In the past few years there has been interesting research about children being told they will or will not be good, or bad, at something. A lot of the research is specifically focused on women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), although the findings are applicable in a number of areas (Source, Source).
As the research explains, there is a cultural and societal influence for what boys and girls think they should be good at, or not good at. For example, many girls may not try to be good at math or science because they are told (directly or indirectly) by society, and even by adults in their life, that “girls are not good at math” or that “math is hard.” Other interesting examples include girls in sports that require good hand-eye-coordination and reaction time, such as baseball (softball). Girls from a young age may self-select out of certain pursuits, both academic and athletic, simply because they believe they will not be good at it and/or that it is “too hard”. Or perhaps a little bit of both- a specific pursuit is too hard, and if they won’t be good at it anyway, no sense in trying.
When I first moved back to the mountains after a little over a decade away I had largely lost the part of my identity that was “athlete”. What lingering athletic identity still existed most assuredly did not include “runner”. Running was something I did sporadically, maybe a few times a week, but only to “keep in shape” or to condition for what I really wanted to focus on (swimming and other sports).
When I moved back I felt a strong sense of needing to challenge myself and face things that I had spent 29 years telling myself I was “bad at” or “hated” (yes, I was one of those people who hated running and was “not a runner.”) I repeatedly told myself that I just “wasn’t a runner”, and that I would never be a runner, as if this was something genetically predetermined for me decades ago and I would just never enjoy it or be “good” at it.
As the literature suggests, very few people are inherently bad at something. Almost everyone has the same propensity to be at least moderately successful at any pursuit-from STEM to athletics to writing. Yes, some people are inclined to be very talented in some areas and to find other areas requiring more effort to reach an “average” level of success, but, in general, most humans have the capacity to do well at any number of pursuits. What is much more influential for success in an area is perseverance and effort put into a pursuit.
I faced something that I told myself I would never be “good at” and would never “like” because I felt like I had nothing to lose and wanted to overcome a personal challenge and, frankly, because I was feeling broken and sad of life, but your own reason for facing something that scares you head on may look very different.
Whether you are holding yourself back because of self-imposed limitations or because of cultural, gender, or societal norms (which will look different depending on where you live), stop being afraid of what you may or may not be good at. If you want to pursue something, do it. Pursue it relentlessly and pursue it for YOU.
It took me 4 months to stop hating running and it took me much longer to stop being afraid of it. I was terrified of every daily run-stressing all day leading up to it. Even when I started to be a little more okay with it, the internal hater in me was still telling myself “you are not a runner”. I remember my mom and sister surprising me with a Nathan Hydration Pack so that I could start doing longer distances and I thought to myself (and maybe said aloud in my bratty mood at the time): “Thanks, but you shouldn’t have wasted your money, I am not a runner, I will never run long, and this won’t get much use.”
But I kept going. I kept facing longer runs and steeper hills and harder courses. I even started telling myself “I like running” and “I can do this”. And guess what? It started getting easier, I started enjoying it, it even started to become part of my identity: “I am a runner”.
We need to stop telling ourselves, and our children, that something is hard or that we (s/he) will never be able to do it well or enjoy doing it. It’s time to quiet that internal voice and face whatever it is you think you cannot do.
Now that I’ve been running all of 10 months (and love it) I am disheartened when the knee jerk response of someone around me is “I hate running” or “I’m bad at running”-because I get it, but also because I know that we self-select to not try something that we think is too hard or that we think we will not be good at.
What is it that you are afraid of trying to get good at or achieve? Is there something you have spent most of your life telling yourself you cannot do?
I challenge you to face what scares you most, and to overcome it. Learn a new language, get “good at” math, start your own business, learn a new sport, beat a fear of public speaking.
“A little more persistence, a little more effort,
and what seemed hopeless failure may turn to glorious success.”
Face whatever it is that you are afraid of facing, look at it head on and tackle it despite the fear that wants to hold you back. Keep pursuing what scares you, what you want to overcome or get better at, and don’t get discouraged if it takes a long time (it will) and if you have particularly hard days (you will).
Once you have succeeded at facing one thing that scares you, you will feel empowered to face other things that scare you. Your confidence will grow, your ambition will grow, and you will begin to truly reach your full potential.
Run on, my friends.