An Open Letter To The Gifted

Dear Young Enthusiastic Genius Kid,

Today is September 1st, so you're about to start college, or perhaps already have. That's great. I really hope you intended to be there. Universities are great places, if you actually want to go. A lot of your classmates don't, which is a social problem we're going to have to deal with someday, but many of you probably do, so congrats on obliterating the minimum SAT scores you needed to secure your spot.

I'm about to turn thirty-four. This makes me like way ancient by the standards of college freshmen. You really have no reason to believe me when I say I had much the same educational experience that you did, unless you go back through the archives of this blog and develop a vague feeling of kinship. That's fine. I didn't listen to anyone this old when I was your age either, which was probably a good decision, since most of them didn't know what they were talking about anyway.

I'm about to give you a piece of college advice that directly contradicts almost everything everyone else has ever said to you. And that piece of advice is:

Slack.

You have spent most of your academic career to date flipping between being ignored, because "being able to pass the assessment test" is considered equal to "receiving an appropriate education", and being buried under repetitive busywork, because they have nothing else to give you, and you can clearly carry the weight of the entire group project by yourself, so why fix the situation? The very few people who did pay attention, and had some glimmer of an idea of what to do with you, gave you extra assignments that were vast in scope, in the hopes you would trip over something that caught your interest.

These people meant well, but executed poorly. They literally had no idea what you could do with a subject if you got down to really thinking about it, so they were loath to give you clearly-defined goals. They were afraid that if they named an end point, you would achieve it, decide you were bored with their topic, and move on to something else. This is an entirely reasonable fear to have, because it's what people do. But by dodging this discomfort on their end -- their own fear that you might not achieve what they think you might be able to -- they've robbed you of an important life skill here, which is how to tell when you're done.

"Let's see how far you can take this," is not a project goal. "Let's see how far you can take this," is the kind of terrible idea you come up with halfway through a weekend in Cabo San Lucas after knocking back three shots of tequila and those two loose Vicodin you had left over from the last time you broke that ankle, which will shortly be replenished by an accommodating Mexican clinic when you do it again. By giving you a task that has no defined end point, they hope to instill in you a feeling that if you just work a little bit harder, you can do a little bit better, forever and ever, amen.

This is a brilliant tactic to use if you want to produce perpetual-motion machines, fueled by a lifelong nagging sense of inadequacy. It skips over how the perpetual-motion machine might feel about things. A lot of the perpetual-motion machines, as it turns out, are unhappy. They work according to paradigm as long as they can stand it, and then they burn out and drop off the radar. "Don't be like that," the outsiders tell the younger perpetual-motion machines. "Only losers quit. You have an obligation to use your brilliance for the good of everyone else."

You don't. You really, really don't. It's great if you do, and I'd recommend not using it specifically to be a dick, but you don't owe the world any symphony, theorem, or cure for cancer, if getting there kills you.

If you want to get through college with your sanity intact, learn how to slack off. You are a legitimate genius. They will expect you to excel in everything. Fuck 'em. If you have as much potential as they say you do, it would be mathematically impossible for you to fulfill it all in one human lifetime. Some things will seem fascinating and important to you. Some things won't. Don't feel guilty for this. Learn how to be just 'above average' in shit you don't care about so that you have energy to devote to shit you do.

About eighty kabillion people will be giving you stern, if unasked for, warnings about how you can't coast on raw brainpower your whole life, and you'll have to buckle down if you want to be the blazing success in the particular narrow manner the establishment expects you to be. They are lying. Misguided, at best. This Calvinist ethic of 'work until you drop dead' is based on how hard they expect they would have to work in order to achieve great things. They aren't you. If you can give them what they want without breaking a sweat, and you don't care enough to dig any farther into the subject, then do that. A+ work is A+ work no matter how little time and thought it took you. Effortless is not the same as worthless.

The system you're in is set up for people who think in a normal fashion, just uncommonly well. You are not this person. Your life will be a lot easier if you learn how to game the system. I'm not telling you to cheat. You have an eidetic memory, for God's sake, writing it on your hand is just lazy. I'm saying that when they give you an assignment with a process and an end goal, the most efficient way for you to finish it is to figure out what they really want, throw away their crap process, and complete something that looks a lot like the work you were asked for, but is much easier to do without driving yourself mental. A professor who demands an outline, a first draft, a second draft, a final draft, and a page full of potential references, will get exactly what they want if you write the damn paper in the first week, reverse-engineer the "early drafts", fill your bibliography and outline in from what you already wrote, and then spend your evenings playing Halo until it's time to turn everything in.

A professor who is also a genius kid will know perfectly well what you did, but a professor who is also a genius kid won't say anything about it, because they would have done the same damn thing. And judging from what my professors did around journal submission time, they still do.

You do have to learn how to apply yourself at some point. People will try to teach you. It won't necessarily work. Part of being a genius kid is having a lot of really caterwampus sorting systems in your internal indices, so the standard method of flashcards and highlighters may bore you so hard your brains try to leak out your ears in self-preservation. This teaches you nothing. Figure out how to jam things into your head on your own, if you have to. Once you have that skill, you have the option to use it full-tilt on things you care about, and use it half-assed on things you don't.

Boredom, in fact, will not just teach you nothing in the short-term, it may make you wrap back around to failing, if it's bad enough. You probably want to ignore everything your first advisor says that doesn't contain the words "required for graduation". (You can find a better advisor in your major later. Really.) As a freshman, they'll recommend you take a lot of 'study skills' and 'orientation' courses. "It's an easy A," is their argument. "All you have to do is show up and sign-in. No thinking required!" They seem to think this is wonderful. For someone who enjoys using their brain to do complicated and intricate things, being forced to physically transport yourself somewhere and sit for an hour and a half with nothing to think about is the very definition of Hell. If you know you won't go, drop the fuck out of that seminar. Your easy freshman A may be, I don't know, BIO 121 Lecture For Non-STEM Majors. Maybe the squishy-slimy stuff isn't interesting enough to devote your life to, but it's sufficiently cool to make you show up TTh afternoons and doodle paramecia in your notebook. Mine were always foreign language classes. You will confuse and probably alarm the machine-cog whose job is just to get students through their freshmen liberal studies courses before they die of alcohol poisoning, but it is your schedule.

Keep talking to people. College is like Earth, in that people with your particular variety of brain are going to be rare. On the other hand, college is also full of people who managed to best the thesis dragon in single combat and come out with their doctoral hoods only slightly singed, so you have a much better chance than average of finding some of the rare people while you're there.

Not all of your instructors will be on your level, which is disappointing. It's frustrating to deal with people who have the information you need to jump through the pointless hoop, but not the ability to understand why you want the whole thing at once rather than having it spoon-fed to you over the course of fourteen weeks. But a lot of your instructors will be, and if there's one thing I learned growing up like this, it's that genius kids care a hell of a lot less about age and rank than almost anyone else. Talk to the crotchety old English professor dude like he's a human being. Let some of the weird smart things slip. It's a super-secret handshake; if he recognizes it for what it is, the conversation will suddenly flip into a thing you might actually enjoy. He will not care that you are eighteen and he is nine million -- brains is brains, and interesting ones are uncommon.

Also, and almost completely unrelated: Learn to cook. Dorm life runs on a barter system. People will pay for ingredients and booze and trade you all kinds of things if it means they don't have to eat the godawful Dining Services food one more time.

Good luck,
A Slightly Older Genius Kid

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