The Right to Be Wrong: Embracing Weaknesses

I’ve spent the past few months working as a nanny for two teenage girls in an affluent part of the greater D.C. area.  Out of respect for the family, I’ve limited the number of social media posts I’ve made about their personal affairs.  The girls are bright, attend private schools, and are involved in multiple extracurricular activities.  The parents are well-educated and kind, and, in hiring nannies, they like to expose their children to various academic specialties and experiences.  As you can imagine, my tornado research and background in the sciences was intriguing to the family, and I’ve done a mixture of tutoring and driving the girls to activities during my time here.

One thing I’ve struggled with throughout my life is the overwhelming desire to be “right.”  More to the point, I made it my life goal to never be wrong.  My teachers and peers identified this trait in me easily; the former considered it a strength, while the latter exploited it as a weakness.  I now know this is a combination of my Type A personality as well as the effects of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  As my doctors have explained to me, the wiring in my brain is defunct, and this will continue to be a struggle for me.

As many of you can attest, grad school puts perfectionism to the test.  There are a couple of ways this can occur, depending on your personality:

  • You enter grad school having graduated top of your class in undergrad and are ready to show the academic world what it has been missing.
  1. Result: More than a few people happy to knock you down a few pegs, slowly wearing you down.
  • You struggle with Impostor Syndrome, and assume everything you do is wrong/could be better/is worse than your colleague’s approach to the problem.                 
  1. Result: Lack of external and self-validation slowly wears you down.

The latter was my experience, and I had trouble reconciling my desire for perfection with my need for sanity and progress in my career.  This is part of what led me to take a break from academia.

But what do my nanny kids have to do with this?

It’s been awhile since I’ve taken high school physics, but I did struggle greatly with a fluid dynamics course I took in the engineering school last fall.  The family I work for expects me to be a science resource for them, and I am always excited to provide information on various topics.  But sometimes, I don’t know.

I can measure the progress of my emotional and intellectual maturity in how I react to questions I can’t give an answer to.  In the past, I would either pretend I knew the answer or flush bright red with embarrassment from not knowing.  I should know this, I should know everything! I’d think.  But I’ve come to accept that I don’t have all the answers, not even close.  Not only that, but it’s good for my mental health to hear myself say, aloud, with no shame, “I don’t know.” 

Maybe my teenagers are surprised when I don’t know how to do their simple physics homework problem.  Or when I’ve forgotten a few simple geometry tricks.  I know at their age I would have assumed I was smarter than this 20-something “scientist,” and swelled with pride at teaching them how to do my physics.  But I don’t fear that reaction from them now; in fact, I hope that I’m teaching them a lesson that it’s taken me far too long to take to heart—it’s alright to be wrong, and it’s even better to admit you don’t know.