**I then took the next several years off and spent most of it scooping ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s–quite happily, I might add.**
**You see, I could never be happy doing something like that. I’d always think to myself, woulda been, coulda been, shoulda been… It would just get me down even more.**
Well, I had something approximating a religious revelation–I almost died from that particular poison. I don’t think it would have worked if I hadn’t spent three weeks in an acute-care ward first, but there are less drastic methods which work pretty well. One of mine is to walk away periodically when I start juggling too many things, but the end of it all is: you have to accept that you will never fulfill all of your potential, and that you won’t ever achieve all the things you could achieve. It’s a disappointing, but also freeing, realization: then you can live your life the way you want.
Gifties have a lot of pressure put on them. Children are the original tabula rasa–people like to speculate on what they could be. For gifted children, that’s particularly acute, since the dreams others can paint for them become correspondingly grandiose. Whenever I thought of doing something considered “underneath” my level of giftedness, I was told “But you have so much potential! If you don’t do _____, you’ll be wasting all that–it’s such a rare talent, you don’t want to waste it!” This nearly drove me crazy before I realized that it was stupid.
Every human has potential in many disciplines, and only time to pursue a few. If I spend eight hours a day practicing writing, I may become a great poet, but I will never be a great mathematician. If I spend eight hours a day practicing writing and the other eight thinking about number theory, I may manage both but I will never have time to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation, develop intimate relationships, or engage in social activism. So I expect to go to my grave a huge well of unused potential. If I lived 1000 years, I’d still never live up to my potential. I’m no different than any other person in that regard; the only thing that’s different is people’s expectations around it. People expect smart people to achieve more, and the smarter you are, the worse it gets. Taken to extremes, this will rapidly drive you crazy.
So. The “you aren’t living up to your potential” trap is a losing situation. Even if you never slept, never took a moment to relax, and spent every waking moment on “productive” things, you’ll never achieve everything you potentially could, and you’ll probably disappoint someone who thinks you could have achieved much more. (One of my old teachers is still disappointed that I didn’t become a mathematician.)
Well, screw that. We’re all gifted, we have the potential to do lots of things. Hey! We’ll be good at whatever we choose to do. The main determiner won’t be the head, but the heart: what we want to do, and love doing, is what we’ll excel at, regardless of our apparent talents. This is true for every human being, and no less so for the intellectually gifted. A native talent for math does not a mathematician make; a true love for math does. Strong native talent for math combined with a love for math is what makes a world-class mathematician–but the love comes first.
So if you are concerned about achievement, the best way to fill your potential –to maximize your expertise– is to do exactly what you want to do, and love doing. But it’s very hard to see that when someone tells you where to go, what to do, what to want, and why you should want it just about every waking moment of your life. (High school, for example.) Parents and teachers will generally want you to do what they think you’ll be most successful at (because they think it’s best for you).They’ll put a lot of pressure on you to conform to the goals they have in mind. It takes a lot of work to get away from that, and the inner voices that echo them, and see what you want to do. But it’s important to differentiate between your own internal goals, and the ones your parents and society will try to set for you.
It’s not easy. I’m still not as good at it as I’d like to be, and I’ve been working on it (and away from my parents) for a long time–but it is what leads to greater happiness and greater efficiency, in my view. But it is absolutely essential to make your talents support you, not control you.
**It turns out, too, working for Ben & Jerry’s and running a scoop shop taught me a lot of “people skills” that I would never have learned if I’d gone straight into industry.**
**Still… It’s not exactly the most demanding or rewarding job out there. (Nothing personal to any ice-cream technicians out there. **
You know, I get that response a lot, and it bothers me. Because “demanding” is not a reflection of your work, it’s a reflection of your state of mind: yes, the baseline requirement for an ice cream scooper is pretty low. You can get away with standing there and mumbling. But to do it well requires rather more attention than you’d expect: a good scooper is simultaneously scanning the store for dirty tables, going through the routine maintenance, chatting up customers and educating them on the product, managing the other scoopers on your shift and making sure they stay productive and feel listened to, taken care of, and so on. If you’re a manager, that also includes thinking up ways to increase revenue for the store, ways to encourage innovation from scoopers, how to form your group of motley part-timers into a team with spirit, who will actively seek out things above and beyond the call of duty. I learned a lot about management, and people interaction, standing behind a counter and scooping ice cream.
So I think there are always things to be learned in a given circumstance. I spent several weeks filing papers while I was a student at Stanford (part-time job). This is not what you’d consider an enlightening occupation–but I used the opportunity to compare the efficiency of several sorting algorithms from a programming class. A suitably active brain can find interesting problems to consider just about anywhere. (It’s better, of course, if your work coincides with your heart’s desire, but you can learn things in just about any situation.)