When I was a kid, I was a baby genius. I wasn’t the most insanely accomplished one and so it’s something I denied for years. I hated everything about the word “genius” and didn’t want to end up the classic story of bitter regret. The “geniuses” or “gifted kids” I knew were conceited, rude, and unhappy. Like the phrase “teen mom,” I thought “baby genius” was a cautionary phrase, a pejorative.
But saying I wasn’t one didn’t make it true. I started playing the piano at four. I taught algebra when I was twelve, the year I started researching in astronomy. At fourteen, I worked at CERN in particle physics and started to learn French, my sixth language. I wrote my first novella at fifteen, graduated college at seventeen, went to law school, and became an attorney at twenty.
Some of it was fun. Most of it sucked.
Though I’m a walking Asian punchline (piano, physics, math, the law, really?), my parents didn’t push me. They were a little tiger-ish and hovering, but they always said I should take more time, enjoy life, and stop running so quickly. My mom still tells me this all the time.
Instead of being motivated by parents, success, or accolades, I was motivated by the fact that learning was fun — I loved math and science — and then later motivated by the specter of death and feeling like I was running out of time. To this day, I feel forced to make use of every moment I have.
But though my backstory is a little different, the results of being a baby genius are pretty much the same as everyone else’s: I had no childhood and my life was kind of horrible, even aside from the almost dying.
I always felt a million pressures to do more, to be better, to work harder. Nothing I did was good enough — for me or anyone around me. There were always kids who did more or who did less but were “nicer,” “prettier,” or more “graceful.” My parents taught me to hide my age and my accomplishments and when I disobeyed them, I soon found out why. The Silicon Valley, where I grew up, was full of bad parenting and jealous bullies who were taught to only care about academic success and tearing down others to achieve it. Even my aunts and uncles didn’t know I took classes at community college or the exact grade I was in until I graduated young. (And they still put me down or compared me to their kids, such as “Sure, you’re ahead in math, but my son is even smarter than you because…”)
As a result of all this mess, I made few friendships as a kid and fewer as a young teen. I made my first close outside-the-family friendship at seventeen and today I keep in touch with only a handful of people I knew prior to adulthood.
But it wasn’t just my lack of social life and crazy schedule that sucked, it was all the mental stress that comes with it. I always fought to do more to measure up, never left time to recover from being sick, and never spent important time daydreaming or making mistakes. Even as a child, I spent most weekends studying, playing the piano, or writing. I was treated as a kid by everyone I knew professionally and as an adult by everyone my age. And while I was intelligent, I wasn’t street-smart.
The worst part of all this is that what I went through isn’t even unique anymore. These days, everyone is a baby genius in some way or the other — or at least so I’m lead to believe by my Facebook and LinkedIn feeds (yep, proud parents are out bragging on LinkedIn now). Every young teen feels they have to do something amazing, just to keep up with social media and societal pressure, just to get into a good college and to make something of themselves. To me, it’s heartbreaking.
We don’t run around neighborhoods playing in the streets and biking for miles anymore. We don’t run away from home for a weekend in a neighboring city or stay up all night binge-watching romances on a weeknight. We don’t spend our twenties blowing our first paycheck, getting into bar fights, or whatever else used to be rites of passage in the past.
We become professionals as teenagers and we stay that way. And that is awful.
In my many years of knowing other highly precocious kids, here are three things I found to be pretty much always true:
First, none of us had a childhood. I did know calculus at twelve. I didn’t know the phrase “having a crush.” There isn’t enough time in your life for high-level research, piano performances at Le Petit Trianon, and going to the mall with friends. (I hated the mall and I had no friends.) I remember being a fifteen-year-old at UC Berkeley who didn’t know who Beyoncé was and got roundly mocked.
For most baby geniuses, the other thing that didn’t happen was free time. What counted as “wasting time” to me at thirteen was writing, especially the novels that everyone told me would go nowhere. Even my parents considered it free time because it wasn’t helping me succeed in my studies or get into a good college. Today, I’m a published and agented author. It’s my second most important career. This is probably because baby geniuses don’t do things halfway and we don’t give up because failure is unacceptable.
But childhood isn’t childhood if you can’t fail. If you can’t fool around and count on the adults in your life to catch you. If you can’t scream and cry and get mad.
Second, none of us made appropriate friendships at the right times. I went to law school and started making friends at seventeen, after I left the hyper competitive Bay Area. People my age were in high school and I had graduated college. I basically had nothing in common with the people I should have been hanging out around, people who were still in my stage of mental development, puberty, and life experience.
Instead, I made friends with people who were 25 to 35 years old and who had years of experience, dating, and life behind them. No matter how much I hated it at the time, it was the good people who stayed away. Who wouldn’t make friends with me. Who kept me at a professional distance. No self-respecting 25-year-old should be leaning on a 17-year-old for emotional support on their love life. And no decent adult male in their thirties is going to hit on a teenager.
Naive as I was, I didn’t realize how many men were just preying on me. I thought it was so exciting that after years of being ugly, people finally thought I was beautiful. I didn’t recognize that “popular” as I was, people were still gossiping about me behind my back or using me as a joke. It took me years of defending other people bullied in law school to actually see what was going on because I was too young and didn’t know any better. (As a side note, there was no “right thing” for my parents to do here because while teens were smart, we were never smart enough to listen to them. We felt it wasn’t fair for them to say we couldn’t make close friends— it wasn’t — but at the same time, no good parent was going to let their young teen go to their older friends’ houses on their own.)
Now that I’m an adult, I can’t believe the number of people who told me they had fallen for me when I was eighteen (or younger…no comment), who shared details of their sex lives and relationships when they knew I was barely fifteen, or who used me as their first call when bad things happened though they were over a decade older than me. I still don’t have many friends my own age, much as I’ve tried, but luckily that age gap matters less and less over time.
Third, none of us got self-worth or happiness for free. Many of us still fight hard to stay content and balanced every day. I know I do. We literally taught ourselves to think that simple joys weren’t enough and that our very identities were about how much we accomplished quickly.
Every week, a dozen posts on LinkedIn are about proud parents or kids showing off their early awards and their proud accomplishments. There seem to be more 12-year-olds in college and teenage Nobel Prize winners, award-winning actors, and brilliant scientists. So I certainly hope that I’m wrong and many of them are also happy. But somehow, I doubt it. Many famous young pop stars, for example, talk about the dark side of fame and struggling with the constant expectations.
And that unhappiness lasts well into adulthood. I have been told “your age won’t matter soon” since I was eight years old. I was told people would stop caring in high school, college, law school, or once I became an attorney. But they never did. Being one of the youngest employees when I worked for the government, I was often belittled, even though I was a lawyer. Today, as the President of an international nonprofit, I still have to keep my hair down so I look older and hear well-meaning advice to hire old white men to represent our majority-minority and young organization.
And of course, people still talk about my past and get uncomfortable when they learn about it. In the internet age, once a baby genius, always a baby genius.
Today, I’m sure many of you will read this article and think I was just particularly unlucky — or maybe particularly socially inept. But the sad truth is I’m not. I was one of the few who had parents who rarely praised me and who were quick to point out my many social flaws. I didn’t end up with a giant inflated ego to go with the lack of self worth because as a minority woman, you’re not allowed to have that. I spent the last decade researching everything from romance to networking in a quest to act and sound “normal.” I am lucky to have a lot of friends, all of whom accept me for who I am and don’t give a damn about my age. I was lucky to marry young and privileged enough to become an attorney, both things that add years in people’s minds.
I have had opportunities to teach others. I’ve been near death and grew up traveling three continents with my parents. These things add experience beyond years and wisdom that you usually can’t expect to get young. (Though this is not necessarily a good thing. Children should get to be children. Young adults should get to be young adults.)
I’m saddened to see that rather than being an outlier, today, I’m the norm. Teenagers are all driven, young, brilliant, and overworked, many far more accomplished than I was. Meanwhile, fewer teens have sex, want to drive, have time for fun, or just live life. I haven’t met hedonistic twenty-somethings in years. We’re all too worried about career success, student loans, and the future of the planet. Meanwhile, depression is on the rise. It seems like we’re all expected to be geniuses now, baby or otherwise, and far too many of us succeed.
This is a pity. There is beauty in the normal and the mundane. In the average. It is okay to be happy in the small moments and to “waste” summer vacations. It is okay to be a child, to dance poorly in the mud, to smile like nothing in the world has hurt you yet. It is okay to never be famous or rich or popular. Those things are so superficial anyway.
Looking back at my life, I can recognize the advantages of being a “baby genius”: the six figure paycheck at twenty. The fact I have had four serious careers, plus a significant number of well-developed hobbies from figure skating to art. My wicked time management skills.
I, like many in my generation, have chosen to rush life to get to the part where I get to wake up every day and help make the world a better place. I am grateful for almost everything that brought me here, even the long hours, the lonely nights, and the rushed childhood. It’s cool that I can talk intelligently about Biden administration political appointments, Charles Dickens’s best works, and string theory.
But I also realize it doesn’t have to be my whole identity. I religiously watch every MCU movie, spend way too much time on my hair, and know every bit of the Olivia Rodrigo-Joshua Bassett-Sabrina Carpenter drama.
I’m only 24, after all. And I finally want to live a little.