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Resilience: man stands atop of a mountain

Resilience Is an Unnatural Skill for GT Students

The Campaign for Confidence is winding down and we’re moving our focus onto another important skill: resilience. If confidence is getting into the saddle, then resilience is climbing back in after a fall.

Many people use tough and resilient interchangeably, but for me they aren’t synonyms. Toughness is the ability to endure pain or discomfort, but resilience requires you to manage your emotions. They’re entirely different skill sets, and – while both have value – only resilience can be exercised before, during, and after an important event.

Unfortunately, this is something most gifted and talented students aren’t able to do.

Why Gifted/Talented students lack resilience

G/T students are powerhouses. They perform well in the classroom, challenge their classmates, and often juggle a number of other activities. Parents and teachers alike expect G/T students to succeed, and they normally do.

That’s the problem.

The perfectionism that drives gifted and talented students to work hard also prevents them from learning certain outside-the-classroom lessons.

Instead of taking each good grade as its own triumph, G/T students use their experiences as high achievers to draw conclusions about the future. As a mathematician, I respect that. (What’s the point of a data set unless you’re going to use it?) But as an educator, it worries me.

That’s because students who succeed easily get used to it.

High scores and first-attempt victories become their normal. While that feels good, those who constantly succeed never get to experience the best part of falling down: getting back up.

Defining resilience

At its core, resilience is the mental and emotional flexibility needed to process negative situations without losing focus of your goals. Sure, you may face unexpected results, but you won’t let them tear you down.

People who practice resilience do two things that most of us don’t:

  1. They manage expectations going into stressful situations
  2. They manage their emotional reactions afterwards

That’s all resilience is. It’s about tempering your expectations on the way in and managing your reaction coming back out.

How a lack of resilience kept me out of grad school

I graduated high school as a very successful student with a very specific goal: I was going to win the Field’s Medal. (If you don’t know what the Field’s Medal is, it’s like the Nobel Prize for mathematics.) From day one of college, that was my goal, and I knew I would achieve it because I was doing everything right.

The National Science Foundation has summer internships called REUs. You get them when you’re a junior.  I did my first when I was a freshman. During the same year, I published a paper in the Rose Hulman Undergraduate Math Journal.

Awesome, I thought. I’m on my path! I’m completing the journey.

An obstacle arises

When sophomore year comes, I’m ready to keep the ball rolling, but I get sick. Bipolar sick.

Even though I was in bad shape, I stuck to the path. All I’m thinking is that I won’t be derailed. Field’s Medal winners don’t get beat because of a little sickness.

The year ends and I do another REU. Now, I’m at Mt. Holyoke.

At Mt. Holyoke, something incredible happens. I come up with a mathematics result that’s never been seen. It’s new. I’m the first one ever, and part of me can’t believe it.

I totally came up with something that’s never been come up with before,” I remember thinking.

Of course, it feels incredible, but I can’t finish the paper. I’m too sick. Still, I’m going to stay on the path. I gotta stay on the path. “First time in the history of mathematics…” That’s the kind of thing they say right before they hand you your Field’s Medal.

No way I’m going to quit now.

And another…

So, I take the GRE. I get my scores back – and I’m devastated! My scores are horrible. I can’t go to grad school. It’s not an option. I hide my scores from everyone. The plan falls apart.

I don’t go to grad school. I don’t earn my Field’s Medal.

Looking back, I never had a chance. The shock of falling from my mountainous expectations and the consequences of my poor emotional control threw me entirely off my course.

Some story, huh?

Well, it gets better. In early November 2017, I was talking with my brother and found out that my scores were good enough. They were good enough! All this time, I could’ve gone to grad school.

But I had such high expectations going into the GRE that my stumble felt like a jump from an untethered bungee. The “failure” was a tremendous letdown and my reaction after the fact killed any chance that I would bounce back. After all, can’t get into grad school if you won’t show anyone your GRE scores.

Bottom line: I had no resilience, and it cost me big-time.

Fortunately, I learned later in life that the Field’s Medal wasn’t actually that important to me. It was a symbol for my love of math. Becoming a mathematics rockstar would’ve been fun, but my real goal was just to surround myself with math (something I’ve done beautifully).

How resilience could have helped

That story has more than one instance where I could have used some resilience, but the event that really stands out for me is obviously the GRE.

Lower expectations would have prevented poor scores from becoming such a blow to my self-esteem. With better emotional control, I may have shared my scores and learned that grad school was a reality for me. But maybe not. The truth is that if it hadn’t been the GRE that tripped me up, it would’ve been something else.

Because I only saw one path to success, I created ridiculous expectations in all areas of my studies. I envisioned having just a single opportunity to reach all of my academic goals. My journey to the Field’s Medal was like a machine with countless single points of failure. If any important event turned out poorly, utter catastrophe would result.

A buildup of either resilience skill – expectation temperance or reaction mitigation – could have brought my goals within my reach. Who knows? I may have bounced back and finished my paper. More breakthroughs could have followed. I just didn’t have the resilience.

I don’t want my students to look back at the challenges they’re facing today and realize that they let a single setback derail their plans. This can happen easily to the gifted and talented students who learned all the formulas and axioms, but never got the opportunity to develop academic grit. That’s why I’m teaching resilience in my one-on-ones, in my small group settings, and even to non-students in local high schools.

Keep coming back for more information about resilience, how path-setting can take some of the pressure off, and why internet kittens could be your secret weapon. In the meantime, share this post on Facebook or leave a comment on Twitter.