I am a woman of extremes. I pretty much go balls to the wall with anything I do. That is not to say I am an Olympic level runner (I run), or an award winning scientist (I do science), or a best selling author (I write). It just means that if I say I am going to do something I freaking do it. If I need something done, I do it. I might bitch and moan about it at times, or take a minute or two to wallow in the realization that nobody else is going to make shit happen for me. But when the rubber meets the road I put my big girl panties on and get shit done. This approach to life isn’t inherently negative, in and of itself, but it can be stressful, and some would say I am just controlling and need to let go, that good things will come to me if I put good energy into the universe. Well, sitting around beaming sunshine through my pores and believing something is going to happen to me just isn’t my jam. I believe in making things happen. I also believe that I have been fortunate in my opportunities. But the older I get, the less inclined I am to buy into “luck” as some puppeteer driving my success, and more inclined to recognize that hey, I worked my ass off to get to where I am and I deserve all of the associated accolades, rewards, and perks. It hasn’t always come naturally to me to feel proud of my successes. I have often found myself thinking, “How did I get here? When will they wise up to the fact that I am utterly under qualified for this gig and boot my ass out the door?” I think most of us have felt this way at some point in our lives, and it probably means we have a healthy sense of humility.
There have been incidents in my past that go beyond healthy humility, and have fueled my thoughts of self-doubt. There have even been people in my past that have validated these feelings by flat out confirming their truth. Case in point. In 1999 I was a young, unsure, terrified PhD student in a world class graduate program in a kick ass earth science department, and someone very influential in my life at the time said these words to me: “You’re not that smart.” Wait…WHAT? What in the fuck do I do with that? I am not that smart. Wow. I am not that smart. I mean, I didn’t think I was Stephen freaking Hawking or anything but, shit, I am not that smart. Imagine someone telling you straight, “You’re not that smart.” Just roll those words around on your tongue for a few minutes. Say them out loud. Would you say those words to a friend? A colleague? Your child? Someone you believed in? Those words are loaded. It reminds me of the Sex and the City episode when Miranda, overhearing two women chattering on the street about why a date didn’t call back, tells them confidently, “He’s just not that into you.” The women react with disgust and disbelief, and they proceeded to chastise Miranda for saying what was undoubtedly the truth, albeit a truth they did not want to hear. She prefaced her statement by saying what she was about to tell them would save them a whole lot of time and trouble. In other words, come on ladies, face it…he’s just not that into you. Or, in my case, come on dumbo, face it…you’re just not that smart. When this bitter little nugget of truth was unleashed on me, I immediately started down the dark path to fear and self doubt, believing that this person, who was brilliant in his field, must know something that I didn’t know and I should probably take heed. It was a beautiful example of all the things I want to push women to rage against – someone else defining your worth, or convincing you that you are less than you are. It was an unexpected bomb dropped on me on a warm California afternoon, while sipping tea with a trusted advisor in his sun-filled office. In what world does this actually happen?
But here’s the part of the conversation I haven’t told you about yet. “You’re not that smart,” was only the first part of that sentence. “You’re not that smart,” was the only part of the sentence that stayed with me for many years afterward. But believe it or not, that sentence was one of the kindest, most complimentary sentences I had ever had the good fortune to hear. Because here is the punch line of that seemingly awful joke. The second part of the sentence went like this: “…but you’ve got pluck.” Pluck. At the time, all I heard was, “you are a dumb ass who has no business being in this field.” In reality, I was being told that regardless of my mental acumen (or lack thereof), I could thrive in this field that I felt so utterly adrift in. I was being given a compliment, but I couldn’t see it through my haze of hysteria.
If you look up the word plucky in the dictionary you will find synonyms such as courageous, determined, spunky, and spirited. I cannot think of four words I would rather have used to describe me than courageous, determined, spunky, and spirited. What an absolutely generous compliment, especially from someone who intimidated the hell out of me and was a world-renowned expert in his field. “You’ve got pluck.” Well shit. Ain’t that something.
In the years since that core shaking incident I have come to accept (i.e., not give a shit) that I am not as smart as most of my colleagues in the scientific community. It is a community inundated with people of particularly powerful perspicacity (that is smart speak for intelligence – take that!). I live with a man who is a geological genius. I work at a world-class research institution where scientists have designed machines that can fucking land on Mars! I will never win a Nobel Prize in physics, or chemistry, or any other scientific field. But I know how to survive in a field that is male dominated and full of beautiful minds. I am brave, and spunky, and spirited, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I hope my sons, regardless of their level of traditional intelligence, grow to appreciate the value of being able to find their strengths and use them to excel in whatever passion they want to pursue. I hope for all the young girls out there, who will undoubtedly come up against someone, somewhere, who doubts their ability to do something, that they can be brave, and spunky, and spirited, and find their pluck and push on through. We have no control over whether or not we have genius IQ’s. But we can choose whether to let someone else’s assessment of our abilities hold us back, or to quit whining, put on our big girl panties and get shit done. Do I wish science came easier to me? Hell yes. Do I wish I didn’t have to pause, think real hard, and use my fingers when adding up simple numbers? You bet. Would it be nice to have people think of me as the world expert in something, anything, scientific? Yeah, that would be cool.
Is it even more amazing to be my plucky self? You bet your smart ass.