Everyone deserves someone in their life to tell them “Yes you can”. Even better if everyone could have many, many people telling them that they can and should reach for the stars. But one voice alone can make all the difference in providing the self-confidence someone needs that is otherwise missing. The self-confidence we need to sees ourselves through the challenges that we may face in life. The ‘Yes you can’ ingredient.
For all of those children, students, would-be athletes, and employees who have dreams of what might be, only to have them dashed by a parent, teacher, coach or boss – or sibling or neighbourhood bully – who unthinkingly or otherwise knocks their abilities, having someone who encourages their dreams is life changing. Remember that words of encouragement cost nothing … and may give the world its next astrophysicist or Supreme Court justice. And that astrophysicist or Supreme Court justice just might be a woman!
I started thinking about this topic before the tragic loss of Ruth Bader Ginsberg this past week. RBG had to overcome many struggles against the prevalent belief – still not overcome in many/most circles – that women shouldn’t take their place as decision makers. But she had a strong start with a mother who told her, “My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent.” That kind of advice to a young woman is so important. My mother told me the same thing, many times in many ways. This was not the case for Dr. Joan Feynman, whose obituary was included in the New York Times a few weeks ago. Her mother told her, “Women’s brains can’t do science.” Needless to say, as soon as I read this I sat up and took notice.
Some of you will have heard of the famous Nobel Prize winning particle physicist Richard Feynman, who was a member of the Manhattan Project team of scientists that developed the atomic bomb during World War II. In later years he was active in popularizing physics for the layman. Well, he was also the older brother of Joan Feynman. Joan was fascinated by science, especially astronomy, but her mother and grandmother were strongly dismissive. It was the mentorship of her older brother that ensured her interest in science would continue. Without an older brother in the house with similar interests an also paid attention, not only would Joan Feynman not have achieved her dream, but the world would have missed out on one of its pre-eminent astrophysicists. Among many other achievements, she is credited with having identified the science behind the origins of the aurora borealis. In 2000, she was awarded NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Medal.
It was some of the quotes in the NY Times obit describing Joan Feynman’s mother’s actions that made me think of how many people get put down, even by people who love them, and the long-lasting damage that can do. Her entire obituary is worth a read (Joan Feynman’s obituary), but here are some of the quotes that really struck me:
- Their mother was a sophisticated woman who in her youth had marched for women’s suffrage. She was also fun-loving. But she was far more encouraging of her son than of her daughter, even as Joan was learning at Richard’s side.
- When Joan was 8 and announced that she wanted to be a scientist, her mother’s harsh declaration sent her sobbing into a cushion. “I know she thought she was telling me the inescapable truth,” Dr. Feynman told her son. “But it was devastating for a little girl to be told that all of her dreams were impossible. And I’ve doubted my abilities ever since.”
- “It took courage to be a woman scientist, and determination and hard work,” Dr. Feynman said. She had found inspiration in Proverbs, in which it is written that a virtuous woman “considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.” Reflecting on that passage in a Caltech speech, Dr. Feynman noted that it did not say, “She seeth a vineyard, and it looks pretty good to her, so she goes and asks her husband whether they should think about buying it.”
- When she couldn’t find work, she spent a few years as a homemaker, which left her depressed, her son Charles said. She went to a psychiatrist, who urged her to apply to what is now called the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. She was hired, and her career took off.
The last bullet really resonated with me. I remember my mother going through a similar bout of depression (aka boredom and resentment) before she went back to work (in 1959 or so), and I remember how jealous I was of women who were doing the kind of work I had been doing before staying home with my kids when they were very small. One thing I particularly liked about the last bullet was that it was the psychiatrist who acted as her mentor. He (I’m guessing it was a ‘he’ in the early 60s, but maybe not) encouraged her to go out and make use of her education and her abilities. Yes you can. And she did!
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s life story needs no description from me. Her accomplishments and the loss everyone is feeling are being told well by others. But it may be a good reminder of why her impact is felt so strongly by taking a look at some of her most famous quotes:
- “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
- “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”
- “Women will have achieved true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.” [Bravo to my husband, brother, and sons in this regard. And all the young (and younger) men I know.]
- “Feminism [is the] notion that we should each be free to develop our own talents and not be held back by manmade barriers.”
- “If you have a caring life partner, you help the other person when that person needs it. I had a life partner who thought my work was as important as his, and I think that made all the difference for me.” [Bravo to my extraordinarily supportive and encouraging husband.]
- “I would like to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability.”
This last quote of RBG’s speaks to the crux of ‘Yes you can’. Everyone should be able to feel at the end of the day that they had used whatever talent they had to do their work to the best of their ability. And to feel good about themselves for having done so.
Yes you can! And cast a big shadow while you’re doing so.