Does the term “gifted” make you cringe?  Have you been trying to convince yourself and everyone around you that you’re not, in fact, gifted, because you don’t want to be associated with the negative connotations of the word?  If this sounds like you, then it’s likely that you’re also struggling with underachievement, the state where you’re purposely hiding your gifts.

To understand how you got here, let’s take the Oscar-winning movie Good Will Hunting as a case study. In it, Matt Damon’s character, Will Hunting, is a mathematical genius who consciously chooses to ignore his gift, working instead as a janitor at MIT.

Will is a classic underachiever, a person who has proven high abilities, but hides them for a variety of reasons. In his case, his abusive childhood in the foster care system prompts him to cling tightly to the circle of friends who were his only source of love and validation for so many years. He is convinced that if he follows the typical path of a brilliant mathematician, he will lose his friends, who embrace a low-brow lifestyle centering around beer, sports and good-natured-insult-filled camaraderie.  Instead, he chooses to become a custodian and stay where he’s comfortable.  In the process, the world loses the potential contributions of his brilliant mind.  

In true Hollywood fashion, Will learns that his friends’ respect for him transcends any feelings of jealousy or abandonment, and in fact, they wish he would go for the brass ring of success because they want to see him happy. The classic gut-punch quote comes from Will’s friend Chuckie (Ben Affleck), who tells him, “Look – you’re my best friend, so don’t take this the wrong way. In twenty years, if you’re still livin’ here, comin’ over to my house to watch the Patriots games, still workin’ construction, I’ll f-in’ kill you.”  After much soul-searching, Will eventually decides to leave the safety of his hometown and search for a more challenging future in California. 

There are a number of reasons why gifted people choose to hide their gifts, mostly centered around fear.  Unfortunately, this strategy is tragically short-sighted and can lead to serious emotional distress in later life, especially when the person in question begins to feel as though their relationships are shallow and their life lacks meaning. 

Underachievement comes from a combination of a person’s innate personality, the messages they heard during their formative years, and choices they’ve made to protect themselves along the way.  This is not to say that blame lies anywhere. It’s simply an unfortunate combination of feedback loops that can inadvertently create a person who is uncomfortable with his own talents and focused on avoiding challenge (and therefore failure).

Some people who sailed through their school years never actually learned the skills necessary to succeed as their workload has grown harder, so they purposely avoid putting themselves in positions where they might struggle to achieve success.

Other people who do well early on never learned how to handle failure, and completely fall apart when they run up against a challenge that is hard for them. Again, the fear of making public mistakes drives them to hide in places where they’re guaranteed an easy win. 

Still other people have internalized the messages they received from their family, teachers and friends, either feeling uncomfortable with praise for their intelligence (impostor syndrome), or trying to hide their abilities in order to fit in.

A person who is recognized as smart tends to be praised effusively, a tactic which can backfire as the individual begins to feel they are only valued when they are producing perfect work. Their identity becomes so entangled with their intelligence that when they run into a situation where work is hard, or they don’t do as well as they expect they should, they will either panic and assume that all the love they had been given will be taken away, or they will suddenly begin to doubt themselves, and become convinced that they are a fraud. “How could something be hard if I’m supposedly so smart? I must not be smart after all.”

Depending on the personality of that person, she will react to these epiphanies in one of two ways. She may become a perfectionist, convinced that she must remain “the best” in order to continue to receive love and attention she craves, or she may turn in the complete opposite direction. She may decide that remaining “smart” is too difficult (especially since she has set “perfect” as her goal), so she may quit trying altogether, because she doesn’t want to fail. We all claim to understand that no one is perfect, but in practice, many of us are struggling quietly with unrealistic expectations of ourselves.

The pressure to be “gifted,” or to perform at a certain level, can weigh heavily. A person with low self-esteem won’t believe that he can achieve what his family and teachers expect of him. Some people have a low sense of personal control over their own lives (that can come from having overprotective parents, or overly controlling parents), and view their successes as luck but their failures as their fault. Other people suffer from “learned helplessness,” which again comes from parents who do too much for their children, and causes them to have a misguided view of the relationship between effort and outcome.

Underachievement is a type of a protective shell, but it is also a learned behavior, which means it can be unlearned.  For a help on your journey from self-doubt to self-confidence, check out my free Overcoming Impostor Syndrome Toolkit.  This guided journal includes 20+ pages of tutorials, exercises, activities and personal reflection pages. 

“You got somethin’ none of us have….I’d do f-in anything to have what you got.”

— Chuckie, to Will Hunting

“My boy’s wicked smart.”

— Will Hunting’s friend Morgan, extolling his virtues