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When Smart Isn't So Smart

When Smart Isn’t So Smart

By Mir Kamin

I don’t know why I was so surprised to watch the same process unfolding with my kids that I went through as a teen and young adult, but it still caught me off guard. Maybe I’d forgotten about it—it certainly wasn’t a shining time in my personal history—or maybe I’d just hoped they could avoid it. Maybe I’d half-groaned my way through various articles and think pieces on “twice-exceptional” kids, and even though the designation fits my own children, I’ve never wanted to be one of those people with my special snowflakes and a corresponding list of reasons why their lives are hard.

Because… both of my children are gifted, which means their innate intelligence is very high, and many things come easily to them. But also… both of my children have learning differences, so yes, they meet the definition of twice-exceptional, even though that term makes me want to poke out my own eyeballs. (I realize it evolved to foster understanding of, to put it bluntly, how really smart kids sometimes feel or appear less smart, but it feels pretentious to me, somehow.) In some ways, sure, their lives are hard because of this. In other ways, their lives have been immeasurably simpler because at the end of the day, they’re really, really smart, which tends to make a lot of things easier. I am uncomfortable with any discussion of “how hard” it is to be gifted. It’s a leg up, in many ways, and while it does present specific challenges, I am simply uneasy with the notion of it being a handicap.

Even knowing all of this, even having once-upon-a-time been a gifted kid, myself, I was shocked when faced with the cold, hard truth enough times that I had to accept it: My gifted kids are lazy, but they don’t know it. Worse, it’s making them think they’re stupid.

This isn’t uncommon, and I’ll cop to a similar trajectory, myself. When you’re smarter than most of your peers, school work is easy, and you finish it sooner. You rarely have to try to accomplish what’s set in front of you. And if this goes on for long enough, I guess you start believing that everything should be that way. Because you’re smart! And school is easy! It’s all you’ve known. All those praises you receive for having “worked so hard” or “really giving your all” are garnered without breaking a sweat… or maybe even from finishing your homework on the bus the morning that it’s due. No biggie. The problem is that eventually, for most of us, sometime in your teens you reach a point where it’s not easy anymore. You’ve done so well in school, you start taking advanced courses, and those require actual effort, or you pick up a new activity that doesn’t click right away. And if you’re one of those gifted, kind of lazy people? You assume the world is ending. If you can’t do it right away, your whole life as a high-performer has been a lie. You used to be smart, but now you’re not!

Is it fallacious reasoning? Of course! You don’t suddenly “get dumb,” and needing to work hard isn’t an indicator of intelligence (or lack thereof). If you’ve spent your whole lifetime believing everything should come easily, though, it can be a real ego blow.

Here’s where I blow my kids’ cover, to explain what I mean. Bear in mind that we’ve addressed these situations (without shame, I hope) and the goal is always to help them understand that it’s not about their smartness or their worth, but what it means to commit to working hard.

Example 1: After a lifetime of high achievement on a ridiculously accelerated math track—which delighted me to no end, as math has never been my subject—my daughter enrolled in AP Calculus this year, as a high school junior. I barely got out of Calc alive as a college freshman, so I was nothing but impressed and excited for her. About a month in, however, it got… hard. There was a lot of homework and it was complicated. A different sort of kid might’ve worked harder/longer, gone to the teacher for help, asked about tutoring… stuff like that. My kid, however, my gifted child, opted to… stop doing her work altogether. This enraged me, once we discovered it, because who does that? (Answer: My kid.) She made sure she was so far behind by the time the drop period was drawing to a close that the teacher was in full agreement that she should drop the class, because there was no practical way for her to catch up. I’m ashamed to admit that it wasn’t until much later that I realized she did this because she was convinced she was stupid and incapable of doing the work required—all because she had never had to work so hard to understand, before. That entire scenario went down with me trying to teach her about responsibility, when really it was a missed opportunity for me to help her understand that her ability and even self-worth do not hinge upon homework being effortless.

Example 2: This one was more recent, and my bungling of the situation with my daughter set us up for greater success with my son. (Sorry, kids… can’t we just be glad I’m batting .500?) At a recent band concert, I watched as my son stood frozen at his marimba and barely played for an entire song. When I (gently) asked him what happened, afterward, he exploded into a diatribe about how he’s just bad at music and never does anything right. Guess who got a brand new wooden xylophone for home practice for Christmas this year? Guess who hasn’t used it even once? When I mentioned the dreaded P word (practice), he insisted he practices plenty in his band class at school… but in unraveling the issue, yes, he practices plenty in his percussion class and promptly got lost when performing with the entire band (which he rarely does) because it was “really noisy” and he hadn’t practiced enough with the entire ensemble. His conclusion: He’s terrible at everything. My conclusion: Make a habit of practicing at home while listening to the recording of the entire band. (Bonus music teacher’s added solution: write in instrumental cues on his sheet music like “trumpets here” and such so that he can recover if he gets lost.) After a couple of days of being mad at the world and convinced he’s terrible at everything, my kiddo is back to feeling capable. Hooray! Too bad we had to wander through the valley of the shadow of I’m So Dumb, I Can’t Do It to get there, though.

I know plenty of gifted kids who are also hard workers, but I know many more (not just my own kids) who suffer from this sort of laziness and precarious self-image where anything “hard” sends them into a tailspin. I did a mini “Oh God it turns out I’m really dumb” crash-and-burn my first semester of college, and while I obviously survived (and learned how to apply myself), I’d rather my kids not follow in those particular footsteps. How do we help these kids learn the value of hard work—and that it’s a feature, not a error, of being smart—before they’re out on their own?

Mir Kamin
About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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Comments

  • Jean

    This is my son now (age almost 11) finishing elementary school. He is very smart and very rarely struggles on anything. BUt man if he doesn’t “get” something immediately – he is stupid and will never learn. *sigh*

    • YES! I keep saying it’s like living with Don Music from Sesame Street. The first hint of trouble and BAM, “I’ll never get it right!!”

      • Is it bad that my husband and I have been know to do the Don Music bit when our children get stuck in that mode? 

      • Carrie

        Don Music is my 8 year old daughter! It’s really to the point of ridiculous – if she reads a math word problem incorrectly and doesn’t immediately know what to do, there is wailing and gnashing of teeth (“I don’t get it!!!!”) and she cannot right herself and start over until I walk over and say, “read it to me. Are you SURE that’s what it is asking?” and then she’s right back on her way. I live in fear of the first time she’s really challenged and can’t figure it out in short order. 

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  • HG

    Oh gosh, yes. This describes my kids.

  • Ann

    That was so totally me. Regrettably, I feel like that laziness coupled with lack of confidence if it doesn’t come automatically has continued into my work life (hence the reading of blogs while in the office).

    Thanks for the reminder of this, I’ll have to read it again in a few years when my own little girl is a big girl and suffering through this same issue.

  • Jen S.

    Yes!  This is my son!  He is in 8th grade and we are just starting to get to a point where he needs to put in the extra effort and he is just not getting it.  It is very frustrating because he is so smart (also has ADHD).

  • Karen.

    I pretty much followed your freak-out-as-a-freshman track myself. Now, my son is 7 and pretty smart, but he explodes if he doesn’t get it right away (whatever it is, whether scholastic or LEGO or whatever) and then gives up. It didn’t occur to me to approach it differently, to imagine later freakouts over being bad or dumb at something, and work backwards. Food for thought. 

  • Yeah, this is how I left my freshman year at an Ivy League university with incompletes in 3 out of 4 classes. Being bright in high school meant I had never learned to work. After a 2-year leave of absence I went back and had a very different experience, but I’ve been wary of this problem with my (very bright) children. It’s been interesting to note that while Kid #2 is very motivated and works hard and is proud of his good grades, Kid #1 skated through doing the minimum required, got good grades and is……. yeah, basically just lazy, and is therefore having a bit of a struggle at college this year.

  • Sonia

    In an ideal classroom, teachers are supposed to be challenging all of the kids… from lowest level to highest. In my kid’s school, this includes a “gifted and talented” program as well as additional assignments for the classroom that the teacher provides if the child is done with the work quickly and easily. Does this happen everywhere or even with the consistency it should? Probably not. But the theory if applied would definitely help build work ethic and enforce that everyone needs to work hard to accomplish their goals. I love that in our district this starts in elementary school, so kids don’t think school is a piece of cake until high school when they realize that it isn’t. With my own kids, I frequently remind them that everyone has strengths and weaknesses and you have to work twice as hard at your weaknesses. And major props and praise goes to any of my kids who step up and ask for help from someone when they need it!!! My 11 year old who goes for extra math help during lunch without me telling her to… I couldn’t be prouder.

    • vanessa

      As a teacher…this kind of differentiated instruction is almost impossible in a typical classroom. If you have a low number of kids, or for some reason have a combination of kids that lends itself to grouping easily by ability and the kids never level up or down without their cohort, then sure. But otherwise? It’s honestly almost impossible and almost no one really does it. There just aren’t enough hours in the day. I don’t know what the solution is, unfortunately. 

  • chris

    I have been dealing with this off and on for a year now with my 11.5 yr old daughter. I have been trying to warn her for a few years now that this awesome life she has had of not studying for anything ever and still getting A’s would be changing. She is also designated as gifted (as is my 3rd grader) and middle school has been a big wake up call. She now understands what I have been trying to warn her about. I have been you, child. I get it, I really do. I have a feeling though, that this will be a continual struggle for her. Some things just come easier than others and if you don’t speak up when you don’t get something, you will get yourself into trouble. Also, doing a minimal amount of work on a project, will get you a comparable grade. A’s are no longer free.

  • Amelia

    Carol Dweck’s work helped me figure out why I had such a hard time persevering, as a former gifted kid. When a kid associates ease with intelligence, then a roadblock can be scary. However, if we teach kids that it’s good to struggle, then they are willing to tackle more.

    • Pamela

      I can’t second this comment enough. I think you would really enjoy reading Mindset (Dweck’s book), and I think Chickadee would benefit too.

      Dweck discusses two mindsets (“growth” and “fixed”), that describe how we think about our abilities and ourselves. People with fixed mindset (I’m the poster child) believe that their abilities are innate and define them. When we find something hard, we think it’s because we’re not smart enough or not talented enough, and it’s terrifying and awful and we do dumb things like stopping our homework.

      People with growth mindset, on the other hand, believe that their abilities are acquired and can be improved. When they find something hard, they work harder at it, seek help, etc. 

      It’s actually kind of stunning how much of the history of a lot of former “smart kids” can be summed up by this kind of thinking, and how damaging it can be. I’m also pleased to say that I’m surprised by how possible it is to work on changing those mental habits. What can I say, it turns out that mindset is amenable to growth too. 🙂

  • Jen R

    This is/was me… and now I am watching for it in my own kids and seeing hints already in the 1st grader. After 20 days in a row of passing progressively harder speed-math tests, he missed one (by one problem). Guess what? He failed it over and over for the next two weeks because he convinced himself he couldn’t do it and math was hard.

  • Jean

    And THIS could be the reason I dropped my first college engineering class and have wondered if I really could’ve succeeded as an engineer ever since.

  • nicole

    i see this in my 8 year old already and he comes by it honestly from both parents.

    Until I was in grad school i operated on “why work to get an A when I can not work and get a C or B?” This lead to a few failed classes in college and basically switching my major no less than 10 times whenever a required class got hard. I grew out of it but good lord it took a while. My husband has a similar story. 

    I see it already in my son when he sits down at the piano to practice a new piece and his fingers don’t fly over the keyboard like they did when he first started taking piano. I see it happen when he sits down to write a story and can’t seem to make all the ideas come out onto the page. “this is too hard, I can’t do it, I want to quit”

    Then we have days where he takes care of everything on his own. He stays focused and gets his work done without pestering and nagging. And those days give me hope that he won’t follow in his lazy parent’s footsteps. 

  • Jeannie

    I also have a very gifted son who has those tendencies, which we noticed even before school started: he was happy to do things he was good at, but totally unwilling to try anything he might fail. So we decided in first grade to put him into French Immersion (in Canada) to give him a challenge. It was HARD. He had been very confident and sure of how smart he was, and six months into French (with other kids who had been doing French since kindergarten), he was wailing and proclaiming he was “stupid” and the “worst in the class”, despite all evidence to the contrary. It was very hard to watch him go through the plummeting self-esteem.

    He’s in grade three now and is one of the best readers and speakers in his class. He still says he dislikes French, and he still struggles to apply himself, but he also says that learning French is one of the things he’s most proud of — because it was so hard, but he managed to do it even so. And on his own, as my French and his dad’s is pretty elementary. Even better, his self esteem and self-evaluation is a lot more accurate — he knows he’s smart, but he also knows he has to work on things.

    I still think this tendency is innate, and that we will have to battle it for the rest of his school career, but having this early victory has still been helpful, because he is much less likely to abandon things, and more apt to try things he used to think were too hard. We’ve seen that in his English skills and even in his physical skills – he’s come leaps and bounds in other areas because he’s finally willing to try and fail.

    It’s still going to be a long road, as school continues to get harder, but FWIW, other parents might want to consider the language immersion early as a way to give your kid some early challenges and successes.

  • el-e-e

    SOOOO happy you posted this and I can’t wait to read the other comments. My 10yo son is finding some of his 5th grade math too hard and doing the same thing — “I’ll just GET A ZERO, then!”

    AND, he doesn’t ever want my help in the heat of the moment. I don’t ever know how to handle it.

  • Jamie

    Dang, my kids, too!  13 year old in 8th grade and 11 year old in 5th grade.  Both just stopped doing work at some point and have struggled with being super lazy.  Of course, if their homework were video games, they’d be super NOTLAZY…  Gotta keep pushing and reassuring them they are not stupid.

  • Liri

    Reading the book Mindset: The New Psychology Success by Carol Dweck may be of interest to you and your kids if you haven’t done so already.

  • Stephanie

    I was also labeled “gifted” in elementary school.  I never had to try, just got all A’s.  And then stumbled and barely scraped by through much of high school.  I never learned how to work at anything, so I just had no idea what to do when it wasn’t a piece of cake anymore.  I’ve seen some similar tendencies with my daughter, who is very smart and tends to be pretty good at just about anything she tries: dance, clarinet, drums, marimba…and she gets frustrated so quickly when something is more challenging than she’s used to.  She’ll say that she “worked really hard” on something when she just put in a small amount of effort.  It’s frustrating to watch, especially because I can see what she could accomplish if she’d just work harder.  
    I do see her getting a bit better about this, very slowly, as she takes more AP classes and realizes that the A’s don’t just fall out of the sky into her lap anymore.  I’ve tried to tell her that I’ve been there, and I hope that it gets through to her (even just a tiny bit), but it’s a long road.  
    One thing that I tell both of my kids (my son is much better at plugging away at things until he is proficient) that I hope they remember is that what ever they’re striving for, if they give it their best, they can walk away proud, no matter the outcome.

  • parodie

    My suggestion: give them both a speech about how the brain is a muscle and what will make them smarter is actually struggling to understand something. There’s good information about this in the Nutureshock book, but also around the web – if they start thinking about how when things are easy they’re actually _not_ learning, and learn to think about the hard things as making themselves smarter, it might help.

    But they’re teenagers so – maybe not. 🙂 One can always dream.

  • Stacy

    My 6 year old is like this.  However, we homeschool, so I really try my best to make sure she HAS to work to understand stuff (yes, I know everyone can’t homeschool, and no, I don’t think everyone should homeschool).  Because, I too would get frustrated when stuff wasn’t easy.  I want her to understand at a young age that working hard doesn’t mean you’re not smart.  I don’t think there is a magic solution though: maybe trial and error for each kid.

  • Meri

    Yeah, that was me, too. I realized in college that I had no idea how to study and I still have trouble getting stuff done without deadlines and being under pressure.

    I grew up in a nerdy town and was usually almost the best, but not quite. College helped me make peace with that because some of my classmates were incredibly brilliant. It still comes back to bite me in interviews when they ask me to compare myself to the competition. I keep mentally comparing myself to my physics cohort in college; not exactly the same field that I’ve been working in.

  • Kush

    Forgive me here if I’m slightly contrary, but a gifted child’s reluctance to engage doesn’t necessarily mean that they are lazy.  Far from it, think about how your gifted child will spend hours and hours of countless effort on unimaginably hard activities – because they delight it it.  From anecdotal experience (husband, self, 2 bright daughters) I find that it is less about laziness and work ethic and more about an immense fear of failure.

    Failure is really really scary, even for adults!  Imagine (I know everyone here can, as it seems like we were all gifted children) you’ve never failed at anything ever.  You’ve been constantly praised for your brilliance and how amazing/wonderful/genius you are.  You see the other normal kids and desperatly never want to be dumb (because your giftedness is what sets you apart and makes up for your social anxieties or specific peculiarities like ADHD, Spectrum, whathave you).  You have 15+ years of NO failure.  Of adults treating you like equals (relatively), of being teacher’s favorite, of being told uncountable times how awesome you are, because of your brilliance.

    Then one day, something happens.  You get a B on a test, you miss an obvious (or maybe complicated?) question, you don’t get a resounding endorsement from a favorite teacher. You don’t get into the college everyone (adults) told you you’d be a shoe-in for, you have no idea what your first college professor is talking about.

    Can you imagine how frightening that is for a kid?

    That’s why we all immediately go turtle.  Your kids are not lazy, they are not afraid of hard work.  Their motivator for doing work they aren’t really super enthusiastic about just got wiped from the planet.

    Maybe I just shrink from the descriptor.  But it isn’t about value in effort – it’s about whether the effort is worth it to them.  Is it worth feeling that immense void of terrifying failure again.

    I try to help my daughters know and understand failure young.  Only time will tell if it will help them learn the lesson early and not be crippled by their first lesson in ‘you-arn’t-the-greatest-human-ever’.

    • Good points, Kush. Some of it is fear of failure for sure.

  • Tonia

    I am dealing with this with my 15 yr old.

  • S

    Judging by the lack of mention this wont be a popular subject but i partially blame NCLB. It really hit my small town when i was in first grade. And wowza. It was not fun. Fortunately there were many teachers who knew the more advanced kids and would separate us out. Even to send us into the hall in elem. school to do separate harder work after pur typical classwork. What a wonderful idea to teach the sub-par students who are trying super hard and still barely getting by. Separate classrooms by intelligence, make up lessons for each or depending on the amount of pressure/work needed and watch students suceed. Students need to be held to different standards in order to reach full potential. Just my two cents. Ready to have that ripped apart.

    • I think my kids would be struggling even without NCLB (to wit: I did homeschool my son for several years and still saw these tendencies in him even when we removed all of those pressures), but I’m with you. I think NCLB created way more problems than it solved.

  • Jennifer

    OMG, please tell me that this isn’t an actual thing! I was a gifted child, too, and found school to be boring until I was finally challenged later in high school. For me, I loved it. All of a sudden I had to work harder but those ahah! moments made everything worth it. I’m not even sure how I would handle this if my kids ended up having these struggles. It sounds like you did a great job redirecting your children!

  • skubitwo

    I am So Excited that so many parents are working on This Very Problem !!! I teach the developmental math at the local university and community college and I’d be willing to bet more than half of my students were classed as gifted in grade school or junior high.
    This math class is Algebra 2 – not calculus, but 9th or 10th grade algebra. The only difference is you get to pay full college tuition for it, and it moves along twice as fast as high school.
    When I talk to the students one on one, they get it,they’re doing well in other classes, but they are totally convinced that they can’t do math, simply because they are having to work hard at it. So, smart kids, but no experience with having something not be immediately obvious.
    Nope. Don’t know how to fix it either. Same problem with my own kids. Same problem myself. At 55, I’m slowly beginning to figure I know a few things (don’t put knives in toasters).
    But, thank you for working on this now with your kids!

  • Ali

    I experienced that in 10th grade Spanish.  Yes, it was a surprise that I must pay attention to learn a new lanquage.  Also, it is possible my flirtations with Jorge competed with the teacher.

    When I came home with a D (oh, yes, straight As to a D), I sobbed so hysterically that my very southern dad said, “alright, baby girl, you are punishing yourself way better than I could manage”.   A solid parenting moment for him.

  • Kim too

    Example #1 also sounds like a very typical ADD response as well. I’m only a year into dealing with my ADD girl (who’s only 8) but oof, those times when I realize I’m raking her over the coals for a response that is right down the ADD alley. (Plus I’m dealing with my own ADD, since it turns out she comes by it legitimately. So you think I would have more understanding, but you know, not lways.) 
    Twice exceptional is  very nice, but I generally use the term double-whammy;-)
    Last thought – Backin the day, I was at a teacher training for gifted instruction, and one of the things the instructor said has stuck with me – regain self-esteemby accomplishing things that we ourselves see as difficult.We need to give our nerdlings chances to get frustrated, to get out of that comfort zone.  But it can be ahardthing todo deliberately.

  • Dana

    The fact that you are dealing with this (or trying!) now is so good!  A lot of bright students don’t hit this issue until college and then the consequences of their not knowing how to study or persevere in the face of difficulty are much greater.  I deal with these students as pre-med students very often.  Good luck!

  • Chris

    I can relate to this post and so many of these comments!

    My twin boys are bright: one in a gifted class since 4th grade, the other a near miss at screening w/ADHD. Neither has had to work hard in regular classes in their early years.  Now in 7th grade, they often still don’t need to work hard – except when they do.  They are also very athletic and coordinated, so sports generally come easy – except when they don’t.  Consequently, we’ve experienced the full range of reactions to challenges they didn’t anticipate!

    I’ve never forgotten what one of their Kindergarten teachers said in an email, which I saved:

    “Children who are used to having things come easily can feel frustrated quite quickly when up against a tall challenge.  Children who struggle all the time assume that is the way things are and struggle through hard things.”

    I’ve always been grateful that she shared this wisdom early in their school careers. 

  • Lynn

    Oh wow, you are describing me to a T. Always the smart kid, always the top grades, always the teacher’s pet. Pretty much skated by in school while working moderately hard.

    I had a couple big papers and classes that I still remember from college — either I had trouble and just accepted my “D” because I couldn’t own up to really not understanding the work, or I dropped the class after too many freak outs.

    I still struggle with it. I had to read new-to-me and complicated budget sheets in my job recently. When I didn’t immediately understand them, I was near tears in the budget director’s office. I was super embarrassed, but at least I know now that I have that tendency to shut down if I don’t get something immediately. I will try as hard as I can not to repeat this for my kids.

    And I’ll have to read Carol Dweck’s book – glad to see the recommendation in the comments!

  • S

    My son is very smart at things but we have challenged him to overcome hard things and not throw a fit. We have been playing a game everyday that was challenging but he was capable of doing. He has stopped the fits. I give him more challenging work and teach him two languages so that he can learn to challenge himself. Like the responses above, if you always hear from the teachers that you are good and it took no effort, this will lead to problems. Like above responses my brother heard how good he was all the way through school and in high school and college was a lazy student. I had to work harder and went much farther academically. It’s a balance and a huge challenge. S

  • Shelly

    OMG this IS my son!!!! I was never so happy to see someone graduate in my life! And college is hell!!!!! WORSE than secondary school. I’m really afraid my genius is going to end up living under a bridge.

  • Ann

    This made me stop and think… Somehow I never realized that my lack of effort in school must have looked like “hard work” thanks to the results! I just felt embarrassed when people said I’m doing a great job. Of course, college was a totally different story. I’ve been kind of sad lately that my little boy doesn’t seem to love books and learning as much as I did, but after reading this post, I see a silver lining. He’ll have to work harder in school, but it’ll be good for him in the long run…

  • Beck

    So one thing that I found helpful here was to learn about learning theory. The stages of learning- unconsciously incompetent, conciously incompetent, consciously competent, unconsciously competent. It was incredibly comforting to see right there in science that you have to suck at something before you can be good at it. I also spent a lot of time learning about dog training- which helped me grasp the concept of breaking down a task or a goal into smaller pieces. I didn’t learn this until my late 20’s. At least not for all tasks and goals. I wish I’d known about it going into college. I frequently changed my major when it became apparent I couldn’t get 3.5’s or better I a curriculum. How dumb. Better to have challenged myself and done something worthwhile than settle for the major I did.