I Grew Up As A “Gifted Kid” – Here’s Why Singaporeans Should Know About Burnout Sooner Than Later

Gifted kid burnout – What it was like going from A’s to F’s

The typical “gifted kid” can easily be spotted in a crowded room: they’re the ones that one loud auntie can’t stop bragging about at family gatherings. Or, whoever your parents often bring up as a stellar role model to compare you to. Growing up, I was that kid.

While we often take it as a blessing from the heavens, giftedness can turn into a curse for a child in the long run – take it from someone who received constant praise and even looks of envy from relatives. Here is how growing up with the “gifted kid” identity affected me years down the road.

What being “gifted” means in Singapore

In the Singaporean context, being “gifted” is defined as advanced learners who pick up reading, maths and/or science faster than their peers at an early age. These kids are usually filtered out via the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) identification exercise in Primary 3.

Those who pass will be offered a place in a school that hosts the GEP such as Anglo-Chinese, Raffles Girls’ Primary, and Rosyth School. That said, parents often vie to get their kids into the GEP which helps groom children with high intellect. 

While there is already existing pressure on regular students to excel, the pressure is harder on gifted kids as they are expected to maintain their intellectual dominance over others. One mistake or failure can lead to eternal shame for the child and their family – at least, it’s easy for the child to feel like it.

Having “gifted talent” since kindergarten

As for me, I picked up reading faster than my peers in kindergarten. My nose was often in any book I could get my hands on, ranging from Enid Blyton to those mini Reader’s Digest magazines. I even got my first scholarship when I was in nursery, where my school fees were waived.

Relatives and parents of schoolmates would go on to use me as a benchmark. A relative once saw me reading a book at the age of 3 and called out to my mum in awe at my reading abilities. With his daughter being close to my age, he would often make comparisons and thus planted the relative rivalry we all know and loathe.

I’ve received bursary awards for almost every year of primary school.
Image credit: Nur Hidaya

In primary school, the parents of my schoolmates would flock to my mother, asking how I got so smart. Funny thing was that she had no idea how. 

Like most gifted students, I cruised through primary school without any extra tuition, enrichment classes, or studying – I didn’t even know how to study. Though, I should mention that I didn’t get into the GEP. 

My mother was thankful for this as it meant I didn’t have to face the pressure that came with it. Despite that, I continued to excel through primary school, where my mother would get me story and assessment books recommended by teachers to accommodate my pace.

2 of the trophies I won from
Malay competitions in primary school, though it’s rather rusty now.
Image adapted from: Nur Hidaya

It was here that I found that I had a knack for public speaking and languages. My mother spurred me to join school competitions such as storytelling and inter-class debates. Now, I also had weaknesses, one of them being forgetfulness. I once forgot I was taking part in a Primary 5 inter-class Malay speech competition, so I winged it. Lo and behold, I came out 2nd place.

I continued my winning streak when I entered secondary school, ranking 2nd in class in Sec 2.
Image credit: Nur Hidaya

NGL, it fed my ego to be able to succeed with little to no effort. I felt special and held onto that feeling for as long as I could.

Hitting a brick wall in Sec 3

Everything was fine and dandy until Sec 3 – the beginning of my “gifted kid burnout”. I went through streaming and picked a combo consisting of A-Maths, Pure Chemistry, and Pure Physics, thinking my natural intellect could carry me. I was also under the impression that I should take higher-level STEM subjects since I aced everything in school. Boy was I wrong.

I was failing miserably in most of my classes. Comically so in A-Maths that I was never really able to pass.
Image credit: Nur Hidaya

This was the first time I struggled academically, and often crammed right before papers and hoped for the best; it was what I was used to, after all. Flip, flip, and I’m good to go. But that same tactic didn’t fly anymore with how complex the subjects now were. 

At that time, I had aimed to go to junior college (JC) – influenced by my unconscious bias that it was “where all the smart people went”. Since I identified as a gifted kid, I thought that was the route I should die-die follow. Yet with my dwindling grades in upper secondary, the goal of getting into a good JC was getting more distant by the day. 

Suddenly, success was not effortless anymore. I started to panic. I questioned my intellect – my “giftedness”. 

The expectations that others – envious outsiders and teachers who saw my potential – had, were also weighing me down. I let them define who I was and being unable to meet those expectations left me crumbling.

But the heaviest of expectations was my own. The standards I put on myself were high and I ended up becoming quite the self-hater which led me to beat myself over missed targets and failed papers. I thought, “I’m smart! I’m gifted, so I should be able to do this!”

Scaling the brick wall

I arranged jobs from “definitely interested” to “definitely not interested” during an ECG counselling session and the majority of the jobs I liked were in the media industry.

It was not until I decided to get Education and Career Guidance (ECG) counselling that my perspective on educational paths changed. I found that my interests and skills lined up with those of the media industry, and I didn’t necessarily have to go to JC to pursue a career there.

Not gonna lie, I was hesitant when my ECG counsellor handed me polytechnic pamphlets. She explained the hands-on fun to be had and how industry-prepared it would make me. 

Yet… I had doubts. Maybe I was ashamed because of my preconceived notions of polytechnics. I was supposed to be the gifted kid. Why was I “stepping down” to attend a polytechnic instead of flying high in JC?

But realistically, going to a polytechnic was the best choice. Not only would I have a higher chance of getting in, but I could also pursue something I actually enjoyed doing. The maths and science I often struggled with would be out of the equation. So I brought this idea to my mother – a little afraid of whether she would be disappointed. 

Once again, she showed her support. She was receptive to the idea and even said it was a perfect fit for my talkative personality. If anything, her unwavering support was a beacon of light in my sea of confusion and shame. And so, I subsequently got into my first choice – Communications and Media Management at Temasek Polytechnic (TP).

Gifted kid burnout: Confusing smarts with success

In polytechnic, I did all right in my business subjects in the first semester. However, there were still challenges that lay ahead for me.

Final Year Project (FYP) was especially stressful given the weightage and how we needed to consistently put out work to get everything done by the deadline.
Image credit: Nur Hidaya

When group and individual projects came pouring in, I really struggled. I found myself rushing assignments and being unable to pace myself. With media modules, there were no clear-cut answer sheets. Instead, the “answers” were subjective, such as with graphic design which required an eye for design that was pleasing to the lecturers. 

In retrospect, I realise it was the consequence of my lack of regular studying and structure from my younger days. The polytechnic framework required consistent work from semester to semester, regardless of exam papers and group projects. In other words, I could not rely on my smarts to rush a 60% individual project the night before.

The experience truly humbled me and forced me to shed my “gifted kid” label. It was hard to let it go since it was what had been feeding my self-esteem from young. It didn’t help that I still felt guilty for not attending JC, thinking I had let those around me down.

Outing with friends a day before my birthday. I was anxious about uni applications but hid it with humour.
Image credit: Nur Hidaya

The real killer was applying to uni after graduating from TP. I had hoped to further my studies at Nanyang Technological University and applied there – I even sent an application via the Aptitude Based Admissions. After the first rejection, I grew anxious but tried to stay optimistic and appealed. Rejected. Again. On the morning of my birthday. 

I felt my hopes and dreams shatter. I blamed myself and cried alone, refusing to show how affected I was. For the first time in my life, my future seemed bleak.

Understanding the gifted kid conundrum

It’s been a year since I sent in my application. 

A few months ago, I stumbled upon videos on gifted kids being considered as special needs, and why being gifted actually makes life harder. It made me realise that being gifted was a curse of its own, despite praise from society.

Image credit:

The term “gifted kid burnout” has also been circulating on social media – the downfall from promising kid to hopeless adult. 

As being smart is tagged to effortless success, we gifted kids end up doubting our identity when success suddenly doesn’t come easy. *Insert shocked Pikachu face*

When I realised that my “spiral into stupidity” was gifted kid burnout, I was oddly relieved. I realised I wasn’t “losing my gift” or living a lie – I was simply exhausted.

If you or your child is identified as a gifted kid, you can avoid this by not tying schoolwork to their personal values. Instead, identify what they personally find meaningful – it could be anything from helping cancer patients to an interest in music. This encourages long-term motivation to pursue something that brings them fulfilment.

According to Davidson Institute, another way to relieve or prevent gifted kid burnout is to encourage the child to pick up hobbies which can help them de-stress and take a break from academics.

Lessons I learnt from being a gifted kid

My first piece of advice to anyone with a gifted kid: get them to start studying regularly, with advanced study materials they can challenge themselves with. It’ll be difficult for them to figure out a study schedule when they’re already drowning in failed papers. 

At the same time, don’t be quick to place high expectations on them as it could pressure them in the long run. Take a page out of my mother’s book and remain supportive and humble. 

For those halfway into your youth without a study schedule, start now. Slowly incorporate structured study time at least once a week, then amp it up every few weeks. For me, I eased myself into studying by bringing a book with me to read during my commutes

Image credit: Nur Hidaya

After everything I went through, I came to realise that my mother had been trying to protect me from the expectations put on gifted kids. She often said, “My child is not gifted”, and refrained from bragging about me. Instead, she would support whatever I wanted to do.

Support from family and loved ones really made all the difference. Because she was there every step of the way all while giving me the freedom to pick what I wanted to do, I was subjected to less stress than a usual gifted kid under the care of a Tiger Mum.

The only thing she couldn’t protect me from was, well, myself. 

I was pitting myself against the idea of the stereotypical gifted kid who was damn power at STEM subjects when my “gift” was instead in language and public speaking. Perhaps it’s the emphasis Singapore tends to put on STEM rather than the arts, but in truth, everyone – gifted or not – has their own strengths and weaknesses. 

I applied for an internship at TheSmartLocal (TSL) after being urged by my mother. I didn’t even expect to be accepted.

Though I had a downward spiral, I’m climbing back up. An internship at TSL was one of my first steps to get back up after my uni rejection.

I was worried that I would not be able to deliver since my self-esteem was past bedrock. Yet during my first performance review, I received compliments on my writing and how “clean” my grammar was. Though calm on the outside, I really wanted to cry from joy deep inside – no cap. 

For so long, I’d thought my “gift” was gone or a hoax. So to hear I still had it was like a comforting hug that brought me back to Earth. 

Struggles of being a gifted kid in Singapore

Image credit: Nur Hidaya

“Giftedness” is a social construct. While young advanced learners are a phenomenon, we should not place them on a pedestal. Such kids may require greater care in order to keep them occupied and challenged as opposed to being bored and “slacking”. 

All in all, there are many areas of intellect such as logical-mathematical, linguistic, and interpersonal intelligence. It is what makes us unique from one another – and when you find your forte, own it. Comparing yourself to others with different skill sets only sets you up for failure.

So sure – my strengths might not lie in maths or science, but I’m hopeful for the future knowing that I’m still “gifted” in my own way. And if you’re like me, just know that it is not the end, but the beginning of your metamorphosis. 

More stories from others who have gone through life changes:

Cover image adapted from: Nur Hidaya
Originally published on 17th March 2023.

Nur Hidaya

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