The curse of early success – in school and in softball

59660482_10156981864705801_7057403034296385536_o.jpgNeve’s in the midst of her first-ever softball season, and though she adores games of all kinds, and enjoyed her pre-season practices, she’s been struggling recently.

Which is to say: as her fourth game approached, I was just as nervous, if not more so, than she was.

Not because her performance on the field is important to me, but because it’s so damn hard to watch your almost-8 year old kid collapse, again and again, in tearful disappointment.

Ironically, the drama has been extra-heightened because in Neve’s first game, she was two-for-three at the plate, scored two runs, and earned the coaches’ post-game “Pringles Award” for her contributions.

This gave Neve a huge boost of confidence, and made her think, “Oh, I’m good at this. This is how I’ll perform in every game.”

But that’s not how things unfolded. She struck out each at-bat last game, and in game two, when she finally made contact, she was tagged at first to end the game – and Neve can’t, for the life of her, reconcile her early success with her current dry spell.

I call this “the curse of early success.”

After each failed at-bat now, Neve exits the dugout and slumps toward us, her face red with tears, her voice a weepy, pained monotone. She curls up on our laps, and we tell her all the things you’d expect: that professional players strike out all the time; that her team still needs her to get back out there and keep going; that we love her whether she gets a hit or not; that if she wants to get better at hitting, and this is important to her, we’ll work on it together; that we know she can do it, but she has to keep trying.

None of this is what she wants to hear.

She just wants to get a hit and feel that thrill of accomplishment again. And until she does, she’ll torture herself with thoughts of, “I already showed myself and everyone else that I can do this. WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?”

I’m afraid I understand this all too well – and I was reminded of precisely why when a friend shared a tweet that read, “You were ‘gifted and talented’ in elementary school, choose your path: anxiety; depression; fear of failure that plagues your every decision; intense guilt that you’ll never live up to your earlier potential; good at crossword puzzles; all of the above.”

Um … ouch. But also, a million times “yes.”

When I was in fifth grade, a handful of students from my school, including me, was transported once a week by bus (ah, back when school systems had funding for such luxuries) to another elementary school in the district, where small groups of other “gifted and talented” kids had been shepherded from their respective schools.

Our program’s teacher, Mrs. McGimpsey, would spend an hour or so playing cognitive games with us, or providing logic problems for us to solve.

“Why do you leave class during art every week? Where do you go?” a classmate once asked me.

“I go to a special class. I think it’s because I’m too smart for regular school,” I’d replied with a shrug.

This memory makes me roll my eyes and cringe now when I think of it, but it’s demonstrative of something important: academically silo-ing kids – whether it’s because they need extra help, or because they invite higher levels of challenge and stimulation – is always a double-edged prospect. Yes, kids who get this special attention inevitably benefit from it; but they also come to permanently define themselves, for better or for worse, by the very thing that sets them apart.

I have no doubt, for instance, that many of the decisions I made as a young person were shaped by my sense of myself as “gifted.”

Of the three languages taught at my high school, German was supposedly the most challenging, so I signed up for that – for all four years. (I even won a department award before graduating for being among the two top German students in my class, though I had no designs on achieving fluency or using my knowledge of German beyond high school.)

The smartest kids also seemed to take AP chemistry and calculus, so I signed up for those classes, despite having zero interest in pursuing a career related to these subjects.

I’d told myself that that didn’t matter. What did matter was performing my role as “gifted,” both to my peers and to myself. I’d never been good at sports, and though I was in the school’s top band, I wasn’t going to be a trombone virtuoso, either, so school was my thing, I always told myself. This is what I’m good at.

But when I froze during a senior year calculus mid-term (after staying up most of the previous night cramming) and failed the exam, I nearly imploded.

Even though my father kindly told me that a similar thing happened to him on an exam in college, and that this wasn’t the end of the world, I couldn’t get past the idea that I’d let everyone down, and that I was some kind of intellectual fraud.

This yo-yo sense of experiencing both my promising potential and my shortcomings is something that haunts me still. Yes, I was admitted, and earned a degree from, a highly competitive university, and I was proud of that. But I’d also gotten a slew of “no”s from the even-more-prestigious schools; and while working a bunch of rando post-college jobs (office temp, video store clerk, bookseller) that had nothing to do with becoming the writer I’d dreamed of being, I stared at the royal blue suit my parents had bought me as a graduation gift – for all those job interviews I never actually landed or even tried for – and felt awful.

After two years of that life, I earned admission to a masters program in English, but I was rejected from the creative writing concentration because my work was, among other things, “juvenile” (ouch – that one still stings).

And while getting laid off years later was pretty hard on my ego, too, the thing that really brought up all the old “you’re failing to live up to your potential” guilt was my utter failure to get a job of similar esteem. I brushed up my resume a dozen times, and I wrote endless soul-euthanizing cover letters, but no one seemed remotely interested in what I had to offer.

“But I graduated seventh in my high school class of over 400 people!” a voice in my head will still say in these moments. “I worked hard, and I did what I was supposed to do! People thought I was going to have the world by the tail. Why don’t I?!”

“Oh, sweetie,” I also say to myself (there are lots of internal conversations going on in my head at any given moment). “Who does?”

Yes, we all see people who have more of what we want for ourselves. But the vast majority of us are out here just doing the best we can, trying to be kind to ourselves and others, and pushing back against the pull to be swallowed by negativity.

Which is probably why my reading list of the last couple of years has had more and more titles that could be categorized as “self-help.”

This feels like a personal comeuppance of sorts. When I was a Borders bookseller in my twenties – still convinced somehow that I was destined for greatness – one of the sections I was in charge of maintaining was self-help, and as customers browsed books with titles like “Codependent No More” and “14,000 Things to be Happy About” (“Ice cream cones!” read one desperate-sounding page), I thought, arrogantly, “Ugh. If these books really had substantive answers to life’s biggest challenges, wouldn’t we all be content?”

Yet if you look on my shelves at home today, you’ll find “10% Happier,” “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck,” “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” “The Dance of Anger,” and “Year of Yes,” among others.

So there’s some kind of poetic justice in me reaching out for the very genre I looked down my nose at earlier in life.

Yet what I snootily thought in my 20s still holds true. The answers to our most challenging personal issues won’t likely be found in these books.

But what I didn’t realize back then is that by the time you reach middle age, you’ve dealt with, or are currently in the midst of, some pretty tough losses, whether it be a family member, a friend, a marriage, a job, or even just your youth. No one is spared from this. And what these books DO offer are, first, validation – loss is hard, and having someone simply recognize and articulate that experience helps – and second, ways to re-frame and process our feelings in a constructive way.

This does nothing for poor Neve – I can’t imagine simply shoving Oprah’s “The Path Made Clear” into her little hands as she sits moping in the dugout – but as I watch her work through this slump, I feel like I’m re-learning some key lessons, too.

Each at-bat is a new chance.

As much as possible, forget what happened before.

Keep your eye on the ball and, when it’s in your zone, swing for all you’re worth.

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