthy.

As for myself, I’m trying to find value in my life beyond my grades. As ridiculous as it sounds, I don’t have any hobbies. I thought I was alone in that, until I realized that so many of my friends are in the same boat because we slowly lost them as we became consumed in the chase for perfection. So, this past summer I started to learn to sew, and I’m trying to start reading again. I’ve also been joining extracurriculars that actually make me happy, rather than ones that check off boxes on a resumé, and I’ve been trying to put more energy into my personal relationships. As cheesy as it sounds, one day all you’re going to be left with are the people you love, not your grades.

If we cannot confront and handle failure now, all of the pressure we’ve put on ourselves to succeed will be pointless. It’s a tough sentiment to take in, and something that I still haven’t quite figured out myself, but we all have way more to offer than a few A+’s in our classes. 

Whether you’re a former “gifted kid” like me or maybe just a smartie with expectations that are way too high, that gifted kid burnout and disappointment is painful. I’m working to try and find value in life beyond my grades, because I really don’t want a transcript to be all I have to show for four years on graduation day. Try letting yourself just be average, and find more things to value in your life – something more than just your GPA.


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Selena is a second year student at McMaster pursuing a double major in Biology and Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour. When she isn't studying you can find her writing short stories, making Spotify playlists or on the hunt for a new coffee shop.
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