The trouble with being exceptional

I read a post over at Life Without College that I identified with a lot. It was about epic adventures, and feeling like you need to have them all the time. I feel like that. I blame it on unschooling. And a mysterious genetic mutation that may eventually prove the existence of life on other planets.

As a kid, since I was already different (weird), I had to be weird for good reasons, rather than just for weird reasons. I wanted to be exceptional.

Being exceptional makes it OK to be different. You might be a little strange and not always know how to make small talk, but when you’re an international chess champion it sort of comes with the territory.

I was not an international chess champion. I couldn’t beat either one of my younger brothers (who went through a chess phase and played competitively on a homeschooled chess team). But I was in the paper for doing other stuff well. I was precocious.

Really, I was pretty normal for an unschooler. I was good at things because I had lots of time to get good at them. I competed at things because I liked to prove that I was good at them.

(Such a good game. But so very hard. source)

But when you grow up, it’s hard to stay exceptional. It’s easy to be better than other kids in your town at sketching portraits or playing scherzos. And then you meet the other kids who are auditioning at Juilliard. Later on, living in the city, you see them everywhere: exceptional people who are excellent at what they do, who are only here because they’re making it, because they’re different.

And if your identity has been constructed from stacks of paper-thin successes, it might just be blown to bits when you try to take a breath. Because hardly anyone who tries really hard to be exceptional is ever exceptional enough for themselves.

So after having been fantastically awesome as a child and teenager, I find it difficult to allow myself space to be a little– normal. I catch myself, cleaning the apartment, thinking, “Who cares about cleaning up? Go do something extraordinary!”

It’s like in the TV show Heroes, where yet another  totally normal-seeming fast-food worker whispers to herself as she flips burgers, “I know I’m meant to be special…I just know I’m different.”  And the evil psychotic killer mutant Sylar goes back to his mother and begs her to tell him it’s OK not to be special. After all, it’s her need for him to be special that’s motivated all of those gruesome murders.

Clearly, I’ve been watching too much TV (Netflix), and not going out enough to do exceptional things. I also promise that I’m not going to kill anyone.

But that need to be special, to be extraordinary, to be amazing, in order to justify, well, being alive– it gets old pretty fast. When you want that, you keep failing. You fail and fail and fail, because you can’t see your own success. So I sometimes find that I’m most jealous of two types of people:

Wildly famous self-made billionaires and totally ordinary, happy people.

And since becoming a wildly famous self-made billionaire seems, realistically, like kind of a long shot, I think I’d better start working on learning how to be the latter. I kind of think that if I get good at being a happy ordinary person, exceptional things will happen anyway.

(my little brother, when he was maybe 8, being better at chess than me.)

*  *  *

Check out my interview with Beatrice of Radio Free School. The picture is kind of awful. I have to start sending people a different one. The problem is, I never look good in photos where I’m smiling. And no one seems willing to put a sullen one of me on their site. Anyway, Beatrice is awesome, and she asked me this question about what the world would be like without school that really tripped me up. Listen to it, don’t read the transcription. I’m sure I sound smarter that way. But not positive, because I can’t listen to it, because I’m too embarrassed by the sound of my own voice.

Also, check out Idzie’s list of unschooling blogs by teenagers and grown unschoolers. That’s how I found the post that inspired this post.

P.S. If you could pick a super power, what would it be? This is still one of my favorite questions. I would pick shape-shifting. Because I want to be able to fly, but also, you know, do EVERYTHING else.

13 comments to The trouble with being exceptional

  • Okay, this is going to sound lame, but it’s really really genuine.

    In regards to the super power question.

    I would want to be completely self-less. All of the time. Super Self-less Girl, they could call me.

    Selfishness is just such a buzzkill, for everyone involved. It’d be nice to be the anti-buzzkill to a incredibly buzzkilled world.

    • kate

      I like how many times you said “buzzkill” in this comment :)

      That is a very surprising choice of superpower. I wonder what that would even mean…I think I might be too selfish to imagine it!

  • Love your writing style! I shared this with my 15 year old who is determined to get her second novel published before she is “old.” Publishers anyone?

    Just want to let readers know,we at Radio Free School have interviewed close to 18 grown unschoolers or their parents and we share this with you on the blog. Simply click on the link Grown Unschoolers under Popular Posts.

    BTW- I think Kate’s photo is beautiful. She reminds me of a renaissance painting. Captivating face.

    • kate

      Your daughter and I need to talk. I also was writing my second novel at that age, and I had the goal of being published by 16. Actually, I’m planning a post called “Why do all unschooled girls write novels?” or something along those lines :)

      Anyway, my 16th birthday was kind of depressing for that reason. But I wish her better luck!

      And thanks for the compliment on the photo!

  • Spidey-sense. For when all other senses fail.

  • Loved this. Especially these bits:

    Because hardly anyone who tries really hard to be exceptional is ever exceptional enough for themselves.

    You fail and fail and fail, because you can’t see your own success.

    I’ve been pondering this stuff quite a lot lately; my disatisfaction with the year that just passed, even though I achieved what many people would perceive to be a phenomenal amount – and certainly had a lot of fun along the way, in any case. I keep vacillating between thinking I should be working harder, and thinking I should just relax a little and enjoy the process… even if the goals take a little longer to read.

    Anyway, loved the post. Would you be willing for me to republish it on my own blog?

  • listening to your interview. reading your stuff. loving you. absolutely.

    so – you play chess and speak Hebrew?
    i have a student swapping out Hebrew lessons for chess lessons with a couple kids in a Jewish school in Australia. (we’re in colorado)

    would love for the 2 of you to skype, if that’s possible.

    what do you teach?

    • kate

      Hey Monika! Thanks for reading.
      I play chess very badly and am far from fluent in Hebrew, though, like many kids who went to Hebrew School, I can read it phonetically, and, because I took Hebrew in college, understand some of it. I wish I could do both a lot better.

      I teach Jewish education in an interfaith organization that provides dual religious education to kids from Jewish/Christian families.

  • […] But I do understand her point about being really involved with her kids lives, and not letting them watch TV (it’s a waste of time!! It eats your brain!), and pushing them to be amazing at stuff. Because it’s true that when you’re actually really good at something, it feels awesome. The problem is when you think that the most important thing is being good at everything. I wrote about this here. […]

  • I don’t want to sound too misanthropic here, but the fact that you are articulate, curious, self-aware, and empathetic makes you exceptional!

    My kids asked me the superpower question a while back, and I told them I’d want to be able to point at any room and make it clean! Not like Mary Poppins, where the toys march themselves to the toybox, but INSTANTLY clean!

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