I recently watched my 16-year-old daughter work diligently on a history assignment; as she was brainstorming an upcoming debate topic, she would begin to conceptualize an idea, writing down initial thoughts, and then feverishly delete it because it wasn't exactly how she wanted it. Despite the fact that this was simply her brainstorm--her time to get messy and free flow ideas down on a page--she still strove for perfection. I reflected on how many times, throughout my life and career, I have done the very same thing.
I'm not the only one facing this syndrome. Striving for perfection is a common theme among women--one that society has ingrained early on through stereotypes, culture and media. Instead of being encouraged to fail, explore, and enjoy the journey, girls and women are expected, even encouraged, not to share their ideas until they are perfected and ready for presentation. This approach teaches girls to constantly edit themselves, limiting the possibilities for authentic self-expression. And even more worrisome, this syndrome hinders women's ability to grow and lead with confidence, contributing to the gender gap that is improving, but far from equal.
Women such as Sheryl Sandberg and Arianna Huffington are breaking the mold, but how does the everyday woman get there? How does the young girl get there? The failures and the beautiful imperfections that women take in their own personal, and sometimes entrepreneurial, journeys are often left out of the conversation. These need to be discussed and embraced. We need to be comfortable with taking risks, many of which could result in failure, but have the potential for great success and self-reflection.
The challenge is, women are not naturally wired to take risks. We have a fundamentally different approach than men, stemming from brain chemistry and structural differences. As discussed by Dr. Gregory L. Jantz, author and founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE, research shows major distinguishers between male and female brains, as evidenced in processing, blood flow and brain activity. These differences are neither good nor bad, but it should be noted that there are in fact differences. Not having a clear understanding of these neurological variations is what's holding us back. We must be more conscientious of this in order to raise, educate and support the young girls, and boys, in our society to embrace their unique characteristics and biological makeup.
So what's the answer for teaching women to short-circuit the female "perfection" wiring? It's complicated, but here a few things to keep in mind to get the conversation started at even the most fundamental level.
It's about the journey, not the destination.
Regardless of what you are working on, or what goals you set out to accomplish, getting there will inevitably include failures, mistakes and lessons learned along the way. Instead of focusing on the end result, spend time focusing on the journey.
It's easy to go on autopilot and become complacent in our jobs, personal lives, etc., so we need to actively remind ourselves to try new things and challenge this muscle--this applies to men too. Try a new hobby, push yourself in your career, expand your network. Get out of your comfort zone, at least once a day. When you are challenging yourself and embracing discomforts, that's when you expand your skills or even discover new ones. In little and large things, doing something uncomfortable each and every day will help build muscle in new areas.
Take a page from Sheryl Sandberg and "don't let your fears overwhelm your desire. Let the barriers you face -- and there will be barriers -- be external, not internal. Fortune does favor the bold, and I promise that you will never know what you're capable of unless you try." Be bold, be fierce, be adventurous; embrace the failures--learn from them, analyze them and consider them gifts of opportunity, versus acts of failure.
Embrace the FSD [First Shitty Draft].
At my company Rational Interaction, we have a concept called the FSD, or first shitty draft. In all aspects of what we work on, we share the first "shitty" draft. We deliberately gave it this name to squash the need to make this draft "perfect." The team can play, throw ideas out there without judgement, get feedback, be fluid, and even fail! The FSD is designed to forcibly set expectations that it won't be perfect. It's not an entirely new concept but we've seen a noticeable shift in how a team approaches something with the name "shitty" in it. It makes creativity safe and the process authentic and in many cases, the FSD's are stronger, less contrived and creative. This subtle shift in approach allows the team to embrace the process within a safe place that might include failure.
Take risks. Get over the fear of failure.
As Brene Brown stated in her TED Talk, "vulnerability is not weakness, and that myth is profoundly dangerous," in fact, "vulnerability is the birth place of innovation, creativity and change."
The notion of vulnerability and failure needs to be redefined among women. Parents need to teach their children that failure is okay and taking risks is where beautiful results are born. This starts with acknowledging that the process is inherently different for boys and girls--boys don't worry about failure like girls do; boys often take the risks and girls often avoid failure.
As Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, highlighted, our society is "raising girls to be perfect and raising boys to be brave." This is evident in a study she references, conducted by psychologist Carol Dweck, in which fifth graders were evaluated on how they handled an assignment that was too difficult for them. The girls were quick to give up, whereas the boys found the material to be challenging and energizing. The girls approached the challenge differently than boys, which is fine, but the need for perfection is what deterred the girls from confronting the challenge head on.
Let's lead by example, take risks together, and encourage the women in our lives--whether it's a daughter in fifth grade or a young woman starting her career--to take chances.
Nobody is perfect. Stop trying to be!
Let's change our attitude and expectations about perfection and adjust our outlook to one focused on taking risks and our inherent value in being unique.
Take for example, Blake Lively, a seemingly perfect celebrity to most women. She is beautiful, successful, and funny, and has countless partnerships with designers and brands. But even Lively has experienced failure--she launched a business and it failed in about a year's time. She humbly admitted defeat, graciously thanked her fans and supporters, and moved on.
While we as women should not dwell on anyone's failures, it's important to recognize that failure is okay. Everyone's human and experiences ups and downs--even though it might not seem as such with only the high moments highlighted on social media. In reality, there's much more going on behind the curtain and what's important is how you hold yourself and that you're able to glean valuable learnings from your mistakes. Take risks, embrace failure, and enjoy the beautiful results.
It's easy to forget, but comparison is the death of individuality. We need to learn to celebrate our differences at very early ages, and let girls know it is okay to explore and find their own unique passions and gifts. Women are currently missing out on opportunities because we think we don't meet criteria or have the experience, but what we need to recognize is that we are capable of honing our skills and overcoming obstacles. We're more capable than we give ourselves credit for.
We have a personal responsibility to challenge ourselves and get out on a limb so that failure becomes more comfortable. As Eleanor Roosevelt noted, "no one can make you feel inferior without your consent."