the bootstraps method

My trainer and one of the boxers told me the fight two weeks ago was a mental win, given how I fought and the experience difference between me and my opponent. A lot of people told me it was a great fight and that I did a great job. Many people said they were impressed. Someone even told me I was robbed. The encouragement has been really nice, but it seemed like there was something I was waiting to hear that no one was telling me. I spent a few days thinking about exactly what it was that I wanted to hear, and I finally figured it out: I don’t really care about hearing that I’ve worked very hard and improved a lot, or even that I’m a good boxer for having started not so long ago. I want to hear that I’m a talented boxer. I want to hear, not necessarily that I’m good now, but that I could be a great fighter if I wanted to be. In reality, being a great boxer would serve no real purpose for me, since I will never fight professionally or probably even seriously in the amateur ranks. But this doesn’t change the fact that I want to hear that I’m gifted. Why is this? Why would it mean so much more to me to be told that I may not be that great now, but I’m talented, than to be told that I’m a decent boxer because I worked really hard? When I think about it this way, it seems almost more meaningful to have worked really hard to be good, since that says more about one’s character and love for the sport. If I’m a good boxer because I’m gifted, it means my parents gave me some athletic genes, and I’m cashing in on it (albeit, probably with some hard work in there as well). That doesn’t seem as admirable as working really hard to be good at something you love, even if it doesn’t come naturally. Don’t most of us begrudge a little bit the people who are wealthy with family money, while we make heroes out of those who make it big by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps? Why do I view talent so differently from wealth?

I grew up hearing I was musically gifted. It’s true that I got away with practicing less than some other harpists or some of the kids in band, but I tend to think this was not because I was a talented musician. Rather, I was good at learning skills, which meant that training my hands to play the harp or my mouth to play the French horn came relatively easily. Maybe that’s just the way I justify “throwing away my talent,” which I’ve been accused of doing on multiple occasions. On the other hand, at school, I was told by standardized tests that I was not gifted, in spite of the fact that I did well in my classes. I have no doubt that this is a primary reason I veered away from academics and continued in harp though I had no real passion for music—I knew that I was good at the harp and that I could succeed in music. By the same logic, I assumed that because I wasn’t “academically gifted,” I wasn’t cut out for school.

I read an article recently from Psychology Today called “The Trouble With Bright Girls.” In it, the author, Dr. Heidi Halvorson, summarizes research from the 1980s showing that intelligent girls gave up the fastest of fifth grade children when they were presented with a complex task. Straight-A female students were the worst, capitulating the fastest of everyone. Intelligent boys, in contrast, were more likely to continue to struggle with the same task, rather than give up. Further research suggests that this phenomenon is not due to a child’s ability. Rather, it is caused by the difference in how girls and boys perceive and interpret struggling with a task; boys tend to believe that they can develop their abilities through hard work, whereas girls think that they have inherent abilities that determine what they are capable of accomplishing. In truth, researchers have shown that skills of all sorts are not innate and fixed, but can be improved drastically through hard work and persistence. However, this deep-rooted belief that abilities are hard-wired and not something that can be improved upon causes many women to shy away from goals that appear difficult or outside their field of expertise.

Halvorson suggests the reason for this belief stems from a difference in how adults encourage the two sexes. Little girls tend to be well-behaved and succeed at school, generally outperforming their male classmates. As a result, little girls are told things like “you are so smart,” “you are so good at that.” Boys, on the other hand, are often a bit more on the wild side and are fed lines like “if you would only pay attention, you could do this,” “if you would only sit still, you would learn,” etc. I would imagine that we women perpetuate this belief when raising our own daughters; we want to be told that we are smart and talented, so we make sure our daughters know that they are smart and talented as well. What could be wrong with that? The problem is that when girls struggle with a task, they take this to mean that they are not good at whatever the task is at hand, and consequently, they will never succeed at it. Boys understand this to mean that if they try harder, they will get it.

Wherever these beliefs came from, they most certainly have an effect on us as adults. In some way, however, I managed to break free from this misconception and make the leap into academia. I do not know what caused me to believe enough in myself to move away from music and back into the world of books, exams, and standardized tests. I think it may go back to my success in an Ecology class in high school. Regarding our first exam on edible plants, my teacher told me that I scored higher than anyone ever had and that I knew things he didn’t even know (as you can see in the photo, I have held on to that test for nearly 15 years). Perhaps I interpreted this to mean that I had some kind of scientific aptitude. (Looking back at my lifelong obsession with things you can eat, I realize my high score on this test may have been an indicator that I should have become a chef, not a scientist.) Or perhaps, without realizing it, I had learned from music that innate ability is not all there is to it—hard work, diligence, and passion are absolutely necessary. Indeed, they may be more important, since without them, even the most talented will not go far. Ultimately, the fact that I lacked passion meant that, talent or no talent, I would never be a great musician. As for being a scientist, I do not believe I am a particularly skilled or gifted scientist. I’ve made it this far in science mostly because of enthusiasm, persistence (aka, stubborn-ness), and a heap of hard work.

It’s difficult for me to tell how much this belief still affects my life. If I knew I was not a talented boxer—that even if I devoted all my time and effort to boxing, I would never be more than an average boxer, would I continue to do it? I like to think I would, since I don’t believe my goal in boxing is to be amazing, but I’m not sure. Is it because I don’t believe that I am a gifted researcher that I don’t intend to stay in research? I don’t know. I have not learned how to tease out my general feeling towards an activity or career from my perception of how gifted I am at it. However, now that I know that I am carrying around this misconception, at least I can take this into account as I make decisions and move forward in my life. Instead of waiting for family money, I can try the bootstraps method, doing the things I love because I love them, not because I will ever be great.


One thought on “the bootstraps method

  1. You get it. The “ring” is a metaphor for life, as I often say to my son, also a Redline fighter,. It’s not how many times you get knock down but how many times you get back up. Getting back up takes grit, persistence and hard work. Many with talent, don’t get too far because the lack those other requisite qualities that allow them to do something with the talent. Conversely, there are some who have been able to maximize and magnify beyond what would be expected with the modicum of talent that they have been given.


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