The Science of Success

How we can all achieve our goals

The Trouble With Bright Girls

Smart and talented women rarely realize that one of the toughest hurdles they'll have to overcome to be successful lies within. We judge our own abilities not only more harshly, but fundamentally differently, than men do. Understanding why we do it is the first step to righting a terrible wrong. Read More

bright vs. confident..

Hello Dr. Halvorson,
Very interesting reading here. It made me look back on my 5th grade experience and realize that I was considered one of the "good" students you mentioned. I was always one of the more rare, self-reliant girls who saw every problem as a challenge-I think this had to do with the fact that my father's influence during this stretch of my life was very strong-much stronger than my mother's influence. Father always taught me to stop and think through each problem to find a solution (bless him, the business owner that he was!) and if I was seriously stumped, then ask for help. This was a lot to ask from the shy, quiet girl at that time, but I realized at an earlier age than 5th grade that talking to the adults did not scare me as much as some of my fellow peers. So what does it mean if the 5th grade girl in question looks at new material as a challenge but if she seriously cannot solve it, she asks for help? Does this make her less bright than her peers who would just "give up" as you mentioned?
Today I am in my mid-30s, considered attractive (in a homely way, not supermodel way), somewhat care-free, respectful biologist who is by no means wealthy but have been doing bioresearch for the past 10 years (pretty much since I graduated from college). I do not know if this translates into successful or unsuccessful in psychological terms, but I believe that confidence is great while for all of us there is always room for advancement/improvement. Very interesting article once again, thank you for posting.


Hi Heather - You raised an

Hi Heather - You raised an excellent point about asking for help and I'm glad you mentioned it. Asking for help is really an essential part of mastering new material, and one of the single most effective things you can do to learn. So it's wonderful that your father emphasized the importance of help-seeking when necessary.

Certainly not every bright girl responds to challenge with helplessness, but it often takes someone to send the right message (that it's about effort and persistence, rather than "innate ability"), as your father did for you.

Thank you so much for your comments!

I should also mention

I was gifted & raised in a competitive learning environment. Shouting out the answers until somebody had the right one was the norm in all the fun classes, and having logical, non-didactic arguments were the norm where there were no "right" or "wrong" ones, just "plausible" or "creative" ones. At home, the answer to every question was " look it up" and we weren't allowed to not try things. I'm an INTP personality by nature, so there's not much I cant or don't want to figure out: my biggest frustration in the leap between algebra and calculus was that the explanations were never very clear, so I couldn't figure out HOW to apply independent concepts in a constructive way. I found out later from a friend who was more advanced in that class that the teacher couldn't teach him, either. Bottom line, I'm not the giving up type. In fact, it's something I've actually had to train myself to do sooner where other people are concerned, so I just wonder, how much is the above-mentioned catch-22 responsible for women failing?? I think they're probably *internalizing* the WHOLE message and then blaming themselves for others lack of support as well as their own failure. Giving someone the idea that working harder will help them do better IS a form of help and support, (it also implies that there will inevitable BE a SECOND chance), whereas praise is just a reward, and only if the praised has any significance to the hearer.

You are very lucky to have

You are very lucky to have grown up in that kind of family environment, as I'm sure you know. I'm an INTP as well, but I grew up with uneducated parents in a working class family; my experience is vastly different. My family is not college educated, they never encouraged school for us, I didn't know how smart I was until quite recently, in college. I was never told that I was gifted, although I secretly always believed it, wistfully staring at the 5th grade gifted class with jealousy in my heart. I believe this article to be unfathomably true; I didn't know that I was capable simply because no one ever told me that hard work = success on every account, especially in school. There are too many people that still believe intelligence is innate, that you are born with a high IQ, despite evidence to the contrary. I still wish that I had been adopted, but I have accepted my upbringing and can only move on with the knowledge I have now.


As well, stronger folks--tend to redouble. That would be boys, in general.

Less-strong folks--tend to be maxxing out already.+<3

I should also mention

I was gifted & raised in a competitive learning environment. Shouting out the answers until somebody had the right one was the norm in all the fun classes, and having logical, non-didactic arguments were the norm where there were no "right" or "wrong" ones, just "plausible" or "creative" ones. At home, the answer to every question was " look it up" and we weren't allowed to not try things. I'm an INTP personality by nature, so there's not much I cant or don't want to figure out: my biggest frustration in the leap between algebra and calculus was that the explanations were never very clear, so I couldn't figure out HOW to apply independent concepts in a constructive way. I found out later from a friend who was more advanced in that class that the teacher couldn't teach him, either. Bottom line, I'm not the giving up type. In fact, it's something I've actually had to train myself to do sooner where other people are concerned, so I just wonder, how much is the above-mentioned catch-22 responsible for women failing?? I think they're probably *internalizing* the WHOLE message and then blaming themselves for others lack of support as well as their own failure. Giving someone the idea that working harder will help them do better IS a form of help and support, (it also implies that there will inevitable BE a SECOND chance), whereas praise is just a reward, and only if the praised has any significance to the hearer.

Asking for help - not always a good idea:

I am a product development engineer and it is my job to face new challenges.

My work requires me to venture into new territory and create something that hasn't been done before.

In this case, I developed my skill by tackling the problems head-on and learned by trial and error. Too often, asking for help resulted in being pushed to "do it his way".

It's good to ask questions, but not until you've really given it your all first.

I believe that girls are taught to seek help as a first action. I think the message is that there is always someone who knows better and you should check with them before starting.

This subservient approach does not develop confidence the way the experience of overcoming obstacles on your own can.

Men are often, comically, sited for "not asking directions" but it is precisely that habit that provides the best learning experience.

To accomplish something through someone else's guidance does not result in the pride and confidence that comes from doing it yourself.

Real learning is painful and often humiliating, we shouldn't try to protect our girls too much -- we are cheating them out of the experience of self pride.

it depends

Trial and error can be an inefficient and extremely time consuming way to arrive at a solution. EG: Evolution of life. I work in systems integration, and often have to kick myself for spending too much time in trial and error, when a simple question to tech support or a forum or another person would have helped me to arrive at a solution sooner.

Embracing a "do it yourself" attitude can cause unnecessary work. Information seeking in pursuit of a solution can take many forms, all of them useful.. Useful information can come from others as well as from trial and error.

The most annoying part of a "do it myself" attitude I have seen is the tendency of people who solve problems for a living is the tendency to cling to ones own (sometimes hard won) solutions above all else "because its mine!" . Having your "own" solution can make you married to it and blind to compromise and input... factors which are necessary in any team project.

The best problem solvers seek to communicate, understand and assimilate others solutions, but do not stop with that. In the scenario you describe, the problem does not lie with the fact that someone asked someone else for their opinion, but in the fact that they accepted it without question.

Don't reinvent the wheel

That's a good point sueB. Something I often hear in the field of software development is "don't reinvent the wheel." Being as it is a male-dominated field, it probably shouldn't be surprising that people keep having to say this. Everyone wants to be the one to originate a new and wonderful technology, but often times your best bet when faced with a problem is to look up who else has faced this problem before and do what they did. Most of the time, someone else has come up with a better solution than what you were going to do. Only when you find those other solutions unsatisfactory should you consider making something new.

When girls do step up

I think one thing that needs to be addressed, that is out of a 5th grade girls control and is a societal issue, is the feedback a girl often receives when she IS in a vocal, pro-active, assertive, problem-solving mode. I have two highly gifted daughters that attend a co-ed school tailored to challenge them. Even there, BOTH girls have reported negative feedback from both peers AND faculty when they have stepped out of the "nice girl who is a good student and works hard at the work given" role. Boys may receive feedback to work harder to behave certain ways and attain certain skills in order to learn, but girls receive feedback NOT to behave in certain ways. They receive this from each other, from boys and from their teachers. Here are just a few things, in my experience, they get negative feedback for from many different factions:

Having a different/unique opinion
Questioning the status quo
Letting a teacher know when they are not being challenged
Asking for help

We live in a sexist culture. If a teacher/administrator is not acutely aware of this and of their place in advancing that cultural agenda, they will unwittingly give a girl negative feedback for being proactive and assertive, which hard work and problem solving absolutely require. Confidence develops with assertiveness and making mistakes that lead to answers. If girls are in any way given the message that they are making an authority figures life harder, particularly a female one's, by doing these things they will not persist in trying. Boys are challenged to try harder, often with humor and acceptance. Girls are asked to get back in line because it's expected and makes the teacher's life easier.

Girls parent's are often called for behavior that a teacher would shake their head at if it was a boy.

I'm not trying to assign blame but saying that all women must step up to assist in the "rebellion" that is required for girls to grow the mindset of putting themselves out there to figure things out and rise to the top. I think this "we are our own worst enemy" mentality just puts one more shame and responsibility on women than they already have, instead of encouraging a seed societal change that we can all, men and women, support.

I would never say to my girls "Oh, you just need to change your mindset and stop holding yourself back and you will get paid the same as you male co-worker." I don't believe that's true and what a head trip along with: be slim, be beautiful, be bright, be strong, be WHATEVER! They have enough on their plates as girls in a sexist culture where not only do men get paid more 1 in 4 girls is sexually assaulted every minute.

Women and men need to support women being assertive!

For real.

You just spoke the truth. Older women are the quickest to shoot down girls who act "unladylike."

when girls do step up

As a retired middle school teacher of 26 years I would agree that girls are not encouraged to be vocal pro-active and self-assertive.
Even in 2013 it is not a model of behavior that is expected of children, much less female children.
Add to that a pervasive sense in the society that pro-active behavior is completely suspect. I call it the "Hillary Clinton" effect. We SAY we want a female President but we criticize her choice of clothing, hair styles, etc. etc. which is completely irrelevant We have not had a female candidate yet for President or Vice President who has not been subject to some really stupid criticisms. Our young girls are told they can do anything, but in reality we've had 44 Presidents all male.
And then many bright young girls do not necessarily come from families that value their intelligence. Were it not for my step-father I would have had no encouragement to think I might possibly be college material. "Talking back" to mother, teachers or preachers was considered a sin. Unfortunately, with home schooling, not much has changed.

... 1 in 4 girls is sexually

... 1 in 4 girls is sexually assaulted every minute.

Uhh ...

So on average, every girl is sexually assaulted 15 times an hour?

I realize your comment is two months old, but what were you really trying to say here?

The moment I saw the title of

The moment I saw the title of the article, this is exactly what came to mind. I know, for me, out-performing the boys in elementary school was highly shamed. If I performed well, I was considered boastful, too aggressive, and unladylike. "Good girls" were supposed to "cute", giggly, and we were expected to rely on the boys to help us with "the hard stuff." Venturing outside that role was socially shunned and I learned that lesson very quickly. It's still hard to shake that mindset and regain confidence in myself 20 years later, and I am in the above-average gifted IQ range.

Your comment rang so true for me

I remember clearly the first time I was shot down in a math class. I thought I came up with a novel way to do a calculation so raised it in the middle of class and asked the teacher about her thoughts. She was having none of it. I just decided to keep quiet and do as I was told. I learned at that point that my opinion was not valuable. And like you, 20 years later I'm still working on realizing my opinion does count.


How have you found your calls for help received? I was raised the same way and I find that mine go unanswered. My real needs are poo-pooed while I am berated for being "arrogant" and "independent" for not asking for help when it's not needed. For example: in grad school, i was accused of being the teacher's pet by the teacher just for engaging in discussions in my areas of expertise! But if I asked about something I had absolutely no knowledge of, or reported difficulty doing things that had always been easy before (I was beginning to come down with a serious case of depression), i was immediately written off as lazy.

Is there some sort of aversion to the thought of high-functioning females that makes people unresponsive, dismissive, or even aggressive? Is it that the only feel comfortable seeing women as inadequate in areas where they feel they are more than competent?

In my doctoral program,

In my doctoral program, critical thinking and discussion was not encouraged (yes, you read that correctly). Other female students gossiped about me saying I was trying to suck up to the instructors by asking questions or trying to show off. I was, and still am, very disgusted by my experience in my PhD program. I think EVERYONE, regardless of gender, has an aversion to smart and strong women who are not afraid to speak up and ask difficult questions.

As an aside, I went into independent practice after completing my PhD while one of the women became a stay-at-home mother (why she chose to pursue a doctorate is beyond me) while the other three work at a hospital where their jobs are dictated by the psychiatrists. I'm sure they don't mind, though, since they can't do anything for themselves nor think for themselves.

I am a teacher and a mother a

I am a teacher and a mother a daughter who loves to learn. I have noticed that she doesn't ask for help because she wants to prove that she can do it herself. I rspect her tenacity, but I teach her to ask when she has tried her best and still cannot figure something out or get a task accompished.

As a teacher, I whole-heartedly agree with the statement, "I think EVERYONE, regardless of gender, has an aversion to smart and strong women who are not afraid to speak up and ask difficult questions." The brightest girls in classes are often penalized by their peers (in terms of being the recipient of snide remarks) for asking questions higher-level questions, for scoring high on assessments, etc. Tsk! Tsk! Tsk! What a shame that those kids have not learned the valuable lesson of connecting with those who are successful and modeling your practice after theirs.

The trouble with bright girls

My husband and I unschooled my daughters who are now 16, 14, and 13 for this very reason- we wanted to preserve their natural curiosity,eagerness to explore and learn what they wanted to and not be hampered by other people's opinions of what they could do/be/were etc. They are strong, outspoken and confident and as some people have said,this attitude is looked upon with suspicion from the not so confident and delight from the one's who are secure in themselves.
Also, here is an interesting piece on the way kids from different economic backgrounds navigate the classroom and learn new material:

boys too

Great article with lots of valuable and actionable info. Only problem is it dismisses all of the boys who have grown up with the same curse. Many of us were also told how "good" we were at things and thus feel a need to do things perfectly or not at all.

The irony

Very nice piece.

One thing I have always found ironic about Dweck's early work and that of Jackie Eccles as well was in the feedback given to girls (at that time at least).

Girls were told that their performance was due to effort and praise focused on improvement.

Boys were told their performance was due to ability and praised for its absolute quality.

This was interpreted as bad because it told boys they were smart but girls they worked hard, undermining their self-esteem. However, the focus on incremental improvement and effort is exactly what Dweck found to be associated with seeking out challenge, not giving up after failure, and focusing on improving performance rather than losing focus after a setback.

I've never been able to reconcile these findings. Am I remembering them wrong?

It is my opinion that long term, seeking out those challenges and plugging away at them is what makes all the difference in the long term trajectories of success in adulthood.

Thank you Nancy. I'm not

Thank you Nancy. I'm not sure about the early work you are referring to - everything I have read of Carol's was consistent with respect to the link between effort praise and persistence (and ability praise and helplessness), and I don't know of any research of Carol's in which girls were given effort praise and boys ability praise. That certainly doesn't mean it does not exist - I may have missed it, but if that's true I would definitely be as perplexed as you are. :)

Smart Girls

I think the material Nancy refers to is talking about what happens during failure. In that situation, girls were often told, "Well, you tried." That tends to reinforce that nobody expected you to do well in the first place. Boy on the other hand were told that they were capable and they will be able to do [whatever]. This is the other side of the same coin as your article.

Girls tend to believe successes result from ability and their failures to inability. Therefore, when they failed, why try again? You will only fail again. Boys are taught that their failures are not the result of inability. Thus they can retain an innate sense that they are capable even in failure. Trying again makes sense - that boy's failure may well have just been bad luck.

That said, these theories can only explain some experiences. I grew up in a very boy-centric home. We were a big family with limited financial resources. Half of us skipped grades. But funding girls to go to college was thought wasteful since the expectation was that we would become housewives and not use any of that education. We girls were encouraged to learn to type, however for something to fall back on.

I was not going to settle for that kind of life. My faith in my abilities and stubbornness (and the learned indifference to others' opinions of what I ought to do) led me to put myself through school (as well as to never learn to type). Of the 7 of us, I'm the only one with an advanced degree.

And I was the ultimate 'good girl.'

I agree

I think you're right about the confusion -- KimOs's description is a good account of Eccles's findings. Much of Eleanor Maccoby's work has been similar, with similar results.

That's what I'm remembering also

I love Maccoby's work - and it was the Maccoby/Eccles/Dweck work together I was thinking about.

I haven't looked at that material for a while, but it always struck me that what led to short term low self-esteem (feeling like you were praised for effort, not ability) would lead to long term success (focusing on effort and incremental improvement rather than ability in the face of setbacks) IF you kept trying.

Kids who focus on ability and incremental learning tend to seek out and thrive in challenging situations where they are constantly learning (and maybe not doing all that well, because they're always pushing themselves). In my opinion - and I have no data on this, although it's a study I've always wanted to do - long term, those should be the people who do the best.

I think developmentalists (me too) focus a lot on how well people do in the short term, but not necessarily over the lifecourse. Lots of people peak early.


At reading was all my life, now, I have 28 and still I don´t have enough confidence, and always I like to give up in almost everything. Irony, the best student at school, and now, so needed.

okay not sure this is universal

I was a smart 5th grade girl and I'm still a smart woman. I never fell for the "smart girl" trap with my peers because I, like a lot of girls, was also raised with a heavy duty teaching in gauging "consequence". I was not a "geek" girl;nor did I go the other way and hide my intelligence. The consequences for providing the requested action was simply not important enough to me personally, to buy into stereotyping.

In other words, I had no interest in figuring out the puzzle because the Pavlov scooby-snack (peer and teacher admiration) simply had no effect on me. Offer me a reward in which I was interested (books, more books), and you got all you wanted from me. I was amazed at how often the status quo was rammed down my throat because evidently I wasn't smart enough to know what I really wanted--or smart enough to learn to like it. But grades and "scholastic accolades" didn't do it for me either, so no, I wasn't in the "honors" crowd.

I feel we spend more time teaching girls what they should want rather that teaching them what they want to know but I am encourage by the wave of girl-power and daughter doting I've seen for the millennials. I've read studies before that support, and as a former elementary teacher have personally observed, the idea that girls pick up on action=consequence thinking faster than boys (or possibly that girls' teaching subconsciously reinforces this moray stronger in girls similar to the innate v effort praise the article highlighted).

For some girls, this action=consequence manifests as hiding their intelligence, or lack of confidence in intelligence. My understanding was that I was smart, and if a boy--or anyone else was not intelligent enough to understand that was a positive--then the more intelligent action on my part was to consider these persons a less evolved form of human and therefore, not intelligent enough to advise someone like me. (Try pulling that off as a 6th grader to a school official; not easy, but I managed).

There are studies out today that began on the premise of questioning why women don't "succeed" in certain professional areas, in greater numbers, when the surprising result was found that it wasn't that women weren't confident in their abilities, but rather that they defined success differently, and were not "interested" in succeeding that way, so simply did not. Again, the emphasis seemed to be "how do we get women to want these rewards," not: how do we reward women fulfillingly?

I weigh action and consequence, and I see no need to shine in areas that may be of great interest to the rest of the population, but are of no interest--or use-- to me. That fact that there is a segment of the population that thinks there is something wrong with that tells me that there is a large segment of the population that still hasn't been able to evolve its thinking processes--and I still haven't bothered learning how to want to win those peoples' approval.

Again, anyone that buys into that stereotyping is simply not an intelligent enough human for that opinion to be given serious weight. Arguing that it is a 100 to 1 battle, doesn't make the 100 "right".

Reading your comment

While everyone has an opinion, a stereotype is indeed an opinion albeit large scale, the option is in doing what always leads us to an area of questioning our beliefs on a fundamental level, and coming out of that questioning a deeper person. No confirmation is in order for something you experience unless you desire it. If I had an archetype to assign this it would simply be 'human' and the details are the same. "What can you do for your country?"... No I'm kidding ... still it's 'bigger' than that even. I agree with you one hundred percent....I am just one person.

I agree with you. I am

I agree with you. I am really confident in my abilities and I know that I am more capable than many of my peers who are more successful than me. However, like you described, I'm not interested in the perceived "rewards" of being successful. I don't want fame or fortune, I prefer a simple life. Well, I lie, I would like to be recognized, but by who is the question. What do I have to do for you to recognize my talents? Lets see, suck up to you, be sexually appealing, play the popular game. Well I don't want to play. I'm me, and I'm confident in my abilities and I don't need your approval to validate my worthiness.

Throughout college it was shoved down my throat that I should want to go to grad school, I should want to go to some big city and try my best to "succeed". I fell for that but when I got there its not what I wanted and it wasn't what I thought it would be. A lot of the people I met in those situations were sexist and superficial. They name dropped other famous people constantly, sucked up to them to get ahead, were rude behind other peoples backs. It was high school all over again and I learned that its really who you know and your networking skills that get you ahead most of the time and not your ACTUAL skills.

Then, I thought, why am I trying to impress these losers? Why am I suffering and wasting my time on them? What am I going to get out of their recognition. Nothing that is worth more than my sanity, so I quit. Partly out of spite and mostly for my own mental and physical well being. I'm a thousand times happier now and happier than most of those people will ever be. I almost feel sorry for them for trying so hard. And none of those people can ever see my brilliant genius work again, because their eyes are not worthy of my work. I still work, just not at the public level where most people crave recognition.

Did I "fail" because I wasn't smart enough? no. Did I "fail" because I refused to succumb to a group of sexist superficial wannabes? yes. Honestly, craving recognition just seems immature to me now. And that is most people's definition of success.

This is a gross

This is a gross over-generalization. Your point about how environment affects a person's outlook and overall confidence and self-esteem seems quite possibly true. However, there are some key factors that you failed to take into consideration. It seems you base your opinion on the premise that boys and girls are physiologically and neurologically identical at birth and that differences begin to appear after how they are treated in their environments. While it is true that environment shapes a person, the predisposition for being shaped is genetic. You yourself made the point that boys are a handful, which is true and has a strong evolutionary roots but your comment: “Girls, who develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions, are often praised for their ‘goodness’”, begs me to ask, what happens to the girls that don’t? And what about the boys that do? Do boys generally develop self-control later than girls and if they do why? These questions should be answered before arriving at any conclusion but if I were to give my opinion I would agree with your general assessment about the disparities between men and women in the workplace but I would disagree that it is purely the fault of social upbringing.
Men are more competitive and are therefore willing to face the next challenge, they are not cohearsed into taking it by some teacher in elementary school. There are more men in prisons compared to women more men in sports and more male geniuses and it cannot be blamed soley on society but also on women for sexually selecting the stronger males, those who stood out, those who could better provide for their offspring those many million years ago. The way things are now is mainly based on the differences between the male and female instinct, instinct that is innate and a product of evolution.
I conclude my comment by again agreeing with the idea that there is disparity but I disagree on the reasons why.

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Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.


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