There are no less than forty certificates with my name hanging on the walls of my family home. Some of them can be chalked up to my mother’s hoarder-like tendencies, but mostly as humbly as I can say this- I was that girl. Science fair winner, literary award, even a few math wiz ones (though those became scarce around 8th grade algebra).
Looking back on it that wall was reaffirmation through my childhood that was “a bright girl.” But as I’ve left the realm of accolades printed on gold foil, I have to wonder: Is there a complacency that comes with being the bright black girl?
This week, an article in Psychology Today looked back at the work of psychologist Carol Dweck, who in the 1980s compared bright girls and boys in fifth grade. Dweck found that bright girls were quicker to give up on an unfamiliar challenge than their male counterparts. In fact, the higher their IQ the more likely they were to give up.
What caught me wasn’t that the girls were more likely to quit but their rationale behind giving up. In the article, Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson writes:
“Researchers have uncovered the reason for this difference in how difficulty is interpreted, and it is simply this: more often than not, bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.”
It’s almost enough to make you think being ‘naturally smart’ might not be so great after all. When faced with difficulty, bright girls are more likely to quickly decide if success at this can be drummed up with what they’ve got. It’s the quit-while-you’re-ahead mantra. We deduce if success is likely based on what we know to be possible. Because what’s definitely impossible is that the bright girl could get the answer wrong.
For me, hedging my bets finally caught up with me junior year in a classroom looking over London’s Russell Square. I was in over my head in a South African history class and had decided that I would do the readings and listen keenly in class. Imagine the look on my face when my professor wrote on my mid-term evaluations that I was “petrified of the idea of taking a guess.” Always priding myself on my curiosity, I was offended. But he was right: I had sat there hesitant and silent, more afraid of taking a guess than raising my hand.
Looking at my circle of friends, I see more and more bright girls afraid of the same thing. Beautifully brilliant women- some with degree saturation, some with unbelievable talent, competitive nature and drive, but mostly so petrified at the idea of taking a guess that we don’t raise our hands.
After some self-reflecting, I had to admit this: Being innately smart is usually accompanied by some innate stubbornness as well. It’s not unwillingness; it’s fear-based avoidance all bright girls are guilty of. It explains our hesitation to jump into something if we’re not absolutely sure we’ll get it right. If it’s not a sure bet, we bail.
But is the bright girl’s stubbornness hiding something more? Our being scared of guessing often means we miss the moments when vulnerability turns into something beautiful. Where asking the next question leads to a new insight; where risking being wrong leads us to something right.
The new challenge for bright girls: adapting to the discomfort of not knowing the answer, stayed seated through being unsure. Bright as we can be there’s no getting to success without facing the unknown.
Most of us have learned to way to success is to set a goal and strive for it. Maybe it’s time the bright girls strayed off the path a little while and explored.