Talking in Code
Brave, Not Perfect

Talking in Code

Why women should work to be brave, but not perfect.

Former financial asset manager and attorney Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, describes how culture shapes women’s actions, in that often they do only what they know they’re good at and may not recognize that trying and failing are part of success. In exploring the idea of succeeding by being willing to accept your flaws and false starts, the author explains why women should seek courage, not perfection.

Saujani’s first act of bravery was to run for political office. She was 33, and she lost the election spectacularly. Then she started the nonprofit organization Girls Who Code (GWC), which works with more than 90,000 girls in all 50 US states. The organization teaches skills in high demand, since coding is an essential capability for an estimated 1.4 million jobs. Saujani started the organizations in hopes of closing the technology gender gap by teaching girls confidence and bravery through coding.

She also wrote the best-seller Girls Who Code: Learn to Code and Change the World. As she explains, when you code, you make mistakes as you solve problems, and you learn from these errors on your way to success.

One thing I know for sure is that bravery is contagious. When even one lone woman stands up, it inspires so many others.Reshma Saujani

Saujani proves how one person can generate enormous social change through courageous action. In her book – which is half self-help and half call to action – she seeks to inspire younger women to shed societal myths, believe in themselves and accept that failure builds strengths. These are not new messages, but Saujani writes from the unusual, unassailable position of having turned her beliefs into action. That alone makes her advice (and her inspiring TED Talk) worth heeding. 

Toxic Perfection

Saujani lays bare how society encourages boys to push their limits and sees male failure as a process that leads to success. The societal idea that girls are frail and defenseless guides them to pursue predefined professional and personal arenas in which success is certain. They attempt to be perfect in their relationships and professions.

Saujani offers a primer for younger women who may not have contemplated the cultural forces arrayed against them. She notes that at eight years old, girls start comparing themselves with others, and their internal critical voice emerges. Saujani points out that girls tend to answer questions with what they think the questioner wants to hear. To illustrate, she compares men’s direct business emails with emails from women who reread and edit their emails to make sure that they express a friendly, caring tone.

It takes bravery to retire our perfect girl and trade her in for the new model of brave woman.Reshma Saujani

Girls who lack constructive criticism from adults don’t learn how to hear and evaluate negative feedback, implement change and move forward. Saujani explains that adults compliment boys more for trying, so boys believe they can improve. Girls believe that they are either good at something or not. Saujani seeks to turn them away from this self-defeating notion.

Dangerous Myths

Saujani passionately urges her female readers to identify and reject the myths that point them in the wrong direction. For instance, many women believe that if they look and act perfectly, no one will see their imperfections. Social media exacerbate the false goal of perfection, while the concept of personal branding harmfully pressures young women to present themselves online as perfect. This myth is compounded by the belief that perfection and happiness go hand in hand. Not so, says Saujani. The perfect body, job and partner won’t give you perfect mental health.

Perfectionism makes women fear that if they aren’t perfect, their life will implode. Working mothers who put their partners and children ahead of themselves buy into this myth, and so do women who think they must be perfect to climb the corporate ladder, only to be stalled by their fear of failure. The perfectionism myth is also linked to the notion that being perfect is synonymous with excellence. Saujani emphatically denies this pairing. She says the two concepts are no more synonymous than love and obsession.

The last myth she explodes says that failure is not an option. Indeed, it is; seeking perfection gets in the way of learning and acting with courage.

Self-Help’s Greatest Hits

Even the most original pioneers, apparently, devolve into writing self-help clichés when urging their readers onward, and Saujani is no exception. Her ideas have great worth, of course, but perhaps repetition blunts their power. However, given that her target readers are younger woman, these solid ideas may be new to them: Trust your feelings over other people’s reactions. Take time for yourself. Sleep, meditate and exercise to stay healthy. Talk to yourself as you would to a friend. Agree to do things that serve and benefit your priorities and decline everything else. Each day, ask for something you need.

Saujani also offers a greatest hits overview of current work-life, self-help wisdom: Change your response to failure. Don’t fault yourself. Follow through. Arise from crisis stronger. Allow people to see your mistakes, failures and challenges. Support the success of other women. Learn from the old boy network, and share your connections.

Bravery doesn’t guarantee that everything will work out, just that we’ll be OK if it doesn’t.Reshma Saujani

And, finally, Saujani wants to your ask: If you were brave enough to make a profound change in your life, what would it be? She reminds younger women that the revelations that the #MeToo movement brought to the fore demonstrate how women can work together to oppose the status quo.

Saujani sums up her message when she writes: When people take a stand for what they believe, they show courage.

Greater Insight

Saujani demonstrates greater insight with her guidance for getting through the aftermath of a business failure. She urges readers to take a break from working to reassess where they are. Give yourself a set time to feel miserable, then get off the couch. Failure means you attempted something. Celebrate that. Record or write down the who, what, where and when of what went wrong, the actions you took and their consequences, and then focus on something new. Think of what went well, what you are proud of, what you learned and what you could do differently.

Review why you took this chance and why it mattered. Realign with yourself and your goals. Saujani advises getting out of the doldrums with a daily exercise of listing three specific things for which you feel grateful. Then do something for someone else. Altruism has a positive impact on your health. Being generous or kind will bring you joy. When you are ready, try again. In fact, you’ll see that failure didn’t kill you. You can move forward stronger than before.

Saujani offers a unique perspective. She saw something wrong – young women suffering from a lack of self-esteem, especially around tech and its processes – and heroically addressed the problem by launching Girls Who Code. Her thoughts are inspiring for adult women and especially for adolescent or younger women. 

Bravery is a muscle. The more you work it, the stronger it becomes.Reshma Saujani

Saujani’s voice is accessible, encouraging and down to earth. If she occasionally drifts onto familiar ground, that does not lessen the real-world, practical power of her wisdom.

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