I’ve been reading a lot of comments and posts lately by “gifted” individuals — people who score high on IQ tests — involving the Imposter Syndrome, and its closely related cousin, the Failure Syndrome. The former is when you succeed, but don’t think you should have, and the latter is when you think you should succeed, but don’t. Both of them are errors in self-assessment, yes, but to a greater extent they seem to be a misunderstanding of what success actually looks like.
I turned 60 last year, and I’ve been out somewhere beyond the 3rd or 4th standard deviation of “giftedness” all my life. I’ve suffered from both Imposter and Failure syndromes at various points, and I think I finally have enough perspective to make at least a few comments.
I have to deviate from conventions of modesty for just a moment, so that you know who is speaking. I have an advanced degree in physics from a premier research university. I moved into software development, where I’ve remained for nearly thirty years. I’ve started four companies (three failed). I have my name on several patents. I have a blog, one published short story, and a bunch of (as-yet) unpublished writing. I play the violin well, and once toured Europe with it. I worked up enough performance skill on the piano to play Chopin’s Aeolian Harp Etude, then never performed it. I recently sang the Bach b-minor mass as a member of an 80-voice choir at a well-known music festival. I have composed a piano concerto, a symphony, a mass, and numerous other works, and have even had a handful of live performances. I have a home, children, grandchildren, a wife, and good friends.
You would think with all that success, I’d be a fascinating person to talk with.
I’m not. I’m moderately boring, sometimes irritating (sometimes very irritating), and my life is quite pedestrian.
On a typical day, I get up, make breakfast, pour a cup of coffee, then “go to work,” which consists of unblocking the screen saver on my computer and logging in to a remote site. I sit and stare at the computer screen most of the morning, interrupted by occasional phone conference meetings. I make lunch, and spend the afternoon doing what I did all morning. I pour a glass of wine after work, help my wife make dinner, we eat and chat, then I wash the dishes. I read, watch TV, or “kill orcs” (play video games) until it’s time for bed. Next day, reset and repeat.
It’s pretty boring.
So how on earth did such a boring person write a symphony? One note at a time, just like symphonies have always been written.
The thing that most anguished, syndrome-suffering gifted folks misunderstand is Time: the slow accumulation of minutes, days, and years. Sixty years is a lot of minutes, so many that the number is meaningless to the human mind, yet a single minute is enough to compose and orchestrate a musical phrase. Yes, you have to learn how — that’s another accumulation of minutes. You have to spend still more minutes getting past your Failure Syndrome, and your Impostor Syndrome, and your stage fright, and your childhood traumas, and your adult traumas, and your phobias, and the trials of marriage, and raising kids, and enduring in-laws, and working for a demanding boss, and dealing with an unjust society that keeps you down, and watching over friends having emotional melt-downs, and paying bills you can’t afford, and filing tax returns, and all the rest of the things that make up the boring details of a life.
After all that, there are still plenty of minutes left to sleep, make love, go out to dinner, watch football with friends, play video games, and write a symphony.
Yet there are never enough minutes. They run out. You cannot get it all done.
In my late forties, I was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, which could have been terminal. Had I died, nearly all of my music, and all of my stories would have died before even being born.
In other words, I did not really bloom into all this success until I turned fifty — an unthinkable number of minutes into my life.
I have, perhaps, another twenty or thirty productive years’ worth of minutes. At some point, I will become unproductive or die, with things left undone. Even the most successful die too soon. Beethoven never wrote a tenth symphony. Mozart never finished his Requiem. Steve Jobs never got to collaborate on the iCar.
You cannot get it all done.
You see, you actually cannot succeed, because “success” is an ever-moving target. A child who dies at the age of nine months has perhaps never succeeded at the simple task of standing on his own two feet — all he has done is to try, and fail, and try, and fail. He did not stand, or walk, or run, or write a symphony. He did not get it all done.
Yet, that same child learned to suckle, and to roll over, and to crawl: all that could be expected in his short allotment of minutes.
As a gifted person, you were likely sold a bill of goods regarding how your future was going to play out. You were sold fantasies of success and recognition at an early age: of winning the National Spelling Bee, or the State Science Fair, or the Intel Prize, or an advanced degree followed by a Nobel Prize. You were sold an exciting life, filled to the brim with nothing but success.
What has actually played out is a boring life, even a hard life, full of too many minutes.
What I want to say here is that this is exactly as it should be. Gifted is boring. As is every life.
And yet… the minutes continue to accumulate. One day, you’ll get a bug in your head that tells you to take up snorkeling, or playing the fiddle, or walking the Camino from St. Jean to Finisterra, and you’ll say, “What the hell. Why not? I have lots of boring minutes in front of me.”
Maybe the impulse will come to nothing at all. Then again, maybe it won’t come to nothing, and you will accomplish something extraordinary. And then the minutes will roll onward, giving you an opportunity to do something extraordinary again. After a week of binge-watching Netflix.
Take heart, be patient, be curious, be unafraid. All you have are minutes, and they are precious, even when you choose to “waste” them.