I recently was invited to keynote at a Microsoft Digigirlz Camp in Albuquerque, New Mexico. And while I was very honored to keynote the event, I struggled a bit with what to say. I kept thinking back to what I was like in 7th or 8th grade and wondered what that girl would have wanted to hear. And finally, I decided that was the girl I needed to talk to. Here is the advice I would have given to the 7th-grade Me:
Never, Ever Play Dumb
I’m not sure when it happens, but somewhere beyond those first early grades when we, as girls, raise our hands high and eagerly answer questions in class, we somehow learn how to play dumb so others around us don’t feel bad for not knowing something we know. I know I did this – a lot – and I never felt good about me when I did.
As girls, we do this thing of pretending we don’t know an answer so the guy we’re with doesn’t feel bad that maybe, just maybe, we might be smarter than he is. Or we stay silent about how easy we thought a test was when our girlfriends at lunch are all saying how hard it was. But here’s the thing: if someone has to think you’re dumb to hang out with you, you’re making the choice to hang out with someone who will never like you for who you are, for all the special, unique quirks that is the wonderful version of you that lies awake at night imagining great adventures or ideas. So be true to that girl. She deserves it. I’m not saying to rub anyone else’s nose in how smart you are; I’m not saying that at all. I’m just asking that you make a promise to yourself that you’ll never, ever pretend to be dumb to make someone else feel better. Just be you, be humble, and be nice.
Have you thought you wanted to be a part of a sports team and decided to try out only to discover halfway through the season that you really didn’t like it all that much? Well, if your mom is anything like mine, you had to finish out the season so you didn’t let your teammates down. And then the next time you were curious about something and wanted to try it, you thought about getting stuck half a season doing something you didn’t like and, instead of exploring this new curiosity, you held back and decided it wasn’t worth the risk of getting stuck with it if you didn’t like it.
Well, those lessons are good for us – about not letting down teammates, about keeping our word and living up to our commitments. But we also need the freedom to explore new things in a way that lets us back out if we don’t like it. How will you ever know if you don’t try it? Find ways to explore things that you’re curious about. There is nothing at all wrong with dipping your toe in the pool to decide first if you like how the water feels; you don’t have to commit to diving into the deep end or doing nothing at all.
Check Your Stereotypes at the Door
How do you decide what it takes to be a good doctor or teacher or artist? What does a doctor look like? How about a teacher or artist? We build up these stereotypes, and we try to put ourselves – and everyone else around us – into this box that easily defines who that person is, what their role is, and what skills and traits they should have to be good at that particular role.
Don’t put yourself in box by deciding that you don’t fit the stereotype of what someone in STEM looks like. And don’t decide that it is all you can be if you do fit that stereotype. There are so many approaches to doing things that integrate across different disciplines that the possibilities are endless. Find something that strikes your passion, that you can’t stop thinking about how to solve that problem, and go do that. If you love art, don’t think you can’t be a part of STEM. You have no idea how much we need artists in this new digital world – artists who know how to think outside the box, to imagine how to communicate through color and lines and thickness of letters or shading to evoke just the right experience for someone accessing a website, a mobile app, an interactive kiosk in an airport that needs to appeal to multiple ethnicities and cultures. That is no easy task, so bring your talents to help solve problems that excite you.
Don’t Make it Hard for Other Girls
This one is so important. There is this part inside all of us that we want to create this environment where we feel comfortable, and we can unconsciously make it harder for other girls if they don’t fit inside of what we think our world should look or feel like. The next time you’re talking about something that’s a higher level idea and a girl you may think isn’t all that bright or isn’t interested in topics like yours – the next time one of those girls asks what you’re talking about, don’t dismiss her. Tell her. If she isn’t interested, she’ll disengage on her own. But don’t be the girl who doesn’t let girls outside of the stereotype into the smart girls club.
Mayim Bialik, who plays a scientist on Big Bang Theory, actually just became a neuroscientist in real life. But she pretty much fits that stereotype, right? What about Alicia Keys? Do you picture her as brilliant – smart enough to discuss ‘hard’ topics? She graduated at 16. And Elizabeth Banks graduated magna cum laude from UPenn. The point is that we sometimes jump to snap judgments about others based on what we see on the outside, but most of the time we’re wrong. Don’t be the girl who makes it hard for other girls to feel welcome in STEM.
It’s Your Life, So You Get to Choose
Don’t ever live someone else’s dream or become the character that someone else believes you should play in this thing called life. Even if it is that you are so good at math that everyone keeps telling you that you have to go into something that uses math – as if you owe it to math. You owe nothing to math. You owe everything to being true to yourself. So if there is this thing inside of you that says I may be good at math but I love art – then listen and explore that idea. Maybe you’ll land back at something in math but maybe you’ll do something really cool with art that no one else could have ever imagined without your incredible math skills. And if you’re a fantastic artist but you are curious about how cells break down and become cancerous? You have no idea how your ability to imagine things visually may play into this whole world of discovery around science and curing diseases. Don’t live someone else’s dream or let others define your life or your interests. Your unique view of everything around you may be just what the rest of the world has been waiting for. Anything is possible – so embrace your curiosity, embrace those around you, and explore your interests so you can contribute something amazing to the world that can come only from you.