I've talked about this a bit before but I spent most of my first year in graduate school questioning whether I knew much of anything at all. At every turn, I felt so completely out of my depth that it all just kept compounding until I was miserable. Why did this happen?
Some would say it's because I'm too sensitive. Not mentally strong enough. I have a friend who (despite being my friend!) still does not understand why people "get so upset about grades and school." This is a valid question. The answer is informed by everything from culture to gender to family. It is very easy for people who have never felt anxiety about what is expected of them to roll their eyes at people who are "overreacting."
So, I think about this a lot. And there's a whole road we could do down about the human brain and anxiety. Loads of research to debunk the idea that people just need to "get over it." There is no "chill out" switch. If there was, I would have found it years ago.
But if we're looking just at how anxiety is socialized and how people are taught (or not) how to handle challenges, failure, and ambiguity...well, it's no surprise that much of that is gendered.
(And no, the answer is not always "sexism!" but the answer is often directly or indirectly influenced by gender.)
You might be familiar with Carol Dweck's book/theory around a growth vs. fixed mindset. Her research provides evidence that those with a growth mindset, one where they believe that intelligence can be cultivated through hard work, versus a fixed mindset, one where intelligence is believed to be innate and unchanging, are more resilient and achieve greater success.
I have always been a very hard worker. I never met a homework assignment that I couldn't complete (until I got to business school - ha!). But honestly, I did well in school growing up in large part because I was organized, diligent, and cared about doing well. I knew I could do OK, but I always imagined that there was a limit to what I could accomplish (be it a grade or general success) because I wasn't innately as intelligent as many of the people around me. So, while I do believe we can get smarter through hard work (a growth mindset), I have always operated as if there is a limit (a fixed mindset).
What does this all mean? Well, I just finished a 134 page report on why there are so few women in STEM fields (don't worry, I was paid for the pleasure) and all I could think about was the last year and how I spent most of it thinking that I was an idiot because I didn't know what a discount rate was or how to amortize property, plant, & equipment. Of course I didn't know! When did we cover that in my gender studies courses? Never. When did I need to know this in my career prior to business school? Not one time.
So why did this undo me the way it did? Why didn't I just buck up and say "gosh, this is hard but I'm smart and will figure it out"? Why the tears? (and oh, there were tears.)
Here's the conclusion I came to. It's supposed to be hard. To my dear friend who thinks those of us who cry about finance midterms are overreacting, I offer a gentle reminder that he studied business in undergrad. This is a step up for him, but it's not brand new, mind blowing, excuse-me-but-what-is-a-put-option information.
The hard part is what should be celebrated. If it's not hard, you're wasting your time and money.
The worst part of last year was not the long hours or the exams or the 10-hour homework assignments. The worst part was feeling like a failure and being so utterly alone in it.
I would be remiss if I didn't give a shout out here to the bad-ass ladies who I shed many tears with in washrooms and study rooms and empty classrooms. But where was the culture that acknowledged this was hard (and harder for some) and that the effort, hard work, and learning from mistakes was what matters? Because that's what matters right?
Why go to school if you get perfect scores on everything? Why teach students who know all the answers? Why build a system that requires Certified Financial Analysts with five years of investment banking experience to take the same class and write the same exam as someone who studied feminist theory and has a Certificate in Fundraising (the non-profit kind) Management?
Last year I felt like I was spending an unreasonable amount of time in the panic zone just beyond the zone of proximal development. But was I, really? I certainly didn't fail any classes. In fact, I did pretty well in some. So why all the tears?
I think it has more to do with the aforementioned culture of business school (and hell, most schools). Particularly for women, it's important to hear that if you're bleeding, sobbing, and miserable on the mat then "GO YOU!" You are on the mat! Cry it out. Feel all the feels. Know that you're growing (however painfully) and that it's ok that it's hard. It's designed that way. Go get after it.