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The Problem With Playing Dumb


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A while back I read the book “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg. I can’t remember the last business book that so reached into my heart and connected with my soul.

As an INTJ — and female! — I’m already practically an endangered species. Only 0.8% of women in the world are INTJ. Add factors such as being a young(ish) leader, a business owner, and working for years in a very male-dominated church environment – and it’s impossible not to be aware of the limitations placed on smart, driven women.

Sheryl deftly articulated so many gender-driven experiences to which I can excruciatingly relate.

  • Being interrupted and talked over by men who make a point to listen to each other respectfully? ✔️
  • Down-playing intelligence to gain social popularity? ✔️
  • Phrasing instructions as questions to increase perceived likability? ✔️
  • Accepting lower pay & contract work while watching my equal male colleagues receive competitive salaries, benefits & promotions? ✔️
  • Refraining from negotiation for fear of losing a good opportunity? ✔️
  • Acting like I don’t know the answer so no one will think I’m “too smart”? ✔️
  • Asking an agreeable male classmate to act as spokesperson even though I was designated “team leader”, because everyone listened better when a guy said it, and rationalizing that it was easier than bucking the stereotypical norm? ✔️

For me, it started my junior year of high school. I attended private boarding school that year, and quickly realized that naked academic ambition was going to directly — and negatively — affect my potential for social acceptance.

My previous educational environment had fostered a deep love of learning and shameless pursuit of knowledge. But I quickly realized that girls were most popular when they concerned themselves primarily with shallower pursuits, and any overtly eager approach to my studies would bring certain social ostracization and accompanying unflattering nicknames like “know-it-all”, “bossy”, and “kiss-up”.

So I played dumb.

Feigned ignorance.

Kept my hand down when I knew I knew the answer.

Refrained from asking questions when I wanted to know the answer.

Looking back, I’m certain I lost a few IQ points as a result. In a stage of growth when I could have accelerated academically and challenged myself mentally, I consciously chose to play dumb instead.

Because I wanted to fit in.

Because I was scared of the labels that come with breaking gender stereotypes. Because no one except my parents told me it was okay to be unashamed of however smart God had made me, and that I shouldn’t have to hide a love of learning. And what do parents know? (Just kidding. I should have listened to them instead of worrying about popularity. But time brings clarity teenagers rarely possess.)

It took years to recoup what my soul lost while striving to become a “good submissive girl”. In other words, while trying to be invisible.

It wasn’t until my tiny, mewling firstborn child was laid in my arms that I broke free. Suddenly I didn’t care what anyone thought. Life had greater purpose than merely pleasing petty onlookers.

Some feminists might raise their hackles, but I found freedom in motherhood — which then spilled over into every other category of life. How could I raise my son to value authenticity if his mother dumbed herself down to be socially accepted? How could I teach him to treasure and respect women if I modeled insecurity and self-doubt?

Like Sheryl Sandberg, I feel like an imposter some days. I still wonder when someone will unmask me as a fraud.

But I also have grown to acknowledge that talents and experience do not exist to be buried. I’ve come to peace with the realization that social popularity for its’ own sake is highly overrated.

Most of all, I’ve learned there’s no lasting value to anyone that results from teaching smart girls to play dumb.

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