Teach girls bravery, not perfection

The following is a transcript of my TED talk at the annual conference in Vancouver.

A few years ago, I did something really brave. Or, some would say really stupid.

I ran for Congress.

For years, I had existed safely behind the scenes in politics, as a fundraiser, as an organizer. But in my heart, I always wanted to run.

The sitting Congresswoman had been in my district since 1992. She had never lost a race and no one had really ever run against her in a democratic primary. In my mind, this was my way to make a difference, to disrupt the status quo.

The polls, however, told a VERY different story. My pollster said I was crazy — that there was no way that I could win. But I ran anyway, and in 2012 I became an upstart in a New York City Congressional race.

I swore I was gonna win! I had an endorsement from The New York Daily News, The Wall Street Journal snapped pictures of me on election day, and CNBC called it one of the hottest races in the country. I raised money from everyone I knew, including Indian aunties that were just so happy an Indian girl was running.

On Election Day, the polls were right and I only got 19% of the vote. The same papers that said I was a rising political star now said I wasted $1.3 million dollars on 6,321 votes.

Don’t do the math! It was humiliating.

Now, before you get the wrong idea, this is not a talk about the importance of failure. Nor is it about “Leaning In.”

I tell you this story of how I ran for Congress because I was 33 years old, and it was the first time in my entire life that I had done something that was truly brave, where I did not worry about being perfect. I’m not alone. So many women that I talk to tell me that they gravitate towards careers or positions that they know they’re gonna be great in, that they know they’re going to be perfect in. And it’s no wonder why.

Most girls are taught to avoid failure and risk. 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 then jump off head first. By the time they’re adults and whether they’re negotiating a raise or even asking someone out on a date, men are habituated to take risk after risk. They’re rewarded for it. It’s often said in Silicon Valley that no one even takes you seriously unless you’ve had two failed startups. In other words, we’re raising our girls to be perfect and we’re raising our boys to be brave.

Some people worry about our federal deficit. But I worry about our bravery deficit. Our economy, our society, we’re losing out because we’re not raising our girls to be brave. The bravery deficit is the reason why women are underrepresented in STEM, in C-suites, in boardrooms, in Congress, and pretty much everywhere you look.

In the 1980s, psychologist Carol Dweck looked at how bright fifth graders handled an assignment that was too difficult for them. She found that bright girls were quick to give up. The higher the IQ, the more likely they were to give up. Bright boys, on the other hand, found the difficult material to be a challenge, they found it energizing. They were more likely to redouble their efforts.

What’s going on? At the 5th grade level, girls routinely outperform boys in every subject, including math and science. So, it’s not a question of ability. The difference is in how boys and girls approach a challenge. It doesn’t just end in 5th grade.

An HP report found that men will apply for a job if they meet only 60% of the qualifications. But women? Women will apply only if they meet 100% of the qualifications. 100%! This study is usually invoked as evidence that women need a little more confidence. But I think it’s evidence that women have been socialized to aspire to perfection and are overly cautious. Even when we’re ambitious and we “lean in”, that socialization of perfection has caused us to take fewer risks in our careers.

So, those 600,000 jobs that are open right now in computing and technology, women are being left behind. It means our economy is being left behind on all the innovation and problems women would solve if they were socialized to be brave instead of socialized to be perfect.

In 2012, I started a company to teach girls to code. What I found is that by teaching them to code, I had socialized them to be brave. Coding is an endless process of trial and error, trying to get the right command in the right place, with sometimes just a semicolon making the difference between success and failure. Code breaks and falls apart. It often takes many, many tries until that magical moment when what you’re trying to build comes to life. It requires perseverance. It requires imperfection.

We immediately see in our program our girls fear of not getting it right, of not being perfect. Every Girls Who Code teacher tells me the same story. During the first lesson, a young girl will call her over and say she does not know what code to write. The teacher will look at her screen and she’ll see a blank text editor. If the teacher didn’t know any better, she’d think her student spent the past 20 minutes just staring at the screen. If she presses “UNDO” a few times, she’ll see that her student wrote code and deleted it. The student tried. She came close. But she didn’t get it exactly right. Instead of showing the progress that she made, she’d rather show nothing at all. Perfection or bust!

It turns out that our girls are really good at coding. But it’s not enough just to teach them to code. My friend Lev Brie, who teaches intro to Java at Columbia University, tells a story about his office hours with computer science students. The guys who are struggling with an assignment will come in and say “Professor, there’s something wrong with my code.” The girls will come in and say, “Professor, there’s something wrong with me.”

We have to begin to undo the socialization of perfection — and we have to combine it with a sisterhood that lets girls know that they are not alone, because trying harder is not gonna fix a broken system. I cannot tell you how many women tell me, “I’m afraid to raise my hand. I’m afraid to ask a question because I don’t want to be the only one who doesn’t understand, the only one who’s struggling.”

When we teach girls to be brave and we have a supportive network cheering them on, they will build incredible things! I see this everyday. For instance, take two high school students who built a game called Tampon Run — yes, Tampon Run — to take on the menstruation taboo and the sexism in gaming. Or the Syrian refugee who dared to show love for her new country by building an app to help Americans get to the polls. Or a 16-year old girl who built an algorithm to help detect whether a cancer is benign or malignant, on the off chance of saving her daddy’s life because he has cancer!

These are just three examples of thousands. Thousands of girls who have been socialized to be imperfect. Who’ve learned to keep trying, who’ve learned perseverance. Whether they become coders or whether they become the next Hillary Clinton or Beyonce, they will not defer their dreams.

Those dreams have never been more important for our country. For the American economy, for any economy to grow, to TRULY innovate, we cannot leave behind half our population! We have to socialize our girls to be comfortable with imperfection and we need to do it now. We can’t wait for them to learn how to be brave like I did when I was 33 years old.

We have to teach them to be brave in school and early in their careers when it has the most potential to impact their lives and the lives of others. We have to show them that they will be accepted and loved — not for being perfect, but for being courageous.

So, I need each of you to tell every young woman you know — your sister, your niece, your employee, your colleague — to be comfortable with imperfection. Because when we teach girls to be imperfect, and we help them leverage it, we will build a movement of young women who are brave and who will build a better world — for themselves, and for each and every one of us.

Thank you.