In her book, Brave, Not Perfect, Reshma chronicles her journey and discusses the ways that women are raised to avoid risk and failure at all costs, as she had, sharing tips for women to break free of this conditioning themselves in order to live a happier, more successful and more satisfying life.
Reshma Saujani was a Yale Law School graduate and working in prestigious corporate roles, but her dream had always been to run for public office. In 2010, as she realised she was enjoying her job less and less, she reached a moment of deep despair where she realised something needed to change, and she did something she never thought she’d be able to do – she quit her job, and at the age of thirty-three, ran for US Congress.
I’m not alone in having spent my adult life only pursuing positions or projects I knew I’d ace. So many women stick to doing only the things at which they excel, rarely going beyond what makes them feel confident and comfortable. I hear this over and over from the thousands of women I meet around the country, regardless of their race, age, or economic circumstances. I heard it from the twenty- four- year- old dog walker I chatted with at Starbucks who had a fantastic idea for revolutionizing her service but was convinced she could never do it because she’s “bad at business,” and from the fifty- eight- year- old magazine editor I sat next to at a political fundraiser who told me she is miles past burned out and unhappy but won’t leave her job, even though she can financially afford to. Why?
Because, she says with a shrug, “It’s what I’m good at.” As CEO of the nonprofit Girls Who Code I see it in my young female employees who don’t volunteer for projects in areas where they don’t have prior experience, while the men jump hard and fast into unfamiliar territory without worrying one iota about failing or looking foolish.
There’s a reason why we women feel and act this way. It has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with how we’ve been trained. As girls, we’re taught from a very young age to play it safe. To strive to get all A’s 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. Well- meaning parents and teachers guide us toward activities we excel at so we can shine, and they steer us away from the ones we aren’t naturally good at to spare our feelings and grade point averages. Of course the intentions are good; no parent wants to see their daughter injured, disappointed, or discouraged. The bubble wrap in which we are cocooned comes with love and caring, so no one realizes how much it insulates us from taking risks and going after our dreams later in life.
Boys, on the other hand, absorb a very different message. They are taught to explore, play rough, swing high, climb to the top of the monkey bars – and fall down trying. They are 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. Research proves they are given freer rein to play on their own and are encouraged to attempt more daring physical activities with fewer directives and assistance from parents. By the time boys are teenagers asking someone on a date, or young adults negotiating their first raise, they are already well habituated to take risk after risk and are, for the most part, unfazed by failure. Unlike girls, they are rewarded with approval and praise for taking chances, even if things don’t work out.
In other words, boys are taught to be brave, while girls are taught to be perfect.
Rewarded for perfection from the time we’re young, we grow up to be women who are terrified to fail. We don’t take risks in our personal and professional lives because we fear that we’ll be judged, embarrassed, discredited, ostracized, or fired if we get it wrong. We hold ourselves back, consciously or unconsciously, from trying anything that we’re not certain we’ll ace to avoid the potential pain and humiliation. We won’t take on any role or endeavor unless we are certain we can meet or exceed expectations.
Men, on the other hand, will jump into uncharted waters without hesitation or apprehension about what might happen if they don’t succeed. Case in point: the now- famous corporate report that found that men apply for a job when they meet only 60 percent of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100 percent of the qualifications.
We want to be perfect before we even try.
The need to be perfect holds us back in so many ways. We don’t speak up for ourselves, as we know deep down we should, because we don’t want to be seen as pushy, bitchy, or just straight- up unlikable. When we do speak up, we agonize and overthink how to express ourselves, trying to hit just the right note of assertiveness without seeming too “bossy” or aggressive. We obsessively analyze, consider, discuss, and weigh every angle before making a decision, no matter how small. And if we do, heaven forbid, make a mistake, we feel as though our world is falling apart.
And yet, when we hold ourselves back for fear of not being good enough, or fear of being rejected, we tamp down our dreams and narrow our world – along with our opportunities for happiness. How many offers or experiences have we passed up because we were afraid? How many brilliant ideas have we let go by, or personal goals have we backed away from, because we feared we wouldn’t get it right? How many times have we begged off a position of leadership saying, “I’m just not good at that”? I believe this “perfect or bust” mentality is a big part of why women are underrepresented in C- suites, in boardrooms, in Congress, and pretty much everywhere you look.
This drive to be perfect takes a serious toll on our well- being, too, as we lose sleep ruminating over the slightest mistake or worrying that someone was offended by something we said or did. Trained to be helpful and accommodating at all costs, we run ourselves ragged trying to do it all and end up exhausted, depleted, even sick because we give away so much of our energy and time to others.
Our self-esteem takes a hit when we stay silent in moments we know we should have spoken up, or when we say yes when we really wanted to say no out of fear of not being liked. Our relationships and hearts suffer when we put up a glossy veneer of perfection; the protective layer may keep others from seeing our flaws and vulnerabilities, but it also isolates us from those we love and keeps us from forging truly meaningful and authentic connections.
Imagine if you lived without the fear of failure, without the fear of not measuring up. If you no longer felt the need to stifle your thoughts and swallow what you really want to say in order to please and appease others. If you could stop berating yourself mercilessly for human mistakes, let go of the guilt and the strangling pressure to be perfect, and just breathe. What if, in every decision you faced, you made the brave choice or took the bolder path. Would you be happier? Would you impact the world in the ways you dream you can? I believe the answer to both is yes.
I wrote Brave, Not Perfect because that pursuit of perfection caused me to hold myself back for too many years. At the age of thirty- three, I finally learned how to be brave in my professional life, which taught me how to be brave in my personal life, too. I’ve been exercising that bravery muscle every day since. It wasn’t easy to go for in vitro fertilization after three devastating miscarriages, or to launch a tech start- up without knowing anything about coding (or about start- ups). But because I did these things, I am a deliriously happy mom to a little boy and am making a difference in the world in the way I always knew deep down I could.
When we relinquish the punishing need for perfection – or, rather, let go of the fear of not being perfect – we find freedom, joy, and all the other good stuff we want in life. It’s time to stop giving up before we try. Being afraid to try something new, to boldly ask for what we want, to make mistakes, and, yes, maybe even to look a little foolish leads to a lot of wasted brilliance, swallowed ambitions, and regret.
When we hold ourselves to the impossible standard of perfection, there’s no such thing, really, as “success,” because nothing is ever enough.
What if we just said, Fuck it? I’m going to say what’s on my mind even if they don’t like it… or volunteer for that assignment that feels too hard… or make the life change I secretly dream about without worrying about the outcome. What would our lives look like?
Letting go of the fear of being less than perfect is easier than you think. It all comes down to exercising your bravery muscles, one little bit at a time. That’s what this book is about. It’s a look at how we were wired way back when to pursue perfection and avoid failure at all costs, and how that girlhood wiring holds sway over us in our adult lives. Most importantly, it’s about how to reset that wiring. It’s never too late. By letting go of the need to be perfect and retraining ourselves to be brave, every one of us can dare her own version of the unthinkable.