Advice for a Wunderkind

Someone I know has come home for the summer after their first difficult year of college, struggling with anxiety and depression. They started as a junior because of dual enrollment credits, and they’re attending with a prestigious scholarship about an arcane and technical subject.

Nobody that brilliant would ask me directly for advice, so I’ll write it here to be taken or left.


When I started college thirty years ago this coming August, I had the weird kind of smarts that were hard to distinguish from being a deranged idiot. I think I had a lot of raw mental horsepower that I didn’t know how to control, like putting a rocket engine on a unicycle, and back then it was common for educators to step back and just hope people like me wouldn’t become serial killers.

My cunning vocational scheme was to earn a PhD in English, become a famous writer with an adoring audience of voting age readers, and then run for public office to become the first truly literary President who would save the world with a sense of wit and epic drama.  

Even Manson’s Helter Skelter made more sense than that.

This “genius” showed up with a single milk crate of possessions and his sister had to buy him a toaster because he didn’t think of that.

I felt like a lot of people had high expectations for me, but none higher than my own. I didn’t have the added pressure of your scholarships and a global pandemic thrumming through everything in life like the cosmic microwave background, so I can only imagine how much harder it is for you.

The odd thing about being a wunderkind is that people are either watching you intensely to perform or they’re not looking at you at all, and it’s hard to tell which is worse.

  • If they’re watching, you have the pressure of living up to their hopes and investment in you.
  • If they’re not watching, you have to decide what YOU find important enough to do, and it’s hard to imagine anything worth doing if it isn’t measured or judged.  

When faced with the risk of disappointing other people or disappointing myself, I always went for the latter. I never took a single creative writing course in college because I couldn’t face the possibility that I’d fail at something that mattered so much to me.

(That may not be an issue for you, but I’m guessing that being thought of as smart in your subject isn’t helping.)

It took me years to learn that the key to getting anything done for people like us with anxiety and depression is to lower the stakes. Even though it feels like we’re failing for not taking our work seriously enough, the truth is that we’re taking it too seriously.

Pressure amplifies anxiety and depression, and though some of it isn’t avoidable, one kind is: the pressure you put on yourself, especially at the start of something new.

Here are some things to know:

  • It’s likely that some experimentation is still required for whatever medication you’re taking. It took about three years for them to get mine straight, and I’ve been taking the same meds for fifteen years now. And while I’m perhaps not a paragon of productivity, I’m getting shit done and not hating myself, so there’s that.
  • It’s also likely that no amount of rational thought will lead you out of the way you’re feeling, so don’t make yourself feel worse for your “failure” to do that.
  • One thing you’ll learn as you get older is to take some of your own thoughts less seriously. We’re smart, but not every thought is gold. Some of what we think comes from bad evolutionary software or failures of neurotransmitters, and one easy way to know the difference is to assume that almost all judgments of your own abilities are deeply skewed.  
  • Meditation can help you separate your thoughts from your “self.” I’m told LSD can do that too, but I’ve never tried it. Meditation is probably safer.  
  • The most powerful word I know for people intimidated by their own work is “tinker.” I don’t try things or plan them or even do the most important things…I tinker with them, playing around to see what works or feels better in each iterating experiment.
  • You’ve gotten where you are quickly, but you actually have a lot more time than you think you do. You don’t have to decide everything right now.
  • If you have discovered that you don’t love the thing you thought you did, that’s perfectly okay. If you’ve discovered that you do still love it but not in this time and place and circumstance, that’s okay, too. If you’ve discovered that you love it so much that you’re afraid to risk screwing it up, then just know that nothing stays screwed up forever.
  • If you woke up tomorrow and said, “Fuck this, I’m going to HVAC school,” every member of your family would have your back.
  • Take this summer and do absolutely nothing of consequence. I’d suggest walking, though. Maybe not in the middle of the night in the hood like I used to. Ask yourself some questions in a journal, too; one that always works for me is, “What the fuck am I doing here, really?”

That’s a lot to take in, and it’s possible your summer is over now that you’ve read it. The upshot is this:

There are people who will care about you no matter how you decide to apply your talent.

Try to be one of them.