Underachievement from the Inside Out
By Josh Shaine

Home > Giftedness - An Overview > Underachievement


Perhaps the most upsetting part of being an underachiever with a lot of potential is the accusation, first from your parents and then from yourself, that you are somehow doing "it" intentionally. Parents, teachers, counselors, and even siblings express their frustration on your behalf: "If you would just do your homework, you would be so much happier!"

The idea of being a person who would hurt your mother and father that way is stunning. How can you be so bad, so inconsiderate, so evil. You vow to change, that this year, this month, this week, this class will be different. Then you go back to failing to meet your obligations, lying about what has been done and what has not been done. You go back to the land of good intentions and the failure to produce what is demanded. You go back to disappointing everyone around you.

Each time they try a new approach to "it," everybody's hopes rise. They can be the teachers, the guidance counselors, the psychologists, or your parents. The new approach might be a tutor, an assignment book, signed homework sheets from the teachers, or doing the homework in the kitchen with your parents watching. You might sign a contract, lose privileges, have restrictions on your behavior, or find yourself with gold, silver, bronze, red, blue, or no stars next to your name. There may be an egg timer in your classroom, to 'help you to complete your work on time.'

"It?" "It" can have many different meanings - not even just as many meanings as there are people but more than one meaning per person. "It" can be very strange. Sometimes "it" means just your underachievement, your failure to produce the work expected. Sometimes "it" is your inability to fit in with the other kids, being beaten up (or as they put it, fighting). Sometimes "it" is your 'willful disobedience' and your refusal to admit that you could do the work if you wanted to. And, as often as not, "it" seems to be your belief that what is important to them is only important to you because it is important to them, and not for its own sake.

"Of course it's important to do this. It will affect your ability to do work later." "Everybody else is doing it, so you have to also." "Why should we reward you for not doing your work?" "If you really wanted to do it, you would."

And it's true - you know it's true. Your mother wouldn't say these things to you if it weren't, nor would the teacher. You're a screw up. You won't be successful in life. You are doomed and you know it. Everything they tell you drives the point home. And doing what you are ‘supposed to’ is what makes you lovable and worthwhile in their opinions. They don't love you, and you don't love you, either. And if they do still love you, you know it won't last unless you change your behavior. And you can't change your behavior, because you've tried and failed and tried and failed and…

It started in 1st grade. For some reason that you don't even remember, the teacher would tell you to do something in class and you wouldn't do it. In fact, the teacher told you to do lots of things that you wouldn't do. Like “sit still and pay attention.” You couldn't sit still and pay attention. You tried to tell her that but all she could do was emphasize that you could and you would.

But there were things going on outside, birds flying and wind blowing and any number of other points of interest. And your clothes itched, and it was too hot or cold or both. But look at the neat things you could do with your pencil. Tap, tap, tap rapidly on the desktop.

Snatch! The pencil is no longer in your hands, but in the teacher's. "I told you not to do that!" she scolds. "Do what?" you ask innocently. "You know perfectly well what, young man!" But you weren't paying attention and you aren't quite sure what your transgression was this time.

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Now, the funny thing is that nobody has accused you of not knowing the material. Nobody has said that you can't move to the next grade because you did so badly. Nobody has suggested that you are not learning. Nor have they praised you for being able to learn so much while doing so little work or given you more work, or faster, harder work. Everybody explains why it is important for you to do your work even though the work itself has no importance. And you know, inside, that the work is a waste of your time, though you can't quite explain it. And you can't make yourself do it. It hurts. It hurts almost as much as the fact that you hurt and disappoint the ones you love, whose respect you would give anything to have.

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There are school days where you are in trouble for not doing something and school days where you are not in trouble because nothing is due. Most mornings you wake up with a knot in your stomach. Sometimes there is a specific dread, because you know the thing that is due, that you haven't completed, that you are going to be publicly humiliated over. Sometimes it is a far more general dread - there is bound to be something that you have forgotten, something that you owe that hasn't crossed your mind since it was assigned, and it was supposed to be handed in today.

There is a third kind of day, not as common as the first two. A lot of kids seem afraid of days with tests and quizzes, but those are your best days, most of the time. It's not like you studied or anything, but it's also not like the teacher's going to be testing you on anything you didn't know last year. (Of course, you don't actually verbalize it like that to yourself) There is just this absolute confidence that you can take any test that the school is likely to throw at you and eat it up - test days are the opposite of regular days.

When your parents ask you if you have done your homework, you tell them you have. Why? Well, that's kind of hard to explain… You know that they would rather that you had done the homework then that you hadn't. You want to make them happy. And, even though you haven't done it yet, there is usually still time to get it done before it is due, and you really really mean to do it, so it will be okay. Besides, if you tell them that you haven't done it, then they will just make you do it, or try to make you do it, and that hurts.

The hurt is not from the way they treat you; the hurt comes from the inside as much as anything else. It comes when you try to make yourself do something that goes against your grain, something internally offensive. It just feels wrong, and that's what you try to explain. You understand the work perfectly, but you can't do it.

Then, worse yet, they'll get into a conversation with you about why you haven't done it. Okay, it's not exactly a conversation. They ask and they demand and they beg and you never have the right words. They get angry with you. Then they act hurt and betrayed and a big argument follows with you that doesn't accomplish anything. Later, they argue between themselves on how to handle your problem. "Why does he do it?" "That doesn't matter. We have to get him to do his work." "You're not listening to me!" You can hear them talking and then yelling. Their yelling at each other feels even worse then when they yell at you. You feel helpless and you wish you were somewhere else, anywhere else, or maybe that you were dead.

So, they ask you at Christmas time whether your grades are going to be better this term. What are you supposed to say? If you say "No, Mom, actually, they're about the same as usual," what is she going to say? "Okay, I was just wondering. Now we can all go off on our pleasant vacation together." It doesn't seem likely to you. Not that it even occurs to you for a minute to do that. That would be absurd. You just assure them (but really her) that it will be better this time. And you hope that it will and you dread the moment in the vacation when the grades come, but you have a good time anyway, while waiting, because at least your list of things that you haven't done isn't getting any longer. And the feeling of dread doesn't start very big, at first. It's there, but just as a niggling feeling at first. As the week goes on, the tension in your stomach grows. Every time your mom calls you into another room, you're sure that she has found out what your grades really are. Every time the phone rings, you're sure that your dad was home and checked the mail. What's it going to be like when they find out this time?

Something weird, though. As surely as you wanted to believe that it would be different each time through, so did they. Each story that you told they wanted to believe. Mother yells at you once, "I told my friends and co-workers what you told me, that you had turned over a new leaf and things were different. You made a fool out of me. Is that what you wanted to do? Are you proud of yourself?"

Each counselor, therapist, and psychologist meets you and talks with you. They try to figure out what is going on in your mind. They reason with you ands explain to you how important it is to do your work - it will make you happy, it will make your parents happy, it will make your teachers happy, it will give you a bright future. Just think how much better things will be if you just do your work. Each of them, in turn, assures your parents that there has been a breakthrough. They explain, "He understands now. He won't do it again." Your parents are set up again for failure and so are you. Nothing has changed. Nothing but more time and more hurt and more being sure that you will never succeed and that you can't do what they want you to do. You think: "Maybe I'm not really smart. Maybe I just act smart." You think: "They'd be better off if I were dead." You pull out your hair. You swear on whatever you find holy or worth swearing by. You make up things to swear by. You pray to God, not that you believe in him any more, if you ever did, because it hasn't done any good yet. Maybe God is punishing you, too, for not believing.

You're going to the therapists because your parents know that you are not happy. You are not happy because you don't fit in. You don't fit in because you are not normal. So, if the therapist(s) can help you to be normal, everything will be all right.

Except for one problem.

You are not normal. There is something wrong with you. Your teachers know it. Your parents know it. Your brother and sister know it. All of the other kids know it - and they make sure that you know it, too. And how many therapists do they think it takes before you know that you are incurable. You may not be as smart as everybody thinks you are, but you're not stupid.

The private school will be different. Smaller classes. More stimulating classes. It will be better. Different teachers for each subject. And, in some ways, it is different. Not necessarily better, but different. The teasing is more physical at times. The smaller classes make the embarrassment more personal. But there's a class where things go better. Math teacher spends less energy on "Have you done your homework?" and more on "Do you understand the material.?" You love math - you always have. This makes it that much better. You get an "A" in the class. Not in the other classes, but in this one, anyway… Of course, the teacher gets fired over the summer.

The worst possible thing happens. Or is it the best? Hard to tell, even looking backwards…

Your 9th grade Math teacher says to you and a couple of other students: "What you kids need is a school with computer access to really stretch in Math. This one isn't going to get one." She helps you to get into a prep school (even with your grades) and promptly gets fired. But you are off to another school. Another chance to make a fresh start. Nobody there knows you. They don't have any expectations of your behavior, your ability, or anything.

They put you up two grades in Math. They put you up one level in Science. You are challenged. And you flounder.

Some things have changed for the better. There is less teasing than you have ever had before and kids who are teased far more often than you are. You still stick out (during the first week, a hall mate says "If you want to be the smartest kid in our grade, you'll have to beat Matthew and Peter." But you have no clue what you said to prompt that.), but not as much. You are actually happy much of the time - you even have people you think of as friends. They let you hang out with them sometimes and you think they're neat. (They're seniors - some of the ones you're in class with). You're not at home and that means fewer fights with your parents. Reading until you are ready to sleep is allowed. There are only a few problems…

You still can't do homework. And you are finally in a situation in which if you don't do the work you can't keep up. You don't know how to struggle with something difficult. You don't know how to ask for help. You don't know how to be honest with yourself, let alone anybody else. It's easier to just go along until everything falls apart. It's not like there is anything that can be done to fix it, after all.

It takes longer than you expect for it all to fall apart. You're a little surprised that they agree to have you back for a second year. Yet another counselor with yet another plan is convinced that you can be saved. First, you attend Summer School at a different prep school. That goes pretty well. It helps that there are only two classes, one of which (Algebra II) you help to teach. In the fall, she sets you up with a tutor - but by now, you're back in the classes at your level. So, when the tutor asks if you need help learning anything, the (partially) honest answer is no. You still can't do homework, but you are back doing things you can learn without homework and handling the tests. The counselor is heartbroken. If only… she starts. You're so smart… she despairs.

But you know that you were never really that smart, anyway. You've proven it to everybody, now. So, when the prep school decides to have you leave, in November, while you are surprised, the failure bothers you less than it might have. It is only the execution of what you knew in your heart. You didn't belong there.

Does the rest matter? Your parents are worried about your ever making it on your own. They explain again and again about the importance of college. Earning a good living. Being dependable. And still… Fitting in. And you? You know it's hopeless. That doesn't prevent you from getting your hopes up each time. That doesn't prevent your parents from getting their hopes up each time. Freshman year of college. 2nd (but not sophomore) year at another college. Flunking Intro. Sociology and Science Fiction. Didn't do the homework.

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What does all this mean for your adult life? Are you, in fact, doomed? Should you just give up? No degree, no discipline, no job skills to speak of? Potential - but more like cold fusion than anything else... an energy source that looks great, but can't really be tapped.

25 years removed from that second year of college, I would like to answer your questions; I would like to respond to those feelings you expressed. I would like to comfort you.

It is true that these behaviors, some internally driven and some learned, will continue to be a part of your life. Long range deadlines will always present more of a challenge than you might like them to. And there will be plenty of those deadlines, externally or internally imposed.

On the other hand, there are many jobs in which the importance is placed on "Did you do the job?" rather than "Did you meet each of the intermediate goals?" There are employers who want to know what you can do today rather than over the next month or two. The questions you will be asked are not about nightly homework of no particular significance, but on areas that are more likely to matter to you and to other people. Real products for real audiences.

And there are skills to be acquired that will aid you in meeting deadlines. There are ways to cope with the differences that make some types of tasks difficult. There are jobs in which the way you work is far more valuable than traditional academic strategies would be.

Don't despair. The stories you were told about the need to go through college, or particular sorts of college, have merit, but there is more to the whole picture than that. 50% of all prominent Americans were successful in school. What does that tell you about the other 50%?

Your ideas are valuable. Your feelings are worthwhile. Normality is overrated and misapplied. You are more important than the sum of your grades.

You are not to blame for a poor fit with the schools. You are not to blame for learning the lessons the schools worked so hard to teach you - of your own inadequacy and failure. You are not a bad person now, and you were not then. You did not ever intend to cause pain through your non-performance of their work.

Don't give up.

Live.

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Links:
A Prologue to Patterns for Charlie
Dealing with the Stereotype of Underachievement by Jim Delisle