Learning to Embrace Imperfection During This Uncertain Time

The CEO of Girls Who Code on letting go

Katie Couric
May 26 · 4 min read
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Reshma Saujani.

Today, our Wake-Up Call newsletter (subscribe here!) is featuring an essay by Reshma Saujani, the CEO of Girls Who Code, and author of Brave, Not Perfect. Read on for how she’s letting go of perfection during this trying time…

This was supposed to be the busiest year of my life. The idea was I’d take a few months maternity leave in 2020, and then sprint. Between visiting Girls Who Code programs around the world, launching Brave, Not Perfect in paperback, dozens of speaking events, and a vacation with my sister, I would be on a plane every single week.

Sound exhausting? Try being a woman in quarantine. Two months into working from home, 2020 has been the busiest year of my life — just not in the way I planned. Overnight, I went from CEO and author to housekeeper, nanny, chef, activities director, cardboard box sanitizer, in-house tech support … and CEO and author.

As a (recovering) perfectionist, my first instinct was to try to manage the chaos by improving myself. If I was going to have all these new roles, I was going to shine in everyone one of them. I devoured articles on how to work from home more productively, signed up for every virtual workout trial I could find, and even registered for the Yale Happiness Class.

Before the coronavirus-era, women were running themselves ragged trying to do it all. Not just because we were doing an impossible amount of actual work (though we were), but also because of how well we were trying to do it. A study I cite in my book revealed that fewer women than men believe they meet their own standards in terms of family and work commitments. Surprise, we are our own harshest critics.

Since the pandemic began, the situation has gotten much worse. According to new research from LeanIn, when you factor in the additional time women are spending on caretaking and housework, we’re now doing 20 hours a week more than men. That’s the equivalent of a part-time job.

Needless to say it didn’t take long working the “double double shift” before I realized that striving for perfection in the middle of a pandemic could literally kill me. I’m not alone: The same study found that one in four women are experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety, one in two of us are having sleep issues, and one in three women who work full-time and have partners and children feel we have more to do than we can possibly handle.

So how many perfect loaves of banana bread do we have to bake before we finally give ourselves a break? Show up for the Zoom meeting with bedhead. Let the yappy dog or the hyper toddler crash our conference call. Confide in a friend that we are feeling depressed or anxious. Say yes to mac and cheese for dinner (again). Why, even in the middle of a pandemic, is it so hard for us to stop striving for perfection?

As someone who has spent years studying perfectionism, I would argue that it’s been ingrained in us since the time we were little girls. Rewarded for being sweet and smiling pretty, girls become addicted to good grades and gold stars. Not boys. Boys are rewarded for bravery. We teach them to be tough, fall down, and pick themselves back up.

And it becomes a cycle: Perfect girls grow up into perfect women. We go from straight-A students to stressed out, people pleasing adults, with careers and hobbies that in many cases we chose because we were good at them, not because we like them. A lot of women I talk to don’t even know what they like. It was never really the point.

Right now, as everything about the way we live changes around us, we have an opportunity to shift paradigms like this that haven’t been working for us for a long time. As our invisible labor and the toll it takes on our mental health comes into focus, we can advocate for desperately needed structural changes. And as we choose to model imperfection in our own lives — showing what I call the “mess behind the scenes” — we can teach our daughters to be brave, not perfect too.

During this pandemic, girls are watching women be brave on the big stage every single day. They see healthcare workers saving lives, or comforting patients in their final hours. They see fearless female journalists taking the President to task during daily press briefings. They see the women in grocery stores and on the frontlines risking their lives every time they go to work.

Our job is to show our girls what bravery on the small stage looks like, and we can start that today. The next time you’re feeling guilty about screen time, choose not to care. Ask yourself if cooking that gourmet meal sounds relaxing, or if you’re just trying to prove you can manage it. Remember, there are no gold stars in quarantine. No one is passing out awards for the most yoga sessions completed, or the most professional looking home manicures.

If we stop striving for perfection, we just might find a bit of joy, even in this dark time. And more importantly, we’ll show our daughters that it’s bravery, not perfection, that pulls us through it.

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This appeared in Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.

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