The first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet was Frances Perkins. Appointed by President Roosevelt in 1933, Perkins was the sort of woman who never wore makeup and preferred dressing in navy blue and black. Throughout her professional life, she had written down her observations about her male colleagues, collecting them in a dossier she called “Notes on the Male Mind.” Though she famously said, “Being a woman has only bothered me in climbing trees,” the first woman in any high political position is bound to find opposition. In 1935, Perkins was invited to speak at the Charter Day for the University of California, Berkeley. The event’s host, believing Perkins to be unworthy of a political post, refused to serve her.
Reporters, trying to further sensationalize the story, looked to the First Lady for comment. When asked what she thought of the “snub,” Eleanor Roosevelt replied, “A snub is the effort of a person who feels superior to make someone else feel inferior. First, though, you have to find someone who can be made to feel inferior.” The Secretary of Labor, she said, was not snubable. She continued, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Whenever we look closely at achievement, there are two psychological phenomena that cluster together. The first is called “ability attribution.” That is, if a certain type of athlete performs well, he will attribute his success to his natural talent: “I run fast because I am good at running.” When this athlete does poorly, he will blame his coach, the weather conditions, or his own motivation – “I just didn’t get up for that game.” He will never call his ability into question. The other side of this coin is called “effort attribution.” Some athletes believe they achieve only through hard work. When they do poorly, they will say it was because they aren’t good enough. They believe they have gotten as far as they can on sheer effort: when that effort maxes out, there is nothing more they can do but admit their limitations.
These two attitudes are on display most dramatically when you look at boys and girls in the context of math achievement. Boys tend to believe their abilities in math are innate; girls tend to believe they have worked hard and have good teachers. (One of the saddest findings of attribution research is that the more intelligent a girl is, the more likely she will be to attribute her learning to effort over intelligence.) The consequences of these attitudes are huge. Someone who believes their abilities are innate is more likely to shrug off defeat or failure. Someone who believes their accomplishments are due to effort alone are more likely to engage in what’s called “learned helplessness”: they see their shortcomings as insurmountable. A failure indicates the end of their abilities. How can you compete at the highest levels if you believe you only have effort on your side?
Of course, neither of these attitudes are objective. We all have innate abilities, and we all have to work if we want to improve those abilities.
With Valentine’s Day in our wake, I think singles have an important choice to make. We can give in to effort attribution and the learned helplessness that comes with it. We can choose to feel inferior, flawed, lonely, and hopeless. We can think we have nothing to offer, romantically. We can believe – Hugo Boss wardrobe notwithstanding – that we are less desirable than Hitler.
We can continue to pile on our insecurities and put all our hope for happiness into someone else, some mythical person who takes us as we are while being absolutely perfect themselves.
But I think the other way is better. We all have the capacity to love, and we all have the capacity to receive love. So stop being ashamed of being single. Learn to embrace it and all its opportunities. Rather than seeing yourself as on the bench, think of this as the off-season. Heal up from your injuries. Identify and work on your weaknesses. Start seeing your successes as innate and your failures as circumstantial.
But most important of all, be unsnubable. No matter what highs or lows you might reach, there are people who will want to make you feel inferior. Stop giving them your consent.