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On Bright Girls, Bond, and (not) Giving Up.

Light Bulb with PlantI have always sold myself short.

Those closest to me know this. I have a level of confidence that lingers nowhere near the level of my abilities.

Compliments make me uncomfortable.

I’m shy to talk about my accomplishments.

And when I am faced with a daunting challenge, when I think that I’d like to learn a new skill, and that skill turns out to be difficult and time-consuming, my resolve will collapse like a house of cards, and I will turn inwards. I will tell myself that I am not worthy or capable of mastering the skill in question—that I am flawed in some important way, and do not have the innate ability required, or the time, to learn it.

And often I will quit, my sense of defeat and shame so palpable, that it will cause me to retreat into a space of self-abuse and misery.[1]

So, it is with GREAT interest that I read an article this past week, called The Trouble with Bright Girls.[2] In it, psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson describes a study, by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, that found a difference in the way “bright girls and boys in the fifth grade handled new, difficult and confusing material.” According to Halvorson:

She [Dweck] found that bright girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up – and the higher the girls’ IQ[3], the more likely they were to throw in the towel. In fact, the straight-A girls showed the most helpless responses. Bright boys, on the other hand, saw the difficult material as a challenge, and found it energizing. They were more likely to redouble their efforts, rather than giving up.

I was one of those bright girls.

I read a lot. I got good grades. My name is on a plaque somewhere in the dusty halls of my old elementary school, proclaiming my academic prowess. I have certificates, ribbons, medals, and other trophies, stuffed in boxes gathering dust in the basement of my father’s house. I can remember the reactions of my parents, and teachers, at the time— the comments about how I was “just like my sisters” (both of whom were remarkably successful at school, and top students in every subject). I remember people frequently telling me that I was smart, a great student, a clever girl. In other words, I was not the kind of kid that should ever feel unreasonably daunted by a complex challenge. Yet, I often do feel that way.

And I have carried with me, throughout my adulthood, an almost crippling level of self-doubt.

But now I find, apparently, that the two things are related: according to the article, bright kids (specifically girls) that were constantly told they were “good students” and “smart” and “clever,” grow up to believe such attributes are innate and unchangeable, so that when they are faced with a complex challenge, and subsequently find it difficult, they take it to mean that they themselves, at a very fundamental level, are simply not up to the task at hand. They lose their confidence and give up prematurely, whereas the boys will have a different response.

Bright boys, because they are handled differently by their parents and teachers, are often encouraged to work harder, to stick with it and figure things out. As a result of this feedback they come to believe they can always develop any necessary abilities through practice and effort. The bright boys are inspired by the challenge, the bright girls are deflated by it.

For myself, this tendency to lose confidence is, in fact, much more subtle than you might think. The simplest observations can trigger it. Take, for example, the reaction I had to the movie I saw last week. My partner and I went out to see Skyfall. Now, I’m not a particularly huge James Bond fan, nor am I a big fan of massive, big-budget, Hollywood movies stuffed with over-the-top special effects, 30-minute car chases, and minimal story. But we went to see this film anyway, because both of us are actors, and we wanted to watch a few masters at work—specifically Javier Bardem, and Judi Dench.

Interestingly, however, and even though I, as a fledgling filmmaker myself, have NO INTEREST in commandeering a vehicle as massive as a James Bond movie, I caught myself watching the choices that director Sam Mendes made—the interesting ways in which he framed his actors, the fight scene in silhouette atop a Shanghai skyscraper, and all the various and sundry beautiful tableaus that he created—and I thought, “Wow. There’s no way I could do that. I have no idea what I’m doing. I should just give up.”

[Ahem.]

So, when I witness the creations of someone far more talented than me—though I deeply appreciate them—those creations do not inspire me. They make me want to quit. This is a secret that I have harbored my whole life. I’m ashamed to feel this way. After all, since when are heroes supposed to be un-inspiring? They’re not, but when I watch an excellent movie, or read a masterfully-written article or book, or watch an actor’s stunning performance, it makes me feel discouraged. I think I don’t have the talent or the smarts, and I tell myself I should just throw in the freaking towel now, and save us all from my harrowing ineptitude.

But now I’m thinking something different.

There have been times in my life when I can feel something shift inside me. Times when I make certain deep, foundational, discoveries about the workings of my psyche, and my emotional make-up. Becoming aware of these has, in the past, allowed me to free myself from some debilitating habits and behaviours.

I think this is another one of those times.

And, to be honest, it couldn’t have happened at a better point—just when I am embarking on a new path, and about to tackle what is for me an immense project. These days, my self-doubt monster is alive and well and screaming its lousy rhetoric just as vigilantly as ever, but now, because of this one article, I have a better sense of where this doubt is coming from, and I think I can work to overcome it.

I can also choose to explore some more—I will start by reading Carol Dweck’s book Mindset (which is based on all her studies in this area)—and I bet I can learn to recognize that somehow that James Bond movie that makes me want to throw myself under a bus, is tied to my early accomplishments in school, and other people’s reactions to those accomplishments.

I can then learn to let go of the mistaken idea that my abilities are fixed and unchangeable. I can meet future challenges with a sense of optimism and confidence, instead of despondency.

I can stop selling myself short, stop hiding, and let my bright girl shine for a change.

Thanks for reading.

~k


[1] ˆ I should point out here that this is not always the case. I have quit many things in my life, but often it has been for good reason. I’m not foolish enough to buy into the simplistic notion that somehow ‘quitters are losers,’ and that one should always persevere. That’s just so much BS. Sometimes quitting is the RIGHT thing to do. Often, quitting is the braver thing to do, as well.

[2] ˆ At pschologytoday.com. The article was written by Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. whose personal website can be found at http://www.heidigranthalvorson.com/

[3] ˆ I am suspicious of IQ tests, and I dislike it when IQ is attached to achievement. I have no idea what my IQ is, and I don’t care. I bet it’s not that high. Why are we still using that thing anyway?

Photo by entso, licensed under a Creative Commons.

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This entry was posted on December 3, 2012 by in Long-winded Existential Angst and tagged , , .

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