In a leap of faith, the three-day-old Barnacle goose will follow its parents and jump out of the nest in search of food. The nest is built high on a cliff, more than 400 feet above the ground. A leap from that height would be a remarkable undertaking for any newly hatched gosling, but what makes it even more remarkable is the fact that three-day-old Barnacle goslings cannot fly. Yes, you read that correctly. They. Do. Not. Fly. Despite a complete lack of aeronautic ability, the tiny gosling reluctantly and nervously pushes off from the cliff in response to its mother’s beckoning “kaw”, and begins the long – the painfully long – plummet to the ground below.
My daughter brought this fascinating phenomenon to my attention while watching an episode of the BBC series Life Story. Her excited cry of, “Mom, you have to see this!” resulted in the two of us perched on the edge of our seats, watching with shock and awe as a tiny ball of fluff plummeted metre after metre after metre, ricocheting off rocks, bouncing and tumbling the last few feet, until rolling to a stop. We collectively held our breath as we awaited the final outcome. Did this tiny, intrepid creature survive its death-defying act – a leap into the unknown borne of instinct and courage? The BBC’s barnacle goose made it. Some don’t, we are told.
After sitting in silence, contemplating what we had just watched, my enthralled daughter stated: “My life’s goal is to have the resilience of a Barnacle goose!” I thought about it for a moment and realized it wasn’t at all a bad goal for any of us to have.
Nature’s gift to this remarkable creature is an ability to go with the flow. As the Barnacle gosling falls through the air, it knows to let go. It doesn’t flail. It doesn’t resist. It simply “is”. It accepts a loss of control in that brief moment of life and gives into the fall. It’s the acceptance of this inevitable moment of uncertainty that increases the gosling’s odds for survival and ensures the future of the species.
We’ve been talking a lot at the Castle lately about the future and uncertainty. The Grade 12s are holding out hope for university decisions that feel weighted with life-altering implications. The Grade 11s are learning more about the Prefect selection process that determines which girls represent the Trafalgar student body in the coming year. In working through these future-oriented topics together, we’ve talked about what it means to want something (sometimes badly), what it means to take a chance (particularly when the outcome is less than certain), and what it might look like and feel like to try and fail.
Potential failure isn’t the part of the conversation I want our girls to focus on. It’s the element of risk and the willingness to leap into the unknown – that’s what I want them to consider. What holds some of them back? Why are some not willing to throw themselves off the proverbial cliff (or even put their hand up to volunteer an answer that they believe with 85% certainty might be right?). Too often, girls will talk themselves out of an opportunity before even trying. They stand on the precipice but can’t take the plunge.
That same reticence carries into adulthood as shown by a study indicating that women are less likely than men to apply for jobs when they do not believe they are qualified. Whereas men are prepared to throw their hat in the ring when they believe they have 60% of the job qualifications desired, women check themselves much more frequently and carefully, believing that they shouldn’t apply for a position unless they meet a 100% qualifications threshold. Interestingly, it’s not only fear of failure that limits female applicants. While 21% of women cited fear of failure as a reason not to put their name forward, a greater number, over 40% said they did not apply because they believed it would be a waste of time and energy. In other words, rather than taking a chance and going for a job they believed they could do, they self-selected out.
We are seeing how this lack of self-assurance impacts women in the sciences. Research by Cornell psychologists Joanne Ehrlinger and David Dunning (2003) found that a woman’s lack of confidence in her scientific ability, even when her performance on a test indicated that she was equal to that of men, resulted in her being more likely to refuse an offer to enter a scientific competition. The authors extended this analysis to explain why fewer women than men are pursuing careers in science.
So where does that leave us? We have capable, intelligent, ambitious, young women who may struggle at any given point in time with a lack of confidence, fear of the unknown, reticence about expending energy on anything less than a sure thing, and an endless “Should I? Shouldn’t I?” loop of uncertainty that discombobulates even the most rational mind. If the wee Barnacle goose possessed the same mindset, failing to even approach the edge of the cliff because it was afraid of failure, not believing the outcome could be positive, lacking confidence in its abilities, or equivocating endlessly about whether or not to jump, the future of the species would be grim.
We need to help our girls prepare for what they will think and feel when they stand on the precipices they will surely encounter in life. We need to tell them that sometimes in life, overthinking things – particularly the type of overthinking that verges on compulsion – well, that’s simply not our friend. We need to help them understand that whether its fear of failure that holds them back, pessimism about a positive outcome, or a cost-benefit analysis that leads to inertia, the result is the same – failure to leap into the great unknown will limit future possibilities. Courage in the leap, stillness in the descent, and bounce in the landing – those are ingredients for a successful life. And in that, we should all be thankful to the Barnacle goose for giving us a recipe to follow.