Although I haven’t written about it, even on my relatively private Facebook page, this August brought me a personal crisis. I don’t want to go into too many details, so suffice to say that I realized some of my current behavior is due to past experiences that are (happily) no longer relevant. Some of my behavior has included clinging to perfectionism and being unable to ask for help, things that I am now ready to let go of. But the experiences were painful, so facing them and then moving past the behaviors has also been difficult. In all of this I’ve had the support and love of my family, and for that I’m grateful.

In what seems like an unrelated situation but likely isn’t, a blog post about embracing my imperfections led a colleague to suggest that I read a book. “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brene Brown is proving to be a particularly useful thing for me as I move past my crisis. Earlier this week I read something in it that I need to share:

In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Over time, this definition has changed, and, today, courage is more synonymous with being heroic. Heroics is important and we certainly need heroes, but I think we’ve lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we’re feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage. Heroics is often about putting our life on the line. Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line. In today’s world, that’s pretty extraordinary.

She goes on to talk about the connection between courage and compassion and other topics that are relevant for the book. But the idea that speaking honestly and openly, even about your weaknesses, struck me as something important, no doubt because it’s related to the personal work I’m doing now.

Today I started preparing my classes since our quarter starts next week. With all of this bubbling in my mind, I suddenly realized that my reluctance to show vulnerability has unfortunately been enabled by my choice of profession. Anyone who has spent time in a programming class, at a programming contest, on a forum where people ask questions about programming, or at a variety of other venues recognizes the odd combination of showing off and bluffing that computer scientists tend to do. “Asking” questions that are more about displaying your knowledge of an area than learning information; belittling someone who knows less than you do about some CS topic; exaggerating your accomplishments or abilities, often to make you compare favorably to someone else: all of these are things that computer scientists have seen, or done, at one point or another. And women (and other underrepresented minorities) are especially in a bad place with respect to these behaviors since they’re more likely to be perceived as not belonging and therefore more likely to need to “prove” that they are “worthy”. In this environment someone who courageously shares their lack of knowledge or lack of confidence isn’t likely to receive positive feedback.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t share your vulnerability, even as a female computer scientist. But it does mean that you have to have a level of confidence about who you are and your fit with computer science that eludes many people new to the area. So as I go into a new academic year, one of my goals is to show the type of courage that Brown speaks about above. As a more senior faculty member, I’m at a place where I know I belong in computer science and where I can model a healthier approach to being a computer scientist for my students, and perhaps even some of my colleagues.