Precocity and Impatience

We usually think of precocity as a gift and associate it with genius: the musical prodigy who plays Carnegie Hall at age 12, for example, or the math whiz doing advanced calculus in grade school. For many people, however, precocity can be a curse when it leads to unrealistic expectations about how easily things ought to come, when it prevents them from doing the hard work involved in true mastery of any discipline. Most of us know the famous quote from Thomas Edison: “Success is 10 percent inspiration and 90% perspiration.” No matter how brilliant you are or how precocious your talent, hard work is always necessary to succeed at any meaningful endeavor.

Many highly intelligent people I’ve known who shone early on found their public school education utterly unchallenging and rarely interesting; they quickly developed an ability to determine the minimum work necessary in order to earn the ‘A’ and worked no harder. The first 12 years of their education were relatively effortless; for many of them, college came as a shock when they realized they actually had to work in order to succeed. One friend of mine graduated valedictorian of his high school class, went on to a fine university and received two ‘C’s during his first year there, before developing a different work ethic.

For some people, it might take even longer. I know a brilliant lawyer who grew up in a family of legal minds, where spirited debate at the dinner table was the norm. On her first day in law school, she awed her classmates when the professor engaged her in Socratic dialog about the legal issues in a particular case, and she rose to the occasion. For her, law school was relatively easy and left her a lot of free time, so much that she also joined a modern dance company. But at the end of her second year, when she interned for one of the most prestigious law firms in the country, they told her in the end-of-summer review that she “didn’t know how to think” and declined to give her an offer to come back once she graduated.

What she eventually realized as a result of this narcissistic injury was that her intellectual gifts and ease with the legal world had made her lazy, that precocity had led to a kind of self-sabotage. She expected everything to come easily; when it didn’t, when she came up against an issue that actually challenged her, a feeling of impatience would rise up and she’d resort to facile conclusions without the needed subtlety of thought. It took her years of hard work to develop a tolerance for that frustration, to overcome her impatience and to value hard work more than quick and showy brilliance. The greatest help came from her ballet teacher, she told me, who taught her how to care about every last detail, including the position of the pinkie finger on her left hand.

Another friend of mine who skipped several grades never had to work very hard to succeed at anything he tried. School came easily, of course, but he also had a gift for singing and acting that landed him on the Broadway stage at the age of 15. On nearly every level, he’s had a highly successful life, though impatience is still a feature of his personality. He easily becomes frustrated when things don’t come quickly enough, to him or to other people, though he understands the problem and struggles with it. He told me that working with horses has taught him the most about patience. There is no way to rush a show horse through the training necessary to reach advanced levels. It is slow and methodical work; impatience will undermine you in the step-by-step, often tedious process.

I’ve had my own struggles with this issue, in particular as it has affected my career as a writer. I had a precocious way with language and began writing fiction in the fourth grade: a three-chapter “novel” (about 25 pages in total) featuring my teacher’s imaginary pet dragon Herman. The year after I graduated from college, I wrote a science fantasy novel and sold it the following year when I was 22 years old. I published another novel several years later — a work of psychological suspense that “novelized” a screenplay written by another client of my agent’s. Genre fiction came easily to me … but then I decided to write something “serious”. Writing literary fiction takes much more care, more hard work than figuring out and implementing the conventions of a genre. I was crippled by my own facility, the ease with which I had written and published my first two books. My own impatience in the face of hard work prevented me from producing anything truly worthwhile in the realm of literary fiction. I have not published a book since I was 26.

Twelve years ago when I moved to Chapel Hill, I joined a writer’s group with seven other members, all of them published novelists and scholars, the most insightful and sensitive critics I’ve ever known. Last year, with their help and an awful lot of hard work, several drafts and countless revisions, I completed a novel that I believe passes muster. One year ago, I also began to develop content for this website; week after week, I’ve written carefully and thoughtfully, working hard to promote my site through Facebook and Twitter and, in particular, learning the ropes of “search engine optimization and marketing” — how a particular website shows up on page one of a Google search. I’ve curbed my impatience and taken no short cuts.

Two days ago, a publisher offered to buy the first book coming out of this material here on my website. It feels like a major accomplishment to me, not only because I have finally (30 years later!) sold another book, but because I’ve mastered my impatience, the wish for quick and easy answers; I’ve done the long hard work to achieve my goal. I’m 56 years old and there’s nothing precocious about it.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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37 comments

    Thanks! I was wondering if readers would notice that I was making an announcement, tucked in there at the very end.

    Congratulations on increasing your tolerance for frustration and for allowing your potential to be realised :) Great news

    Joseph, well done! I wonder what it was like for you over those 30 years struggling to write again? Perhaps that could be another post, if not in your book? Keep writing as I am sure not only as you have stated, that it has helped you, but I am sure it helps many others out there in cyberspace who read your articles. I must confess, I am delighted every time your site pops into my e-mail. I so look forward to your book. You must let your website readers be aware of the title when published warmly Alisonx

    let’s hear it for late learners – thank god we are not washed up at 50 and can do amazing things – and probably more meaningful because we’ve had to work for them – in later life!

    CONGRATULATIONS JOE!
    So Happy for you. I know how hard you have worked, it’s OK to give yourself a pat on the back.
    Pat-Pat

    Congratulations on your book!

    Again, a post of yours that apply to me so much, it’s almost spooky (but comforting! I thought I was the only one out there who was brilliant in college, but mediocre afterwards). I expect that everything I do should be easy, otherwise, I feel bad about myself because I must be a failure. I also want to be brilliant the first time I do something. Seeing my kids trying fifty times before they can button their own clothes has thaught me a lot about patience. The same goes for stories of other people’s eventual success, like your book-deal. I loathe wunderkind- and “divine inspiration, wrote the whole novel in one night”-stories (should look into that, I know).

    Now 65yrs and with space for psycotherapy I am surprised at just how accurately my unconcious brings to light those early life mishaps.In my life I have achieved the outer expectations of society, with a lot of rough riding over my inner promptings.In responce to your present discussion on” precosity”:I have noticed so called”less intelligant” people to have more “beingness” about them and all to often” bright” people rather empty.I now can discern more graduations in peoples wholeness,I believe…endless variation.But, observing” third world” people, To myself there seems a noticeable vigour and emotional realness,I think.What am I seeing Mr.Psycologist!I enjoy and value your writing ,experiece and integrity ,Joesph Burgo.Thankyou.

    I’ve known the precocious success in school which you described. Something I would add is that at a certain point, that early success made me resent the authority figures who validated me, since I got sick of being equated with my A-grades. Ironically though, I remained secretly dependent on the authority figures I resented. Later in life, without the quick, quantifiable, external validation of school grades, I had a lot of trouble setting my own agenda and sustaining an independent sense of what was valuable…

    Congratulations on your book!

    So modest of you to get to the announcement at the end. And congratulations again!
    Thanks on behalf of the group. You seem to have so thoroughly trounced the impatience problem that I didn’t know you had it.

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    Awesome news, Joseph! I’ve been reading your stuff for quite some time now and never doubted your talent, insight and ability. Please make an announcement on this site when your book is ready for purchase. Many of us will be waiting!

    That’s great to hear. Thank you for sharing the news. Your blog serves as a much longed after source of information about therapy from the therapist’s perspective, as well as all those nuances of personality disturbances that perhaps we don’t hear about from our own therapists either because we don’t know how or what to ask, or they’ve got some form of boundaries up. I look forward to adding your book to my bookshelf, next to Sigmund, Anna, Melanie, Otto K., Carl and all the other interesting psychology reads. Please keep us posted.

    That would be a great honor, to be among those names! My book is more in the popular realm, though. What I’ve learned is that my talent lies in taking ideas that Melanie Klein wrote about, say, and putting them in everyday language that isn’t hard to decipher, that a lay person can understand. I’m trying to write something accessible without being dumbed-down or simplistic.

    I agree with most of your writing. I do not agree with the statement, “What she eventually realized as a result of this narcissistic injury was that her intellectual gifts and ease with the legal world had made her lazy”. This may be particular to her case; I don’t know. Things were fairly easy for me in high school. In college I got a rude awakening. I quickly adapted, though (in about 1.5 years or so). Because things in high school came ‘easily,’ I did not develop a sense of laziness. I just had to adapt to a different learning style – and I vehemently refute the statement, at least for me, that I developed a ‘narcissistic injury’ from the easy learning in high school. There are two types of learning that stand out in the article, at least to me (and by no means is it a complete list): 1) memorize, memorize, memorize — A on exam. 2) learning to study effectively and critical thinking. (1) was my high school and (2) was my college. Maybe it was the college that I attended. I don’t know. But it wasn’t a matter of laziness of any sort of narcissism I developed in high school. But good article, over all! Again, those comments may only relate to her case.

    It sounds like you had a very different experience. I don’t think what I wrote is true for everyone … just for the people I’m describing, and those with similar experiences.

    I’ve called this very phenomenon “genius child syndrome” for years now. The way society coddles children is especially damaging to those of us who are ahead of the curve. My rock bottom hit pretty hard – I was actually lucky to survive. I like to think I’m doing pretty well now, but I have yet to have my newly earned perspiration pay off – at 36. Thanks for this!

    You’ve described my son! If you can tell me how to get through his pride, I think I can help guide him with the patience part. :) Most things do come easy to him….but when something doesn’t….LOOK OUT! He’s a new teenager, so I know hormones and social pressures have to account for some of his ‘tude. Congrats on your book! I’m glad I clicked this link….off to bookmark!

    What are your thoughts on the person that never received anything easily, and worked hard. Anytime the kid wanted something the parents used that opportunity to get the kid to give or do something for the parent? Kept on working and burnt themselves out because they didn’t receive anything. How would you help that person feel good enough to try again? How would you help the person to relieve the anger and apathy from trying and not getting anywhere and burning themselves out on both ends. They were afraid to need anything so the over compensated by over giving and picking people who would take and not give back because that is how the parents were. Parents had a sense of entitlement that the kids owed the parents, but kids couldn’t really ask for the same favors.

    The only way I know how to help anyone is by working with them in the context of a psychotherapy relationship. I would expect the person you described to come into therapy and right away start trying to figure out what *I* wanted or expected, who felt that he or she couldn’t get what was needed unless I got what I wanted first. I also imagine that, beneath that kind of behavior would be a profound fear of becoming dependent and actually turning to me for help. Over time, I’d show this client how he or she was defending against the experience of dependency because of that fear and gradually help him or her to feel that it was actually safe to be needy in our relationship because someone was there was cared and had the capacity to give the needed help.

    Thanks for making this post. I’m new to your website and greatly appreciate what you’ve done here.
    With other people I am often very understanding and tend to show a great deal of patience . However, with my own endeavors I’ve noticed that I’ve been self-sabotaging as described here. The easy A’s in high school, with doing a minimum amount of work, and then the poor study habits in College, that’s been me. I can do Calc 3, and Computer Programming and Mechanical Engineering, but for some reason I just get hung up on things like taxes, and writing papers… not because I can’t do it, but as described here, it doesn’t come easy for me, and somehow I expect it to. I feel so frustrated with my self that I don’t just knuckle down and drudge through it. It’s never really occurred to me that I haven’t had to struggle enough and learn much more self discipline because I’m usually in good control of my emotions and actions around other people, and so “getting by” has been pretty straight forward with the amount I’ve had. Realizing that I want to more than just get by, and that reaching closer to my potential in any particular area will eventually become difficult and require significantly more drudgery than I’d like is quite frustrating for me. It’s difficult to decide how to approach this.
    Suffice it to say, hopefully, reading this post will help me analyze my actions in a different light. I should assume that I’m not drudging through enough things that are difficult, when I’m frustrated that things aren’t coming easily. I should realize when I’m frustrated that things aren’t coming easily, rather than trying to avoid them as much as I do.
    Thanks again.

    You’re welcome. What I’ve found personally useful is to try to find a way to enjoy the process of learning something difficult, so that instead of thinking about the end result — where I ultimately want to be — I try to find a way where the steps along the way feel meaningful to me. I’m not sure how applicable that is to writing papers, but if you could learn to value the “practice” of writing, it might help — maybe by keeping a journal and writing a little bit every day. It’s the way I’ve approached music and now, after years of doing it, I actually look forward to playing my scales every morning.

    Congratulations to you, Joseph! May I also add that you write extremely well, and your articles are such a good read. Wishing you every success with the book.

    I so understand what you mean. I found secondary school (what you call high school) a doddle. University certainly was a wake-up call!
    Then some years back the first piece of fiction I ever wrote was short-listed for a quite prestigious award. In fact when writing the piece I did not even know the award was so important, and thought: “I’ll try something for this “contest”. I wrote the piece on a jotter I kept on the floor beside the bed, in fits and starts. Once typed out I sent it off and in fact forgot about it. I was living abroad at the time, and it was only when a friend from home phoned me to tell me they had seen me short-listed in a publication. Next day I had a phone call from the award organisers. I was quite flummoxed. Naturally enough, I did not expect to win the award in the particular category, with a first piece of work, but it was amazing to even be there, among the great and the good of the media and writing world.

    The point is that since then I have found it much more difficult to write. How can I put it: to free up my mind and let the words out. Maybe it was no favour to me to be short-listed for a first piece of work. I am struggling, to put it mildly. LOL. But I still keep the jotter beside the bed, and I do scribble in it. After all, the oddest, and often the most creative, thoughts come in the night and I am a creature of the night.

    Hermes

    I can’t wait to read it! Congratulations!

    I must have been precocious, and now that i’m studying Psychology and have started acting in a theatre group, I get so annoyed when i don’t get things right the first time. I’m so impatient with myself! I look forward to the day when i get past this. Its the first time in my life people have called me a perfectionist! I’m going to read your Performance Anxiety piece now as I think it will also be helpful.

    Please let us know when your book becomes available!

    Dear Dr. Burgo,

    What a wonderful site. I’ve now found two discussions (the other being about Narcissistic Mothers) that really resonate with me.

    I suffer from the same problem as many of the people here. School came very easily to me. Partly, though, it was because the schools I was in were not demanding enough. Like someone else described above, I quickly figured out how little work I could do to get an A and did that level of work. I even resented the fact that I had to go to school, because I also discovered that I could pretend to be sick, read the textbook at home, and still get straight A’s.

    (There is a connection with my mother’s narcissism, too. She enabled all of this, because she kept me in an inferior school for political reasons — it was integrated and my mother had been involved in the civil rights movement since she was a teenager in the 1960s — rather than move to a town with better schools that didn’t satisfy her need to be politically correct. And I, having internalized my purpose in life as being my mother’s servant, desperately wanted to go away to boarding school but never suggested it because it would have put my mother in a financial hardship to send me — even if she could have stood to let me go away from home. I recognize now, too, that my desire to go to boarding school was from a desire not just for more of a challenge, but to get away from my mother, which I did not achieve until college.)

    In my early career as a lawyer, it came too easily to me as well. I was a good writer and legal reasoner, so I quickly got good assignments and missed out on a lot of the young lawyer drudgery. But it caught up with me later, and I found myself utterly unable to deal with anything that was not interesting or did not come easily to me. I realize now that I have always been frustrated with tasks that involved hard work — hard work being defined as anything that did not come easily the first time I attempted it. This is especially true now that I have my own business and no longer have people telling me what to do. (I excelled at doing other people’s bidding, thanks to my narcissist mother.)

    As a result, it’s also been very hard for me to stay in shape or to do other things that are good for me. Because exercise does not provide immediate results, it is very difficult for me to keep it up. The same goes for eating right. I cannot keep it up long enough to show results, because that is hard and involves work. I am able to delay gratification when the result is pleasing someone else (a parent, a teacher, a boss) with my activity, but when something is purely for me and me alone, like my health or my career, I find it very hard, if not impossible, to keep hoeing my row.

    What a perfect description of the problem — the curse of being “gifted” or highly intelligent. For me, what I eventually came to feel was that the reward for having done the hard work and the sense of pride I felt as a result helped me overcome the resistance to doing the work.

    Wow, congratulations! It is pleasing to see how your hard work has paid off – inspiring.

    Now, for us lesser mortals :) Can you please write about what happens to those who are unable to achieve their goals? For example, when mental illness gets in the way.

    Will be buying your book when it comes out, promise!

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