“She found that Bright Girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up; the higher the girls’ IQ, 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 give up.” ~Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD
I’ve long been fascinated by the differences between the ways that men and women experience, interact with, and perceive the world. While I do recognize that these kinds of studies are really the studies of averages—of stereotypes—and do adequately represent each individual man or woman, I am still intrigued by studies of differences, particularly when the differences are shown to be a result of early culturalization influences.
The quote above came from an article entitled The Trouble with Bright Girls from The Huffington Post that talks about a study done in the 1980s on fifth-grade students. As the quote above indicates, the brighter a girl was, the more likely she was to give up when given particularly challenging new information to learn. The opposite effect was seen in boys.
The researchers determined that the reason for this seemingly odd reaction from the bright girls was that the messages of praise they had received over the years for their good schoolwork had led them to believe that their brightness was an innate trait that they had no influence over. So if new material seemed particularly difficult, they would lose confidence and assume they were simply incapable of learning it.
On the other hand, boys were more likely to receive messages encouraging them to work harder or put in more effort, so they assumed the key to learning more challenging information was to work harder, and this is precisely what they would do. Without that internalized belief that their abilities were innate, and therefore limited, they defaulted to working harder.
As one who would have been considered a “bright girl” at that age, I am particularly fascinated by the findings of this study. While I do have examples from my own life where I have been able to learn new things that I initially found challenging through harder work, I can think of many more examples where I am quick to give up if I cannot grasp a new concept or area right away. If I really think about it, I do tend to lean more toward believing that my innate abilities are fixed and unchangeable rather than believing that they can always be expanded with enough hard work.
On the one hand, there are places in my life where acknowledging that a particular skill or ability is not a strength can save me a lot of time and effort by allowing me to delegate (or outsource) those activities to others who are good at them. I don’t need to be good at everything even if I could learn it with enough time and effort. By delegating those things that are not my strengths or that I don’t enjoy, I allow myself more time to focus on the things that I am good at and that I am passionate about. At the end of the day, this is going to greatly enhance my productivity—and my happiness.
On the other hand, there are times when there is something that I may need to learn to do myself for whatever reason, and if I allow myself to give up on it just because I find it challenging, I am limiting my options. My self-defined incapability to learn something new becomes predictive because it keeps me from genuinely trying. My inner voices have defeated me before I’ve even started. I’ve seen many women, including myself (more times than I care to admit) fall into this self-limiting trap.
For me, the important realization in all this is that I can learn to do anything I want to do if I’m willing to put in the hard work to do it. I am not limited by some innate maximum level of talent or intellect that can never be expanded. Adjusting my thinking this way opens new doors for me. I may still decide that I don’t want to spend the time and effort needed to learn something new, but at least I’m choosing that rather than assuming I have no choice in the matter because I think I can’t learn it.
Frankly, I’m more often guilty of not delegating as often as I should, of feeling I need to do it all myself. I do need to work on that tendency, where appropriate, to ensure that I’m spending my time on the things that really matter the most. But I also want to make a conscious effort from now on to notice and reject self-limiting language when it comes to learning or doing something new.
“I don’t particularly wish to learn the intricacies of self-employment taxes, so I think I’ll hire an accountant” is a valid and rational decision that allows me to spend my time on the things I love. “I have to hire an accountant because I’m not capable of learning how to do self-employment taxes” is a self-limiting believe that prevents me from adequately exploring and considering all of my options. Even though I wind up hiring an accountant either way, the first decision comes from a place of strength and gives me greater confidence to be involved with the process to ensure that I am confident about the work being done. The latter is a decision from a place of weakness and limitation, and I am done with those.
I’d encourage you to read the full article and look at your own tendencies. How do you react to learning particularly challenging material?