I am embarrassed to report that I can be very critical of myself in lots of situations. If I am cooking, writing, or even hanging out with friends, I can look back over the event and find all the ways I screwed up. The brownies baked a couple minutes too long. There’s a gap in the logic of my writing. I said something boastful to a friend. Mind you, it’s unlikely for me to notice my successes in these situations.
And look, I just did it again! I’m counting all the ways I screw up.
Is there something wrong with me, or are there important factors at work here?
It was a casual conversation with my friend, Cass, that started me thinking about this topic. She and I are both avid quilters with decades of experience. In her case, she has great skills in longarm quilting. Let me explain that. A quilt is actually a sandwich made of three layers, a fancy quilt top, a batting, and then a backing fabric. When it comes to holding these layers together, many quilters hire someone to do the task. They seek a person who owns a very large, expensive, computerized “longarm sewing machine.”
For years, Cass offered this service to others. She told me an interesting fact about her experience: No matter how amazing and perfect the quilt top she was given, the quilter ALWAYS pointed out any and all errors in the project.
As we discussed the topic, we guessed this trait is associated with women more than men, which turns out to be true. But when I did a little research, I learned there are other elements to understand. Let’s give the most positive point first –
Noticing the negative is part of the evolutionary process!
An article in VeryWellMind.com tells us, “Earlier in human history, paying attention to bad, dangerous, and negative threats in the world was literally a matter of life and death. Those who were more attuned to danger and who paid more attention to the bad things around them were more likely to survive…The evolutionary perspective suggests that this tendency to dwell on the negative more than the positive is simply one way the brain tries to keep us safe.”
An article from the National Institute of Health calls this our “negativity bias,” and tells us in detail how we attend to, learn from, and use negative information.
Why can’t we be as aware of the positives instead?
A story in The Harvard Business Review answers this question succinctly: “We often undervalue what we inherently do well.”
It goes on to explain that “often our ‘superpowers’ are things we do effortlessly, almost reflexively, like breathing. When a boss identifies these talents and asks you to do something that uses your superpower, you may think, ‘But that’s so easy. It’s too easy.’ It may feel that your boss doesn’t trust you to take on a more challenging assignment.”
The author of the article, Whitney Johnson, suggests a workplace where jobs are reassigned and everyone brings their superpower to the table. It’s an intriguing thought. If nothing else, it encourages us to value our innate talents as much as our hard-won skills.
And yes, gender plays a part in this:
Brenda Major is a social psychologist at the University of California in Santa Barbara. Early in her career she set up tests where she asked men and women to state how they were doing on a variety of tasks. She found that the men consistently overestimated their abilities and their performance, while the women underestimated both. She noted that their actual performance on the tasks did not differ.
The most interesting part of this experiment is that her results are easy to replicate. Indeed, “Today, when she wants to give her students an example of a study whose results are utterly predictable, she points to this one.”
All of this information appears in an article in The Atlantic called The Confidence Gap. It also tells us about a study done at Hewlett-Packard about men and women applying for promotions. Men applied when they felt they could meet 60% of the job requirements, while women only applied if they met 100% of the qualifications. Women feel confident only when they are perfect or practically perfect.
This portion of the article concludes in an almost comical way: “Do men doubt themselves sometimes? Of course. But not with such exacting and repetitive zeal, and they don’t let their doubts stop them as often as women do.”
All that said, do you want to know what I recently screwed up?
It’s what started this conversation.
Cass and I attended a quilt retreat where we spent four days sewing together. One of the projects I brought was almost complete. All I had to do was sew on a final border. The fabric I planned to use had a one-way design and a very large repeat. If you have ever hung wallpaper, you know how challenging a large repeat can be.
My task turned out to be a killer. I had anticipated a one-hour project where I sewed on two vertical borders, then two horizontal borders. Instead, I had a day-long extravaganza that required four extra pieced-flower blocks for the ultimate corners, plus a striped tic-tac-toe inner-board to make it all work together. ARGH!!!!!!!!
But here are the ultimate lessons from my sewing and research:
Yes, Murphy’s Law found me, and something that could go wrong, did go wrong. Usually, that’s where I leave things; I feel raw over the bad experience. But instead, thanks to this research, I see that many of my ARGH-ish feelings can be chalked up to human nature. This allows me to discount them and to go on to see the positives.
The first is gratitude. I am grateful that Cass and other quilt friends were around to offer suggestions and that I had the skill – the Superpower – to implement them. Second, I am proud of myself for making the project work out in the end.
Yes, I did that. I got the quilt to the finish line.
Mind you, I just noticed a success. Ahhhhhhh – that feels good!
By the way, here is my quilt project. It’s just a quilt top at this point. It still needs to be turned into a sandwich and then quilted.