Life Stories, Science, Advice, Now + Beyond

Stop saying you’re “bad” at science, just because the world says you are

I don't want to hear your excuses for why you can't try. I want to hear your reasons for how you're pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.

I remember the first time I heard it.

I was fifteen years old, volunteering at my city’s science museum. I was a guide in the human anatomy exhibit, and my role was to bring science to everyone. We always got large school groups, and today was no different. A group of 30 tenth graders crowded into the exhibit, and as I prepared to present on the human body, I heard:

“I’m no good at science. I don’t know why I’m here – none of this makes sense to me.”

It felt like the world stood still as I found the perpetrator, a girl in her late teens, who followed the sentiment with a nervous laugh to the guy standing next to her. She clutched his arm as they moved closer to me.

In her face, I saw something I’d never really picked up on before: defeat. She’d given up before she’d even tried.

It was a reality I wasn’t familiar with. Homeschooled and deemed “strange” by those around me, it didn’t faze me to deal with building out an insect collection numbering in the hundreds as a teenager or memorizing the digestive system for shits and giggles.

But here it was, and once I picked up on the saying, I saw it echoed time and time again throughout the years to come: girls and women excusing themselves from an entire world simply because they felt like they didn’t know what was going on.

Even at female-founded companies like The Tempest, we face the issue, over and over again. Writers attempting to devalue their experience – or lack thereof – with science by admitting that they “didn’t understand it.”

I’ll spare you the numerous studies about social conditioning and quite simply persuading yourself you’re bad at something by believing your lies.

Because that’s what it is: a lie. Telling yourself – and the world – that you’re bad at a subject simply because you struggle with it – or worse because others told you that you’re bad at it is doing everyone a disservice.

Everyone. Everyone.

I don’t care whether you scored a in college chemistry (me, right here), or cried through your AP Bio courses in high school. I don’t want to hear how someone told you that you weren’t a natural, or how you thought you’d be better at X topic so you abandoned a subject you struggled with.

Because when you give up, you give up on yourself. And that’s a shame.

I used to tell everyone I was horrible at math. Even avoided doing anything in the math department during college by taking a computer programming course. But I heard a saying this year that flipped the entire world on its head:

“Once you stop saying you aren’t good at the thing you’re struggling with and start saying that you were working to get better instead, the way you approach things completely flips.”

I didn’t even know about the reality of stereotype threat, which psychologically and biologically explains why women and POC oftentimes perform worse in STEM subjects: because we’re told or believe we’re bad at them, our brain focuses on the stereotype rather than whatever task we have at hand. And at that, we perpetuate the stereotype further. Just by thinking it!

I refuse to be cutesy or sweet about a topic that makes me want to slap even the most talented women in my life upside the head. If every woman owned her full capabilities, imagine how incredible the world could be. 

And as long as you’re lying to yourself about what you could fight through, attempt to understand, and excel at, you’re robbing the world of that.

That’s a damn shame.

  • Laila Alawa

    Laila is The Tempest’s founder and CEO. Laila has given a TED Talk, appeared on BBC World News and NPR, and contributes on women’s issues and entrepreneurship to Forbes and The Guardian. She was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Media and’s inaugural The Cafe 100, and recognized by the White House. Before founding The Tempest, Laila worked at the White House and Congress, and was previously at Princeton University.