By Debbie Gin
“You can do anything, be anything you want. You can even be the United States president. You were born here.” My father used to say this to his children, and, for a good part of my childhood, I believed every word of that mantra. I don’t believe it now, but I often return to this string of sentiments and how they had a profound effect on my formation and sense of agency.
On the Strengthsfinder test, “Achiever” always comes up at the top for me. I’m also a “3—Achiever” on the Enneagram. When people get to know me, they agree without doubt that the tests got me right and assume that the achieving comes from internal motivation. This is only partly true.
Internal motivation must be understood together with the notion of agency. While internal motivation is seen as a completely individual characteristic (meaning, we can control our motivation and do things to motivate ourselves), agency and efficacy largely depend on structural realities.
What do I mean by this? Self-agency is a term used in psychotherapy, but in layperson’s terms, it refers to the belief that you can take matters into your own hands, that you can control the outcome, that you are responsible and have the capacity to make things happen. Self-efficacy is a related term and can be understood as the belief in your ability to successfully reach a goal or the belief that what you do will be effective. Having hung out in the world of critical race theory, my take on both of these concepts moves from the individual’s abilities and belief in herself to structural obstacles that keep that individual from nurturing these beliefs.
Take, for example, a survey we are about to distribute in which we hope to capture women’s perspectives on the status of women in leadership in theological education. In the survey, we have a series of questions related to possible differing expectations that organizations (and the people in those orgs) have about women who lead. Here are a few (with Likert-type response options Agree/Disagree):
1) I am expected to lead like a man.
2) When I lead like a man, I am criticized for not being feminine enough.
3) I am expected to lead in a more caring/nurturing way than the way male colleagues lead.
4) I am perceived as too emotional.
5) People expect me to be more collaborative than male colleagues.
6) People take my decisions more personally than they do for male colleagues’ decisions.
The fact that we are even including such items illustrates how leadership is complicated for women in the theological world. Structures (e.g., expectations, unspoken norms, policies and practices) exist such that women (and, to a large extent, men leaders of color) end up questioning their sense of self-agency and self-efficacy because they encounter expectations that may not be compatible with who they “really” are. So when I think about internal motivation, I must also think about structural realities that keep me (and other women) from being able to act solely on what I intend and hope to do internally.
That said, the sense that what I work hard at and put my mind to (i.e., effort) will eventually come to fruition (i.e., efficacy) is something I’ve inherited, being of Asian descent. It’s a different way of looking at life and the world: a belief in effort over talent. Harold Stevenson and James Stigler identified this in their well-referenced project, the Third International Math and Science Study (see The Learning Gap). In their study, they observed that children in China and Japan are raised to believe that it is effort that yields fruit; whereas, children in the U.S. are raised to believe that talent yields fruit.
I see this in play everywhere. U.S. American children are often given a “pass” in math because they’re not “gifted” at it. “I’m just not good at math,” I often hear. Asian children would never be given such a pass; their parents would keep on them until they were good at it. Having grown up in an Asian American household, I was socialized this way, and I count it an immense privilege.
Having grown up in an Asian American Christian home in the U.S. has also afforded me great privilege. I grew up learning that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). Every time I faced adversity, someone would quote this verse to me. But what if God meant for me not to succeed? Nah, can’t be! We live in the U.S.; we are winners. And I can do anything, be anything I want. I can even be the U.S. president. (The bad theology here is not lost on me, but that’s for another post.)
While I never wanted to be president, I always believed I could be, even into my college years. It, of course, has been confirmed in many ways this election year that I, in this Asian American woman’s body, could never become president of the U.S. now, nor could any Asian American woman, at least in this century. But I have always felt that I could be effective as a leader, in order to accomplish good for the various communities of which I am a part. Though internal motivation is always tempered by systemic and structural realities, my parents’ positive message to me has nurtured a belief that I can find a way to mobilize communities in order to dismantle inequitable policies and make plain any harmful and unspoken norms.
It’s when we recognize our privilege that we can take responsibility to be part of the change. Our internal motivation partners with the growing sense of self-efficacy, and we begin to make a difference together. Out of my privilege as a U.S.-born, U.S.-educated, U.S.-residing straight Christian U.S. citizen, I can be part of the solution for immigrants, the poor, the minoritized. It’s my hope that we take stock of our privilege, find ways to grow our sense of agency, then act on what internally motivates us.
Dr. Debbie Gin is Director of Faculty Development and Research at The Association of Theological Schools/Commission on Accrediting, the support and accrediting organization of most seminaries in the US and Canada. She was formerly Associate Professor of Ministry at Azusa Pacific Seminary and Fellow for Faculty Development and Evaluation in the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment at Azusa Pacific University. She and her husband currently live in Pennsylvania.