The other day I was at Starbucks, getting my afternoon pick-me-up, and I was chatting with the barista about her classes at high school. She told me that she was having trouble in math, and that she had to take a basic math course over again to try to pass the standardized test all of the students would have to take later in the year.
“I suck at math!” she exclaimed as she filled my drink cup with ice and espresso.
I was struck by her absolute conviction as a mathematical failure. She made the above statement as confidently and vehemently as one would declare that the Earth is round or the sky is blue. For her, this was her reality and there was no doubting it.
But I doubted it. I saw this young woman several times a week and I knew her to be extremely bright and a hard worker. Working behind the counter at Starbucks while going to school is not easy, and handling often difficult customers while jugging multiple drink orders proved to me that she had a lot more going on than she was willing to give herself credit for. So I called her on what she said.
“I don’t want to hear you talk that way about yourself!” I replied. She stopped what she was doing and looked up at me, with a look of surprise in her face. I don’t think anyone had ever questioned her self-assessment before.
“Do you know what happens when you say stuff like ‘I suck at math’? Your mouth says it, your ears hear it, and then your brain believes it.” I had her attention now, so I kept going.
“I think it’s okay for you to recognize that you are struggling in math right now, and that you have to maybe work extra hard at it. But I don’t want to ever hear you say that again. I want you to say ‘I am good at math,’ or, ‘I’m learning more math everyday’ or something like that, okay?”
I don’t think she entirely bought what I was saying, but I could see that she appreciated the idea.
A few days later, I saw her again. Before I could even tell her my order she exclaimed “Guess what?! I just had a math test and guess what happened? I got an A!”