I've probably mentioned my father in previous posts because he is the reason that I have always been interested in science. He made me into who I am today. He passed away a few weeks ago. It was fairly sudden (with doctors saying he'd go home from the hospital just 3 days before his passing) but not completely unexpected (he had COPD).
My father was the smartest man I know. He influenced me in so many ways. Like my love of math and science, choosing to get a physics degree, my interest in fast cars, and even my love of black pointed toe cowboy boots.
He raised us to believe that we could do anything we wanted to do if we were willing to put in the work. He raised us to be confident and independent. He taught us how to shoot a gun, fix a car, and change a flat tire. I will miss him more than I can say.
One of my goals is to do a TEDx talk someday. The topic would be on the unconventional wisdom that my father shared with me that made me who I am today. It hasn't happened yet, but if when I do, this post is what it will be based on.
This is my dad.
He volunteered to go to Vietnam after graduating from Georgia Tech, because the job sounded like an adventure.
I was looking at this picture one night and thought, wow, my dad's kind of a badass. It's kind of amazing to me that a boy from a small town in Georgia, could grow up to see the world, to recover elephants in the jungles of Vietnam, ride camels in Egypt, and do so many other cool things.
So maybe you're thinking, what kind of awesome job gives you the opportunity to do all this and where do I sign up. Well, until he retired several years ago, my dad was an engineer.
Not usually considered the most adventurous of careers. But he choose his path through the life, life doesn't just happen to you. That's something he instilled in my sister and me. And one of the many ways he made me the person I am today.
Much to my parents dismay, I don't have children, but I've always wanted to share what my parents taught me.
So I'm going to share three of the most important things my dad taught me.
Math and science is fun.
First, math and science is fun, or as my 1st Physics teacher spelled it, phun (that was actually the answer to the 1st question on my 1st physics test ever). Not only is it fun, it's amazing, it describes the universe and how everything works, and understanding it is important and exciting. Not only that, but never, ever, was I led to believe that women shouldn't, or couldn't, do science.
It was just there. All around us. I took things apart just to figure out how they went back together. When I was 5 or 6, we lived in Bangkok, Thailand, I was taking apart my favorite little doll night light and shocked the crap out of myself. My parents came in running into the bedroom, but never did they say, "don't do that, it's is too dangerous". What they said was that I should be careful around electricity, unplug it next time, (and to go to bed).
So cautious curiosity maybe the message here. But encourage your daughters to explore the amazing world they live in. Why is the sky blue? Why is sunset and sunrise red? Raleigh scattering, by the way. What is that thing? Encourage their questions. Help them find answers.
You may not consider this unconventional advice, but the data say otherwise. There's a big gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM as it is called. Studies have shown that elementary school is a critical time for girls to head down the path towards science and math careers, but many of them are discouraged by their parents and teachers. We can't let this happen.
With all the focus lately on girls in STEM, I was sad to hear that the numbers are going the wrong way. Female enrollment in science and technology degrees has been declining.
So even though about 57% of all college graduates are women, only 19% of the engineering degrees go to women (that's down 1% from 10 years ago), only 18% in computer science (that's down 5% from 10 years ago). The earth sciences, physical sciences, and mathematics degrees are a bit higher at 38%, 39%, and 42%, but these are all down 2-3% from a decade ago.
So I'm a major science pusher. All my Christmas gifts are science experiments in disguise, and not very good disguises at that. (I gave my niece a Makey Makey banana piano one year. Banana piano is awesome! I highly recommend it.) I encourage you to do be a geek with your kids. Teach your kids, especially your daughters, to stay curious. Because society will tell them to stop. It will tell them that math is hard and science is for boys. Society is flat out wrong about that. Science is awesome and girls are great at it.
And even if they don't go on to science careers, they will learn that they can replace their own light switches, change tires, or fix the toilet. They will be independent.
A 99 on a test meant that I should have studied more.
The 2nd bit of advice that my dad gave me was that a 99 on a test meant that I should have studied more. I'll be honest, that was not well received advice on my part in junior high and high school. I mean, come on, it's a 99!
But looking back, what it taught me was that trying harder is how you achieve more. Going into his senior year of high school, my dad was 2nd in his class, but he wanted to be valedictorian. Instead of just accepting that the other guy was just a bit smarter then him, he buckled down, studied harder, and graduated as valedictorian.
Studies show that kids who believe that through learning, practice, and hard work, they can become smarter and achieve more, outperform kids who believe their intelligence is fixed. How do kids get this growth mindset vs a fixed mindset? Again, from how parents and teachers talk to them.
In a long term study of seventh graders, researchers found that the just fact that the girls outperform boys at a young age, changed the conversations they had with the adults around them. The girls heard that they were smart and the boys heard that they needed to focus and try harder. Years later in school, on difficult tasks, the girls gave up on challenging tasks because they didn't think they were smart enough, but the boys tried harder. In fact the smartest of the girls gave up earliest because they were never taught to try harder.
Work by Carol Dweck and others have found that kids with a fixed mindset avoid challenges, give up early when they run into obstacles, see effort as worthless, ignore useful negative feedback, and feel threatened by the successes of others. On the other hand, kids with a growth mindset embrace challenges, persist in the face of obstacles, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from criticism, and find inspiration in the successes of others.
I think this is one of the reasons that sports really help kids learn to practice and work harder. My sister and I figure skated all our lives. You learn early that figure skating is more about falling and getting back up than it is about doing a 3 minute program in a short sequin dress. And even if you do your best, only one person gets 1st place. There are no participation awards in figure skating. The next day, you get back on the ice, do it all over again, and try harder to get 1st place next time.
This is what worries me about this whole everyone gets a trophy world we've become. If everyone gets a prize, how do they learn to try harder next time?
Sure, you want to tell your kids they are smart, but don't forget to tell them to try harder too, because that's where the real learning happens.
It's better to be shot in the front yard than in a field.
Lastly, and probably most unconventional of all his advice, my father told me it was always better to be shot in the front yard than in a field somewhere. We live in Texas after all...
One night, when I was 18 or 19, I was driving home and a car seemed to be following me. My parents live almost at the end of the street, so when this car was still behind me, I got suspicious. I kept going and turned into the alley. And the car followed me.
Since cell phones hadn't been invented yet, I tore down the alley, turned back up our street, pulled up in front of my house and ran to the door.
I was looking out the window as the car passed slowly. My father came up and I told him what happened. I remember him saying rather matter of factly, "It's better to be shot in the front yard than in a field somewhere. Because at least we could call an ambulance here. Never get in anyone's car."
This may be the most unconventional piece of wisdom he ever gave me, but it's absolutely the most honest. My dad believed that bad things happened and your best bet was to have a plan. And part of this plan was to stay in a public place.
Now, all parents tell their kids don't talk to strangers or get in strangers cars or put yourself in situations where you might get shot, or kidnapped, or whatever, but if you think nothing will ever happen to you, you will never be prepared for what could happen to you.
Growing up my sister and I were told that if you were going to hit someone, hit them as hard as you can. We learned that the thumb is the weakest part of the grip and if someone grabs your arm, you pull away against their thumb. We even learned how to disarm someone with a gun (again, go against the thumb, it's the weak point).
So many young girls are not taught basic safety skills. They are never given the physical and mental training that they need to give them the confidence if something was to happen to them.
Teach your daughters to be prepared. We teach girls to be polite, but we don't tell them it's ok to disagree, debate, and stand up for themselves. So not only have they not thought about what they would do if something happened, they also don't want to offend or hurt anyone.
Now all situations are different and there isn't one correct response, but the time to decide what you would do if attacked is now. Not later when you are faced with a bad situation.
So there you have it. Three unconventional pieces of wisdom my dad gave my sister and me that shaped who we are today.
Love science and embrace how the world works.
Try harder and you can achieve almost anything you want.
Be prepared to defend yourself and get away.
With these bits of wisdom, he empowered us to be strong and confident, and maybe even a little badass.