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The Truth Behind “Gifted Kid Burnout” Memes

I’m no meme connoisseur, but I like to think I’m pretty familiar with most jokes that make their rounds on the Internet. Especially the ones originating on Twitter, which is basically my second home. But the first time I saw a “gifted kid burnout” meme, I was genuinely surprised that something like this was a social media phenomenon, and even more surprised that I could relate to what it said. 

 

 

It never even occurred to me that some of my current struggles could be related to the fact that I was labelled as gifted in elementary school. In fact, I almost forgot about the label completely. The older I got, the more useless the label of “gifted” seemed. In high school, I was exposed to people who were talented in many different ways, and I realized that being smart can mean many different things. I gradually began to accept the fact that scoring well on a test as a 10-year-old meant next to nothing in the real world.

Like many discussions on the Internet, the gifted kid burnout discourse has many strongly opinionated people on both sides of the argument. One side argues that being labelled as gifted from a young age taught them unhealthy mindsets and working habits and gave them superiority complexes that they carry into adulthood. Some say that their mental health issues, substance abuse and current problems at school like procrastination and refusal to ask for help stem from their experience growing up as gifted. 

Some believe being labelled “gifted” can lead to a child becoming reliant on the supposed natural talents they’ve been told they have, rather than putting effort into the work they do. As school gets harder and their grades get lower, a former gifted kid might develop anxiety about not living up to the potential they were told they had, which can also lead to depression or low self-esteem.

All of this can be pretty accurately summed up in “The Gifted Kid Burnout Bingo,” which went viral in 2017 and is basically the holy grail of this meme. And in case you’re wondering, yes, I got Bingo.

 

 

The other side of this discussion argues that your adult struggles can’t solely be pinned on your elementary school experiences. A common rebuttal to “gifted kid burnout” memes is that they’re simply an excuse for people to simultaneously brag about being smart in elementary school and complain about how their life hasn’t turned out like they thought it would. The memes also don’t consider the privilege associated with being labelled as gifted and receiving special treatment or opportunities.

 

 

No matter what you think of these memes, it’s clear that people are identifying with them. They’re a type of dark humour, trying to poke fun at some serious pain and struggles people are facing. But how much truth is really behind them? 

Dr. Joan Freeman, an expert on giftedness, conducted a study that followed gifted children into adulthood and monitored their professional success and emotional wellbeing. She found that “some young people rose to the challenge of the label and thrived on it, while others felt they could never live up to the image. Others simply ignored their potential, fitting in with the local culture which did not have a place for giftedness.”

I probably fall somewhere in the middle. During the transition from high school to university, I began to acknowledge some of my unhealthy habits, particularly when it came to academics. I was a chronic procrastinator, to the point of starting a major essay the night before it was due and submitting it using Union Station’s free wifi on my commute to school. I’m a perfectionist in most things I do and I can’t hand something in until I’m completely satisfied with it. I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve raised my hand in class and I won’t usually ask for help until I’ve exhausted every other option. 

 

 

Despite all of the warnings from my first-year profs, it was definitely a shock to see my grades sink notably lower than what I was used to in high school. In my first-year reporting class, I had to put in a lot of effort to get a mark in the mid-70s on a story, which, to be honest, I probably would have cried over in high school. 

I think blaming these issues I faced on “gifted kid burnout” would be a cop-out. Instead, I’ve started to recognize the areas I need to improve in and I’m taking responsibility for myself. Now I’m procrastinating less and in certain cases, learning how to muffle the perfectionist in me and say “good enough.” It’s possible that some of these issues did come from me being labelled as gifted. But the way I see it, I can’t change my elementary school experience now. As an adult, I should own up to my shortcomings instead of playing the blame game. 

Like most things that go viral on the internet, the truth that lies behind these memes has been over exaggerated and much of the conversation around gifted kid burnout lacks nuance. It also tends to pit “former gifted kids” and “non-gifted kids” against each other, in what Twitter user @TEACHIKO referred to as the “Oppression Olympics.”

 

 

One of the most valuable arguments to come out of the gifted kid burnout discussion is the assertion that it’s not just former gifted kids who were negatively impacted by the education system. It’s a lot of kids with varying backgrounds, abilities and areas of intelligence. 

When you really think about it, how many of those issues on the bingo card are specifically a result of being a gifted child? There are many other factors from one’s childhood that leave some lingering impact into adulthood. Where you grew up, how you were raised, your socioeconomic status, your experiences in school and what opportunities were presented to you could also lead to the burnout that some former gifted kids are claiming to be exclusive to them. 

In this column, Max Foley-Keene writes the fact that so many people are identifying with these memes is “a devastating indictment of this country’s educational philosophy.” He argues the gifted label causes harm to everyone. Those that have it develop superiority complexes, while those that don’t are left feeling discouraged.

On a scale larger than memes, there have been debates about whether the practice of labelling kids as gifted and separating them from their peers has any real value. I barely remember the process of getting tested and labelled as gifted. What I do remember is losing my best friend at the time, who was also gifted, because her parents wanted her to go to a school with a special gifted program in the next town over. 

I wonder if going to one of those schools would’ve only heightened the few symptoms of gifted kid burnout I do feel. When I asked my parents why they didn’t send me, they answered almost immediately, “To keep you normal.”  

As cliche as it may sound, I truly believe that everyone is smart in different ways. I kind of wish we could ditch “smart” or “gifted” as an adjective, compliment or even a concept. From what I’ve learned, it’s just not enough to describe anyone. People are complex, with huge ranges of passions, strengths, weaknesses and learning styles. Whether or not you were labelled as gifted doesn’t determine if you’ll experience burnout or succeed. As Freeman found in her study, “the vital aspects of recognizable success for the entire sample whether gifted or not, have been hard work, emotional support and a positive personal outlook.”

Ryerson Journalism student, writer, and popcorn enthusiast. Find me on Twitter @rietherie.
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