I have a friend who told me his motto is, “ready, fire, aim.” And though he may leave many casualties in his wake, he accomplishes a lot. Whereas, my motto is more like, “Ready, aim, aim, aim, reposition myself, ready, aim, aim, aim…” And then, if I’m lucky, I fire.
As soon as the bullet flies (I hate that this is a gun metaphor) I hide behind a rock, worried I may have not hit the bull’s-eye dead on center.
Needless to say, this method does not work well for me.
I had a major “aha” moment about my paralyzing perfectionism when I watched Reshma Saujani’s Ted Talk and then read her book Brave Not Perfect. It struck a major chord for me because it helped me put into words what I always thought was my personal maladaptation to the world. As it turns out, my perfectionism, my people pleasing, and my fear of failure are universal experiences for so many women.
So when I had the opportunity to meet Reshma Saujani at her book signing at Lingua Franca on Bleecker street, I showed up even with a pounding headache. The room was teeming with women and a few men. Surrounded by paintings of female role models like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and empowering slogans on soft cashmere sweaters, the excitement in the room was palpable.
Reshma Saujani had been working at an investment firm making lots of money and totally miserable until she gathered the strength to leave her job and run for Congress. Did she win? Absolutely not, and she felt like a complete failure. But on her campaign trail, when she visited many schools, she noticed that the coding and robotics classes were blatantly filled with boys and not girls. This inspired her to start Girls Who Code, a nonprofit organization closing the gender gap in computing-related fields. It’s already reached more than ninety thousand young women.
In Reshma Saujani’s Ted Talk, which garnered an overwhelming response and led to her book, she tells a disturbing story. Lev Brie, a professor of coding at Columbia University, found that when male students struggled with coding they would say, “Professor, there’s something wrong with my code.” But when girls struggled, they’d say, “Professor, there’s something wrong with me.” I wish I could say I couldn’t relate.
Saujani also found that in the Girls Who Code classes, girls were more likely to erase their codes entirely and show none of their work at all, than risk imperfection. Saujani calls this perfection or bust.
I thought back to the third grade when I was at PS.41 taking the standardized math test. I got stuck on a logic question twenty minutes in and what ensued was an all-out war with myself. I knew I should probably move on, but skipping the question, or even making a guess and randomly filling in one of the bubbles, felt unfathomable. So I just sat there, rereading the problem, panicking and feeling stupid. When the time was up, I left an entire chunk of the test blank. I scored in the 68th percentile, which at the time felt like the end of the world, but now I can see that, considering the situation, I got an awful lot right. At the time, a failure to meet perfection meant failure outright.
“There is a reason why women feel and act this way,” Saujani writes. “It has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with how we’ve been trained. As girls, we are taught from a very young age to play it safe. To strive to get all As, to please our parents and teachers. To be careful not to climb too high on the jungle gym so we don’t fall and get hurt. To sit quietly and obediently, to look pretty, to be agreeable so we will be liked.
The messaging for boys is entirely different. “They are taught to explore, play rough, swing high, climb to the top of the monkey bars—and fall down trying. They’re encouraged to try new things, tinker with gadgets and tools, and get right back in the game if they take a hit. From a young age boys are groomed to be adventurous…In other words, boys are taught to be brave, while girls are taught to be perfect.”
This may have always been the case, but in our new day and age, one ubiquitous addition to our social landscape compounds the problem. It is, of course, (drumroll please) Instagram. Saujani writes of how the generations from millennial onwards are doing something she calls “identity splitting” when it comes to their social profiles. It has been found that women who cultivate a “positive and pretty” image on social media get the most likes. So what does this result in? Generations of women putting forth a false narrative for the sake of their cultural currency.
I recognize this affliction in myself as I often wonder how to merge my inner self with my outer self in this day and age, when everyone is their own personal brand. And what if a girl strays from the mold? Saujani speaks of a young teen who shared her post-breakup sadness on social media only to be told she was too intense. She immediately took her post down.
My friend and writer Amanda Chatel, recently cried on her Instagram story. It was brave and beautiful. I have often been inspired to do the same, but I always chicken out. And while some people may find this “too intense,” there’s definitely a different vibe to a real and raw post versus a post that’s just begging for sympathy and validation. My Instagram wings may still be shaky, but more and more I am finding inspirational women on social media soaring high in celebration of their realness and rawness. That’s a really good thing because as Saujani writes, “Boys and girls will model themselves after what they see, and even what they don’t see.”
So then how do women suddenly become courageous if we’ve have been socialized to be perfect, pleasing and pretty? Reshma Saujani writes, “one way we can build back our resilience and take the sting out of rejection and failure is by normalizing it…Display your rejections proudly; they’re a mark of your bravery.” She expounds that bravery is a muscle one keeps building. Every time a woman is brave her muscle gets bigger. I have found that even just the awareness of knowing about my puny, bravery muscles have made them, well, a lot less puny. I may even be getting buff!
In 2017 I was vocal in the #MeToo movement and I flexed my bravery muscles in ways that felt uncomfortable, to say the least. Once I found my voice, though it was incredibly liberating and empowering, I felt like I was holding a hot potato and couldn’t get rid of it fast enough. I wanted to hide. I didn’t want to be judged. I wanted to be safe.
Around that time, I posted a picture of myself on Instagram literally flexing my bravery biceps, smiling defiantly. Soon after an old friend called me on the phone to relay his very concerned message. A girlfriend of his was offended by my post because I looked too happy and not enough like a victim. He just wanted to let me know. I’m still annoyed that I actually thanked him for his call and considered taking down the photo. Needless to say, judgement is unavoidable.
Flipping through the pages of Brave Not Perfect, I have come to discover bravery is a very big word that encompasses many empowering qualities. Hope, perspective, strength, activism, freedom, love, a sense of self and more. I also see it as a form of grace, an invisible magic that guides us. I picture it as intuition in action. But because women are socialized to be so pleasing, nice and accommodating, they often override their intuition, back down from their boundaries and thereby don’t flex their bravery muscles enough.
And of course, I can’t speak of bravery without speaking of love. My engagement was recently called off. I spent the winter months cocooned, healing and lying low. I remained silent because all I could think to write or say was a great big howl. Perhaps I hid for a little too long. But recently, with the spring air and the cherry blossoms in bloom, I am feeling quite brave. I am dreaming again of new beginnings. I am thinking about the possibility of new love. I am inspired and determined to try, not to get it right or make it perfect, but to create and to show up for myself. Maybe I’ll even cry on Instagram. No more playing it safe and hiding in the shadows. The sun is out, and I’m not afraid of what this bright light will reveal.