In recent months, I’ve been trying things I’d always assumed I’d fail at. To my surprise, I haven’t come out that badly and I’ve started to wonder two things: 1) why did I think I couldn’t do this and 2) what else can I do?
Apparently, I’m not alone. Back in the 1980s, researcher Carol Dweck did a series of studies and found that girls tend to give up when given new and complex tasks. They give up because they “believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable.” This is compared to boys who assume they can do anything, they just need to work on it (see this article for a quick summary).
When I first read about this, I was relieved but also a bit embarrassed. First the relieved: suddenly my assumptions about my skills made sense! Most of the things I assumed I couldn’t do could be traced back to a bad experience in elementary or middle school:
- 5th Grade: When I somehow got the courage to “audition” for the school’s special chorus, and was the first person selected to sing Frosty the Snowman (without accompaniment) . . . in front of 40 other children, I cracked and was immediately cut off. A horrible thing to do to a 5th grader? Yes!!! Irrefutable evidence that I shouldn’t bother trying to sing? Obviously!
- 8th Grade: When given 15 minutes in class to come up with story from the perspective of an apple (with no other instruction or guidance), and I came up with nothing while another girl read her cute little story . . . Terrible English teacher? Yes!! Evidence that I just don’t have the stuff to be a creative writer? Again, obviously yes!
We all have these stories and looking back, I realize that of course I can do these things as long as I work at it (blog posting not excluded). But my childhood self just said, “Okay, that’s off the list then.”
Now for why I reacted to this knowledge with embarrassment. Much of this research focuses on girls and learning math (or science). However, math was never a problem in my household. My parents always made it clear that we could do math and learn science, but we’d have to work on it. This seemed so obvious, if annoying, and I learned the math. But parent’s can’t be everywhere and couldn’t know that my little mind wouldn’t extend that wisdom to singing, creative writing, or whatever else I decided I couldn’t do after one or two attempts. Hence my embarrassment. I always knew (in theory) that everything is possible with hard work, but I still automatically assumed certain things were impossible after limited experience.
So where does this leave us? Ultimately, we are responsible for our adult lives and while I can despise that music teacher for the rest of my life, if I want to sing for the Metropolitan Opera it is up to me to get there. Similarly, the 4th grade teacher who told me I couldn’t write the next Star Wars franchise was an idiot, but it’s up to me to learn how to write a novel.
I also wonder how many women had dreams they abandoned in 4th grade because they assumed they didn’t have the innate ability to achieve it. What did you want to do when you were ten? Did you make assumptions that might not be true? What would it really take to get there?