My So-Called Genius

When I was young, greatness was just around the corner. Forty years later, I’m merely good at what I do — and have finally let go of being precocious.

By Laura Fraser
(Photo: Plamen Petkov)

The Precocious Child

I learned the word precocious long before other kids my age. By the time I was 5 or 6, I had heard it often — I was always younger than everyone around me and ahead of my peers. Being defined by a long, difficult adjective made me special; it made me, in some essential way, who I am.

I read early and voraciously, squirreling away splendiferously big words to spring on adults whenever I needed attention, which was often. I thrived on being called "smart" and "cute." A psychologist said I had an IQ of 165, a number I thought was as immutable as the color of my eyes. I whizzed through school, skipping grades, racking up awards and honors. By 15 I was writing a column for my hometown newspaper. All the way back in third grade, my teacher told me I would become a great writer — at an early age, of course — and that’s just what I figured would happen.

All those early predictions, my dazzling promise? They haven’t quite panned out. Despite having published hundreds of magazine articles and two nonfiction books, at 47 I’m no longer an up-and-comer. Peers I was ahead of early in my career have caught up or passed me by: starting their own companies, writing more books, buying vacation homes, embarking on lucrative second careers. Legions of people younger than I am are much more accomplished, and I’m mightily annoyed whenever one of them publishes a best-seller or wins a Pulitzer Prize. Day by day I seem to be losing my smarts, and we won’t talk about my cutes.

All of us in our 40s and beyond need to come to a reckoning of what we wanted to be and who we actually are; that’s one definition of maturity. Grown-ups can accept that they aren’t international opera stars or Nobel Prize-winners in medicine. Rather than live in disappointment, they appreciate the reality of who they’ve become (perhaps it’s manager and not CEO) and acknowledge their skills, accomplishments, and lessons learned.

But for those of us whose precociousness forecast an early and spectacular success — and I’m hardly alone in this — our midlife accomplishments are much more difficult to reconcile. No matter what we’ve achieved (one of my books even became a best-seller), many of us feel a nagging sense of failure. I can’t say this for sure, but I’d bet it was a formerly precocious person who coined the term midlife crisis.

The first glimmer that my future might not be so brilliant came in college. When I entered Wesleyan early, at 17, I was shocked to find I was no longer head of the class but in the middle of the heap — there were hordes of smarty-pants out there. Still, I edited the school paper and after graduation threw myself into a freelance writing career with such fervor that one editor dubbed me the little engine that could. But over the years my engine chugged slower and slower. Like my fellow ex whiz kids, I entered the stage that I’ve begun to call post-cociousness. The tried-and-true remedies are drinking heavily, griping at the world for never giving us our due, and criticizing more successful people for all their defects. Me, I preferred denial.

In midlife I pretended that I hadn’t flowered yet because I was still so young: I dated as if I were in my 20s, put crazy streaks in my hair, and avoided most of the trappings of serious adulthood: marriage, a house, children, financial security, and a reasonable retirement plan.

George Eliot didn’t publish her first novel until she was 40, so given today’s life expectancy, that meant I had at least until I turned 53 to write a great one, right? My age, I figured, was a lot like my weight: As long as I exercised and carried it well, no one would ever guess how high the number really was. But on my last birthday — the one that put me in my late 40s — I admitted to myself: I am no longer young and precocious.

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