The Silicon Valley catchphrases say it all: "Move fast and break things," "fail forward," "perpetual beta." The idea that nothing’s perfect, but you make big advances through an endless chain of experiments, mistakes and improvements.
But Reshma Saujani says the fundamental character trait required to flourish in failure is bravery, and that bravery isn’t something society or parents like to grow in girls. Saujani is CEO and founder of Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit organization trying to close the gender gap in tech. She says the bravery deficit isn’t just in tech, that girls everywhere are taught to shun risk and play it safe.
And she wants to change that.
On strategies for "flexing your bravery muscle"
"I'm giving all of your listeners three strategies. Here's three things I want you to do."
- Practice imperfection: "The first thing is, I want you to practice imperfection. For some people, that might be, hey, send an email that's slightly consequential with a typo in it. And I'm sure a lot of your listeners are like, 'Oh what?!' Because we've spent so much time reading and rereading and rereading emails. We should be doing other things. It's a start. And when you send that email with a typo in it, you're going to realize that nothing wrong is going to happen. It's going to be just fine, so practice imperfection."
- Do something you suck at: "That's not for the purpose of getting better at it. It's for knowing what it feels like to just be mediocre. For me, it's surfing — can't swim, don't like water. I get on the surfboard, and I normally never really get on it. I'm literally crying as I'm dragging this board out on the beach in this cold, cold water. But I love it, because I know what it feels like to do something I suck at, and I don't stop myself from doing it, because I actually like it even though I'm not good at it."
- Just start: "So many of us have ideas or things that we want to do, but we just don't do it. We talk ourselves out of it. So just take one step. So if you're looking at an apartment that needs to be cleaned, or a closet that is a hot mess, just clean one shelf. If you have an idea, just buy one URL. If you have something you really want to do, tell one person about it just take one step. Just start."
On breaking free of perfectionism
"I was definitely a perfectionist. I was that good immigrant daughter. My parents came here as refugees so I already feel like I had to sacrifice for them, do everything right: go to the right schools, get an A+, do everything that was going to make their sacrifice worth it. And I also thought in my head, if I went to the right schools, if I worked at the right places, if I did really well, I would be happy. And I woke up at age 33 working as a lawyer in finance and literally coming home every day in the fetal position. I hated my job. I felt like the world was passing me by. I wasn't serving the people, which is what I wanted to do and I was miserable.
"I had seen Hillary Clinton give her first concession speech and she said this line, 'Just because I failed doesn't mean you shouldn't try to.' And there was something about those words, having the permission to try something — because I think so many times we don't even bother to try if we don't think it's going to work out — ignited something in me and I decided to run for Congress and I lost miserably. But I was free. I realized that that failure didn't break me. And I thought my whole life that if I did something risky, if I did something hard, and it didn't work out, that my whole world will come crashing down. And even though I lost this race — I was broke, humiliated — I had pissed off everybody in the Democratic establishment. I felt happy, I felt joyful. I had happiness because I tried, and it started building this bravery muscle in me. And it also made me realize again that failure doesn't have to break you."
"I thought my whole life that if I did something risky, if I did something hard, and it didn't work out, that my whole world will come crashing down."Reshma Saujani
On what society is teaching girls
"Look at the playground and you'll see girls are told to kind of smile pretty, play it safe, don't cross the top of the monkey bars. Don't get your dress too dirty. Straighten your bow. And you watch boys just kind of climb high and just jump in. From about 30 months old, it's like we start protecting our daughters, we start coddling them from pain, and then from risk and failure. But for our men, for our young boys, we're trying to teach them how to man up. I have a 4-year-old son, and I think about his swim class. And in his swim class, it's like half boys and half girls. And when the girls are learning how to swim, all the parents, the moms and the dads, are like, 'It's OK honey, you don't have to get your face wet.' It's a swimming class. And with the boys, they're just pushing them into the deep end because they're trying to teach them how to be men, how to be risk-takers. And this behavior then leads to, for girls, a lot of just fear of failure, right? Fear of rejection, fear of getting things wrong. And so mothers, when their daughter is not doing a perfect cartwheel in gymnastics class, because she doesn't want her to 'feel bad,' she pulls around puts her into soccer."
On the argument that what we're teaching girls is empathy, and we just need to teach that more to everyone
"But at what cost? And that's where I think perfectionism comes in. I talk a lot about empathy in terms of the products that I see my girls build, and how wonderful, and that we need more of it. But oftentimes that may get in the way of what's good for us, what's healthy for us. And that's perfectionism. That's about doing things perfectly right, and making you feel good, and how about kind of rears its ugly head and the consequences of that."
"What matters in the workforce, what matters in Silicon Valley, what matters in Congress is bravery not perfection."Reshma Saujani
On the consequences of perfectionism
"Perfectionism is playing out in two ways. One, it's making people unhappy, and it's creating a leadership gap. On the first part, women are twice as likely to be depressed than men. When women are approached with opportunities, if they think it's too hard or risky, or it might not work out, they back out of them. They let their good ideas die on the vine. And then they see other people pursue them and have success. And it leaves us with regret and envy. And that regret and envy literally eats us up inside and it causes anxiety, depression, dissatisfaction with our lives and our our own happiness. And you're really seeing, I think, that play out right now in society. And the second thing is perfectionism makes us feel like we've got to be perfect to lead. And the consequences of that is, even though we say it's the year of the woman, we still only have 25 percent women in Congress. We have fewer Fortune 500 female CEOs than we've ever had. What matters in the workforce, what matters in Silicon Valley, what matters in Congress is bravery not perfection."
Alex Schroeder adapted this interview for the web.