“Just Do Your Best”, The Gifted Child Catchphrase

Sometimes it just can’t be helped. Your gifted student, gifted child, gifted friend is very upset about their upcoming test, project, sporting event, job, etc. and all you want to do is reassure them. So you say it: “Just do your best.”  The meaning is well-intended: “Don’t worry so much.  You can do this!  You are too hard on yourself!”  Often this phrase is uttered by a teacher, parent, or friend who just can’t understand why the gifted child’s anxiety is so extreme… and it can be extreme.  “Just do your best” is trying to convey encouragement–but that is not what is actually heard.  And the reaction can be dramatic.

Anyone who has ever witnessed this can attest to the fact that the gifted individual does not hear the intended support. They might experience the encouragement as condescending, missing the point, or dismissive. This can apply to both gifted young students and hard working adults.

The reality is that this phrase is far from perfect. It professes acceptance of imperfection and advocates for lowering standards and has a way of communicating, “Hey, whatever is stressing you out is not actually a big deal.  What’s wrong with you?  Relax!” If the gifted individual in the throes of desperation could relax–and realize that their efforts are competent and can be improved upon later–then they wouldn’t be having a problem in the first place, now would they? Saying “Just do your best” is actually just describing the problem, not supporting a solution.

This may seem ridiculous, but the result of such an exchange is nothing to laugh at. Now there are two people who don’t feel that they are being heard or that their feelings are worthwhile. The gifted child feels belittled and misunderstood, and the supportive individual, bemused, stomps away feeling inadequate and frustrated. Parents of a gifted child struggling like this are particularly vulnerable to feelings of insecurity because they know that they will love their child no matter what and that they have so much to offer. “Why can’t my child just understand that?!” In the end no one feels better and no effort is made to resolve the situation.  Far from the intended sentiment.

What is not understood here (on both sides) is that giftedness–defined as extremes in human development–naturally creates gaps between an individual’s capability to comprehend and extrapolate upon, and their ability to perform and produce. It doesn’t matter how advanced their ability level is, if a gifted individual is struggling with the anxiety of perfectionism, they are wrestling with a gap in their skills on some level. This means that in order to deal with perfectionism, the individual must constantly strive to improve their skills (even if they believe them to be maxed out). When a gifted child plateaus in their skill development, they often endeavor to do the same things that worked previously but at an increased intensity. This only confounds the problem because they are not learning anything new, just repeating inadequate attempts “harder”.  No new strategies to deal with whatever obstacle they are facing, no new skills.  Thus their growth is stunted. It doesn’t matter if that person is 15 or 45; the same process holds true.

The ultimate problem with using the phrase, “Just do your best” is that it doesn’t lead to a conversation about how to work more efficiently before the 11th hour. The gifted child, even the adolescent who claims to not care, wants their performance to match up with their advanced comprehension. It is the desire of every human being to function in the world as effectively as they know they can, but the hard work is admitting that the process of improving oneself is not easy and often requires a major overhaul of how things are done. Different and improved study habits, practice, methods of support, communication…take your pick.

Now the challenging part; instead of saying “Do your best,” go convince that gifted child that beating their head against the wall won’t help and that they need to try something different! Good luck.