The power of narrative in our lives is quite extraordinary. For instance, have you ever heard somebody say that they’re not “a cat person?” On the face of it, it seems like they’re saying that they don’t like cats. But when you dig a little deeper, it turns out that they are trying to describe their minds to you. “Cat person” has all sorts of connotations that go well beyond traditional preferences.
The same goes for when people say that they’re “practical,” “analytical,” or “intellectual.” It’s more about their identity than any particular facts of the matter. But here’s an annoying truth: we’re all general-purpose thinking machines. A human can do an enormous variety of tasks, from change a nappy to write a symphony. And this suggests that we’re harder to typecast than we imagine.
It’s just not true, for instance, to say that certain people are “social people” or “spiritual people”. We all have these capacities so long as we allow ourselves to access them. Let’s take a look at another example:
Are you a science person?
Nowhere is this mode of thinking more evident than when people talk about the type of academic they are. From an early age, students get the sense that they are “artistic” or “scientific,” and then they tend to run with it for the rest of their lives.
How many times have you heard people say, “I was never good at mathematics at school”? Usually, this isn’t just a statement of fact, but also one of mind. The person saying it genuinely believes that there is some defect in their brain that gets in the way of their understanding of the material, preventing them from ever exploring it fully.
That kind of attitude, however, is a little sad. There’s probably no fundamental reason they couldn’t complete a master of science in engineering management or a foundational physics degree. It’s just that they have this belief that they can’t. It becomes a part of their identity.
These kinds of thoughts are painfully self-limiting. People who engage in them are denying themselves valuable experiences and education that they could have. For instance, learning about engineering could provide them with the skills to figure out whether a project is viable or not. Knowing about mathematics could allow them to understand scientific papers or other insights from the academic literature.
Typecasting people is generally a bad idea. But doing it to yourself is arguably worse because you’re placing arbitrary limits on what you can do. If you don’t believe you can do science, you’ll never get into the science field, and you’ll never get to experience that aspect of life. And that’s a shame.
Perhaps there are brain differences between people who are great at science and those who aren’t. Maybe Einstein really did have more grey matter between his ears to solve complex problems than the rest of us. But that doesn’t mean that the science parts of your mind are somehow atrophied compared to the norm. Just like everything in life, doing great science requires practice.
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