Recently, a TED Talk by Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, has been making the rounds at Girls in the Game and beyond. One of our After School Coordinators shared it with the staff, and we posted it to our Facebook page. I’ve seen it discussed on my own personal social media, and this past weekend, one of the hosts of our Teen Leadership Summit recommended it to our teens.
So what’s the hot topic causing all of this buzz? Saujani spoke about why we teach girls bravery instead of perfectionism. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s definitely work a watch. According to Saujani, “Most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure. They’re taught to smile pretty, play it safe, get all A’s. Boys, on the other hand are taught to play rough, swing high, crawl to the top of the monkey bars and just jump off, head first….We’re raising our girls to be perfect, and we’re raising our boys to be brave.”
To illustrate her point, Saujani describes the process of teaching girls computer coding; in coding, even one wrong character can ruin an entire code. Frequently, Girls Who Code instructors find their students staring in frustration at completely blank computer screens; these girls tell the instructor that they don’t know what to do or where to start. What makes this interesting is the moment the instructor hits the undo button, they find multiple attempts to write code on the screen. These girls would rather show their instructor a blank screen than a code that isn’t perfect. The message has been embedded in girls; perfectionism or nothing at all.
We see this all the time at Girls in the Game, especially when it comes time to introduce a new sport that the girls have not played previously. As our coaches begin instruction on the basics of yoga or lacrosse there tends to be a lot of hesitation and hiding in the back of the line or against a wall. No one wants to be the first to try scooping the ball with the lacrosse stick. When coaches ask what’s wrong, almost every time the response is that the girl doesn’t know how to play that sport. There it is again; the choice between nothing or perfectionism.
Could this be one of the reasons that girls consistently out-perform boys in school, both in elementary, high school and college, yet are still struggling for gender equality in career fields like STEM or politics? A girl can utilize perfectionism in her school work as a resource, but there is no place for the perfect or nothing attitude within career fields such as STEM or politics. To succeed in life you have to be prepared to make mistakes and struggle through processes to learn, grow and contribute. This requires bravery; you must be brave to attempt something new or challenging in the face of failure.
I can see how this desire for perfect instead of bravery played out in my own life. All throughout my childhood, I was fascinated by the outdoors. I had a rock collection, caught tadpoles to watch them grow into frogs, enjoyed transplanting various plants and one time, dug up a coyote skeleton, much to the distress of my mother when I proudly brought my findings home in a plastic grocery bag. All arrows pointed to my interest in biology, but for some reason during high school I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t good at science. My Advanced Placement Chemistry class was the most difficult class I had ever taken. I was generally a straight A student, but I worked harder for a B in that class than in any other class I had ever taken. Those struggles, the hard-won B in chemistry and my lack of experience, helped me decide that science wasn’t my thing, and I re-focused my collegiate academics on the liberal arts.
As an adult I was hiking in Pennsylvania with a friend one weekend, describing the plant and animal life to her as we went, when she asked me why in the world I hadn’t gone into Biology or the sciences. Her question stopped me in my tracks. Suddenly, I realized my belief that I wasn’t good enough at science was patently untrue. I was good at biology; I studied it as a hobby in my free time almost every day. But the experience of struggling for a B in chemistry class, of studying and studying only to get the problems wrong on the test had kicked my fear of failure into high gear. If I couldn’t get every problem right, then clearly, I was bad at science, perfect or nothing.
Bravery is one of Girls in the Game’s essential values; “We strive for courage. Recognizing the value in taking risks, we are gritty, brave and resourceful, resulting in better outcomes and successes.” As such, teaching bravery to our girls is a frequent topic of discussion at Girls in the Game, but it took Reshma Saujani’s talk to help me make the connection between perfectionism and bravery. When I attend programming, I see bold, beautiful and determined girls who will grow into courageous young women. But none of these qualities can flourish if society is teaching them that they need to be perfect in everything they do.
Watch Saujani’s talk, reflect on your own life and where perfectionism might have choked out bravery. Think about experiences you had when you moved away from a risk and toward what you deemed to be safer ground. What did that look like? Did you miss an opportunity to do something great? To experience something new? No more. It’s time to try that dance, sing a new song, ask your question, run a race, book that trip or try a new sport. It’s time to choose bravery. You aren’t alone, we are here, right behind you cheering you on just like we do with our girls.