When I was a kid, I was insecure about everything except my ability to do well in school. Because my confidence came from only that one source, my self-esteem was wrapped up in looking smart and impressing people. Nothing embarrassed me more than being wrong–like the time I pronounced rendezvous “ren-dezz vewa” in front of the whole class. I’d fret about those mistakes for days (and occasionally for decades, to judge by this particular example). I also hated to ask questions in public that would reveal my ignorance in any way, even if I desperately needed clarification.
And then life humbled me, the way life does. I stopped being Top Student Girl and became a mother and a writer and eventually realized I was never going to be Top Girl in either category, that I’d have to settle for Good Enough Girl. And as I became less arrogant, I discovered that life is a lot more interesting if you stop trying to impress everyone with how smart you are. The truth is that everyone knows more about something than you do, and it’s fascinating—and often enlightening–to find out what that is.
Being afraid other people will think you’re stupid is a total waste of time. It makes you cling to the things you already know instead of looking for ways to learn more. Sure, you can bring every conversation around to the few things you’re an expert on and impress new acquaintances, but your world is going to narrow down pretty quickly if that’s all you do. Far better to open yourself up to the new, to the as-yet-unexperienced–even to the bewildering. Be a beginner at any age of your life. If you’re the most ignorant person in a room full of experts, you’re the one who’ll walk out enriched.
“Nothing embarrassed me more than being wrong–like the time I pronounced rendezvous “ren-dezz vewa” in front of the whole class.”
When it comes to your kids, encourage them to ask questions and put themselves out there. Praise their curiosity and their attempts to figure things out, and if they’re wrong, praise them all the more for a taking a risk and making a guess. Teach them that science leaps forward because someone asks a question, postulates a theory, and then does an experiment to see if the facts support that theory or not. A true scientist is open to being wrong; he knows that eliminating an incorrect guess is an invaluable and necessary step on the journey he has to take to get to the right answer. If scientists only asked questions they already knew the answers to, we’d all still be in the dark ages.
We’re not born knowing everything: it’s our capacity to learn—even and especially from our mistakes–that makes us knowledgeable and unique.
It’s important to get that message through to your kids. Acknowledge your own areas of ignorance in front of them. Model open-mindedness and a thirst for information. Parents rarely say to their kids, “Wait, I don’t know anything about that. Can you explain it to me?” but they should say it a lot. And don’t ever berate or mock your kids for making a mistake or not knowing an answer. (Try not to let older siblings do that either.) It’s fun to learn things together, so make investigations and experiments a bonding experience.
I still remember struggling with a physics project during the first week of a college evolutionary biology class. I didn’t understand the worksheet and wanted to drop the class (amazing how quickly the “if I can’t do it, I should give up” instinct can kick in) but a friend offered to try to explain it to me. It took some effort on his part—and, yes, I felt ridiculously stupid because I couldn’t grasp the concept for a long time–but then I had one of those aha! moments when suddenly it all made sense. I survived the lab and the class ended up being one of my all-time favorites. I’m so glad I didn’t give up and switch to a subject I was already comfortable with—I learned so much that year.
I guess my point here is: don’t be afraid of letting yourself be a little stupid now and then. It could be the smartest thing you ever do.
“I guess my point here is: don’t be afraid of letting yourself be a little stupid now and then. It could be the smartest thing you ever do.”