When seeking inspiration, we tend to focus on the accomplishments of remarkable people: Einstein's groundbreaking theories, Dr. Seuss's iconic books, or the shoulder-high stack of medals that America's most decorated gymnast, Simone Biles, probably has sitting in a closet somewhere. We think of the incredible things these people have done and think, "If they can do it, so can I!"
Or do we?
Imagine a scientist.
Did you picture an antisocial male genius in a lab coat? Most people do, and at least one study found that if all you ever hear about are scientists' successes, Dr. Scatterbrained is with you to stay. The study tested how students reacted to learning either only about scientists' accomplishments, or the struggles that led to those accomplishments. In the success-only group, the scientist stereotype was reinforced in the minds of students, while the perceptions of those in the struggles group shifted toward a more realistic image (Hong & Lin-Siegler, 2011).
This is by no means limited to scientists. It's all too easy to dismiss the remarkable successes of athletes, artists, or activists as symptoms of unique abilities, genius, or luck. When we do that though, we sever our connection to these people by making them unrelatable and, even worse, irreplicable.
Anyone who's poked around on this site knows that when my daughter was three years old, I started seeking out picture book biographies of accomplished women to read to her. My goal was (and still is) to cultivate within her the same persistence and courage that these women possessed. The more I read, however, the more I realized that the most inspiring parts of these women's stories weren't their accomplishments, but their resilience in the face of failure:
- For ten years in a row, Peggy Whitson applied to the NASA astronaut program. For ten years in a row, they said no. Attempt number eleven finally landed Peggy a yes, setting her on the path to becoming the first woman to command the International Space Station.
- In 1954, Althea Gibson was dubbed by Jet magazine as The Biggest Disappointment in Tennis. Three years later, she became the first Black athlete to win singles at Wimbledon.
- When she was a child, nineteenth century mathematician Sophie Germain's parents forbid her from studying (It will damage her delicate female constitution!). They even kept her fireplace unlit on icy winter nights to stop her from getting out of bed to practice. Sophie snuck in candles and wrapped herself in a blanket, laying the foundations that eventually enabled her to develop the modern theory of elasticity.
These stories--of ordinary people plodding, squeezing, and prying their way towards the extraordinary--are where the true inspiration lies. Knowing these stories makes our own failures easier to bear, offering hope in the face of seemingly relentless struggle.
As for Albert Einstein? Not only was he called "the dopey one" for the first three years of his life, but those groundbreaking theories of his were dismissed and ignored for years. Dr. Seuss? He brought the manuscript for his first book to 27 publishers, and they all said no. To his face. Simone Biles isn't immune either. Just a few weeks ago, this gymnastics powerhouse made history--yet again--as the first woman to land the extremely challenging Yurchenko double pike vault move in competition. What else did she do that day? She also messed up the final landing in her floor routine, and fell off the uneven bars.
Then she got back up.
If they can do it, so can I.