While I had my first job in technology, a good friend from high school came to visit. As I was describing my work scraping and analyzing Twitter data, a look of surprise came over her face. “That sounds like it involves coding.” I should point out that within our relationship, I was always the one who was good at things like English and social studies. But that had been several years ago. I was shocked that she still felt like we had to stick to our specialties. It made me question if I did, too. After all, I still wasn’t doing any kind of hard science or anything.
Sure, I studied history in college, but I had always loved puzzles and had managed to get a 4 on the AP calculus test. I don’t say that as a humble brag, rather to point out how strange it is that someone like that can still claim to be bad at math. Yet that idea was pervasive in my life for years. I still struggle sometimes to remind myself that not knowing more about computational mathematics just means I didn’t study it, not that I’d never understand it if I tried. But other people who had known me for most of my life said similar things about how they “didn’t think I was that technical” or that I was “really more of an English person.”
Not knowing more about computational mathematics just means I didn’t study it, not that I’d never understand it if I tried.
Why is this idea so prevalent? Directed at others, these sorts of comments fall into the category of backhanded compliments rather than outright put-downs. People are trying to say that it’s OK if you’re not good at physics, you’re good at English instead. The speaker may be hoping to boost someone’s feelings of self-worth, but the implication is always that your existing knowledge is representative of your ability to acquire new knowledge. When directed at ourselves, it’s a way to remind ourselves of our talents when we feel inadequate or vulnerable. But the result is always that we can become convinced that it’s impossible for us to do new things outside of our existing background.
It’s an issue of confidence. We generally think the best way to build confidence is to keep working on something we’re already good at. However, new research and experience is teaching us that confidence comes from mastering new skills. We’ll have to try, we’ll have to fail a bit, but that’s OK. Those moments when you finally feel like you’ve figured something out are what build confidence and keep you going. As a teacher or mentor, it’s important to take the time to encourage those who are trying to expand their skill set. Just be careful to frame it as them simply learning a new skill, not necessarily that the skill is somehow harder for them because of their background. It’s a very subtle difference, but it can go a long way towards getting people to feel like they belong.
We generally think the best way to build confidence is to keep working on something we’re already good at. However, new research and experience is teaching us that confidence comes from mastering new skills.
Getting people to tackle these new challenges can be difficult, however. The way that worked for me, and what’s been helpful for others, is tying new subjects to the ones a person is already interested in. I started learning to code because I needed to build a blog for the non-profit I was working for at the time. Elsewhere, I’ve heard from someone in the education department of a local theater company that they’ve had success in school workshops highlighting the varied nature of theater work. Talking about the company’s accountants and the calculations involved in set construction help show that while in school it might be easy to silo yourself in STEM or the humanities, the wider world doesn’t work that way. More and more humanities are making use of scientific and mathematical methods for analysis, and STEM fields more frequently involve the ability to write an interesting blog post or give a captivating talk. Math and language are not as much like oil and water as we like to think.
More and more humanities are making use of scientific and mathematical methods for analysis, and STEM fields more frequently involve the ability to write an interesting blog post or give a captivating talk.
The thing to remember is that all of this is relative. In my most recent job, doing technical work in a legal association’s publications department, I was surrounded by people who were primarily writers and editors. I would try to explain to them the computing concepts I was working on, and they would offer up their corrections whenever I was called on to write something. To them, I was the analytical person who was good at technology and math. I had come full circle, I guess. In a few short years I had gone from a volunteer tweaking CSS in a blog to someone who writes code for a living. It just goes to show that there really isn’t such a thing as a “math person” or a “humanities person.” Sure, we have our talents, but we shouldn’t let that stop us from trying something new and encouraging others to do the same. Our innate talents are just a starting point for more learning, not a box we should stick to for fear of embarrassment or failure.