Acting dumb kept her from being a nerd
“I realized that acting smart or talented in school made me sound like a geek or nerd. So I remodeled myself as an airhead.” Yoky Matsuoka
Excerpts from a NOVA scienceNOW/PBS profile :
Robotics pioneer, prosthetics visionary, and 2007 recipient of a MacArthur grant, Japanese-born Yoky Matsuoka used to describe herself as an “airhead.”
Now she is a leading researcher in neurobotics, an emerging field that combines neuroscience with building robots. She is an Associate Professor of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington, Seattle.
Q: Did your obsession with success translate to other parts of your life?
Yoky Matsuoka: It did in a lot of ways. For example, after I moved to the States when I was 16, I realized that acting smart or talented in school gave my classmates the wrong impression of me.
It made me sound like a geek or nerd, and I really didn’t want to be labeled those things. So I remodeled myself as an airhead. It turned out that when I acted dumb, I got to have more popular friends.
Pretended not to enjoy studies
But I was also secretly very good at math and science, and I never sacrificed that. Instead, I lied to my friends about which classes I was taking. In college at Berkeley I declared proudly that I didn’t buy any textbooks, and I worked hard to show that I never studied.
But then I would have to hide in the library days before each test and do nothing but study. I wanted to be popular without compromising the quality of what I was learning. It was very difficult—I was living a double life.
Q: You’re obviously not an airhead today. When did things change?
Matsuoka: It didn’t happen until I was a second-year graduate student. My classmates and I had to welcome the incoming students and try to entice them into doing the kinds of research we were working on.
We all wore nametags and I thought it would be cool if I wrote “Airhead” on mine instead of “Yoky.” But as I walked around campus that day, I could tell by the looks on people’s faces that they didn’t find this funny.
One chance to make a difference
Around that time, my adviser Rod Brooks pulled me aside and said “Look, Yoky. Stop acting like an airhead. It’s not going to take you far.” That was the first time I realized that pretending to be dumb wasn’t the best idea in the world. I was at a first-class school doing really great research under a talented mentor. This double life was only going to hold me back.
Q: What drives you to succeed today?
Matsuoka: I’ve realized now that I only have one lifetime to do the best that I can do, just like my role models have done. I’ve been given a chance to make a difference in society—to change the world—and I can’t pretend to be an airhead or anything else that I’m not because it will only hold me back.
From NOVA scienceNOW.
Gifted women can get discouraged
One problem with calling ourselves an ‘airhead’ early in life, in order to fit in, is that we may be hiding or discounting our abilities. Regardless of our gender – but it may be more of an issue for women.
In her article Internal barriers, personal issues, and decisions faced by gifted and talented females, Sally M. Reis, Ph.D. notes, “Results in a study of high school valedictorians by Arnold (1995) found that female students who had done well in high school lose confidence in their ability after a few years of college. In their second year of college, the female valedictorians lowered their assessments of their intelligence.
“The effects of this loss of self-confidence can influence the rest of a young woman’s life if it causes changes in college plans, goals for graduate study, or choice of partner or career. Arnold’s conclusions suggest gender differences in intellectual self-esteem of talented females who realize that their career decisions will interact, perhaps negatively, with both their relationships and motherhood.”
Women celebrating high ability
But there are examples of young women who celebrate intelligence and ability.
One fictional character is “Nancy Drew,” played with style and grace by Emma Roberts in the recent movie, who uses her intuitive and intellectual abilities as a teen sleuth. She comes to accept the fact she is exceptional and does not fit in with her high school peers mainly concerned with cliques, clothes and crushes.
In a recent interview, actor Emma Watson talks about her character Hermione in the “Harry Potter” films as a role model for girls.
“There are too many stupid girls in the media,” Watson says. “Hermione’s not scared to be clever. I think sometimes really smart girls dumb themselves down a bit, and that’s bad.
Though she resented it at first, Watson has come to appreciate the emphasis on Hermione’s brains rather than her appearance. “When I was 9 or 10, I would get really upset when they tried to make me look geeky, but now I absolutely love it.”
[From Emma Watson on being smart]
Unnecessary humility can get in the way
Using a mask such as “airhead” that hides our abilities may also be based on various kinds of self-limiting behavior or thinking.
Writer M. Scott Peck has noted, “Many who are truly superior.. are reluctant to consider themselves ‘better than’ or ‘above’ others, in large part because a sense of humility accompanies their personal and spiritual power.” [From post You may be gifted – get over it.]