This year, on International Women’s Day, Reshma Saujani, CEO and founder of Girls Who Code, shared an interesting charge for women around the world: “Be a little mediocre.”
At a book release event in NYC last night for her new book, “Brave Not Perfect,” Reshma explained to a room full of hyper-charged female go-getters that it’s often our quest for perfection that gets in the way of taking risks.
“We’re paralyzed to even begin a task when we don’t think we can do it the best possible way,” she said.
I looked around the room from my perch up front and saw a sea of familiar nods. Hosted at Glossier’s HQ office, the demographic of the room carried a familiar, feminine intensity. Lots of high-heeled boots, custom-fit blazers, and perfectly coiffed hair. In the bathrooms of the office, an array of Glossier makeup products invited anyone to do a little impromptu touching up before networking. After breezing in twenty minutes late in a sweat, I was glad for the opportunity to freshen up.
“When’s the last time you did something just for fun?” asked Reshma. “Even when you knew you weren’t good at it?”
It’s a pretty good question. I thought about it and couldn’t quite come up with a clear answer. It’s almost as if years and years of ingrained bias about the “should be” and “ought to be” voices have permeated so deep in my psyche that only two options remain: Things I’m good at and therefore enjoy, and things I’m bad at and therefore…don’t.
The trouble with wanting to be the best
It’s not to say I don’t try new things. For more than a decade of my life, I’ve had the Eleanor Roosevelt quote in my personal email signature: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” And I believe, for the most part, I try to live that treatise.
Sometimes the thing is big, like taking a trip by myself to a foreign place. Sometimes it’s small, like being direct in a conversation that I know will be hard. Sometimes I write something that feels a little more personal than I’d prefer for a thing I post on the internet. And sometimes the scariest thing of all can simply be to allow yourself to settle alone with your own thoughts.
But the idea of deriving enjoyment out of a thing where I know my level of competency is only so-so doesn’t happen all that often. I’m on the board of two organizations that I care deeply about. I’m in a book club where I know my opinions have an impact on the group. And I have a job that caters to some of my biggest professional strengths.
To accept mediocrity in any of those communities is not an option. The trouble is, of course, that the more we surround ourselves with this high-powered, aspirational mindset in our work lives and “side project” lives, the more we let it permeate into other modes as well.
You might start thinking things like:
“I can’t host my friend’s baby shower because I’m too busy and won’t have time to make it just right for her.”
“I can’t sign up for a half-marathon because I’m such a slow runner and I’ll just slow my friends down around me.”
“I won’t sing my favorite song at karaoke because then everyone will know I can’t hold a pitch.”
It’s a slippery slope, of course. Maybe it starts with one scary moment at a karaoke bar in your 20s, where you decided to make a split-second decision to switch from that scary ballad to that sing-along crowd-pleaser. Of course, the reaction in the room was rapturous at an opportunity to sing Journey or Spice Girls or whatever else you chose that night.
And so, over time, we learn how to choose strategically, giving a slight edge toward the choice that makes us feel loved instead of the thing we might love ourselves. It’s almost as if we tach ourselves this mantra: “We can be bad at something we love. Or instead, we can be loved for something we like.”
It’s hard to turn down being liked.
Tokenizing our status
In an age of instant feedback and social proof any way we turn on the Internet, we’re conditioning ourselves with every single action about what it takes to be just a little more loved. As Eugene Wei pointed out in his incredibly important #longread, “Status as a Service” most social networks today simply capitalize on our innate, human desire to have a little bit more status than before. And we’re addicted.
It’s hard to say why this quest for perfection seems to affect women more than men (though I’m sure Reshma addresses this in her book — haven’t had a chance to read it yet). Lisa Damour’s recent op-ed in the NYTimes, “Why girls beat boys at school and lose to them in the office” addresses the cultural bits of it. As women, we’re constantly reacting to the way the world around us treats us, and so we’re conditioned to be hyper-aware of our looks, our grades, and our poise. Like it or not, our mothers projected some of this onto us, just as their mothers did onto them, and we’re just paying this forward to women around us every day because it’s all we’ve ever known.
But there’s something else, too, a kind of subversive mindset that sometimes cuts against our willingness to be “women helping women.” Every time we see “one token woman” in a group, it almost reaffirms that scary thought we’ve been thinking but not saying out loud for our entire lives: There’s only place for one of us. Who’s it going to be?
In other words, there’s no room to be “just mediocre” if only one of us will make it to the top. And this potentially antagonistic, women-on-women mindset seems particularly dangerous to me.
Sticking up for each other
At last night’s event, I grabbed a couple of snacks and a glass of wine, then interacted with a half-dozen people before the presentation began. By the time I sat down, I leaned over to put my bag on the floor and noticed that I had a massive glop of white ranch dressing in the middle of my black shirt. I did a quick mental calculation and realized that it’d clearly been there for at least 20 minutes, then quickly used my napkin to wipe it up.
“Oh yeah,” says the girl next to me. “I wasn’t sure if you knew that was there.” I shot her a look. Are you kidding me?
“No,” I said flatly. “I didn’t know. Now I see it, so I’m cleaning it up.” I shook my head a little, then continued out loud. “How classic, to be at an event like this and not have a single woman tell me about this. I talked to 8 different people before now.”
“Well,” she said, shifting in her seat a little. “I mean… it’s kind of hard to tell something like that to a stranger. And I mean, I guess nobody wanted to. It can be kind of uncomfortable…”
“That’s exactly the problem,” I said.
I probably offended her a little with my bluntness, and if I did, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to lash out at her in particular. But to me, this moment felt truly emblematic of three confounding issues:
- My desire for perfection: I was horrified to realize I’d been walking around literary wearing food on myself for half of the night. It seemed in that one instant to belittle any of the professional conversations I’d had all night long, including some interactions with people I knew.
- My anger for caring about perfection. At the same time, I was angry at myself for even caring at all about it. In theory, I know that walking around wearing food on yourself says little to nothing about my overall character or competency in my career. And yet — it still felt like it mattered. Caring at all represented an extension of the same problem about just how ingrained these biases have become.
- Feeling stranded by the group: That not a single woman pointed out my food faux pas really surprised me. Remember: This was at an event literally designed to teach women to be braver in their actions. Is it really so scary to tell a stranger she has a mess on her shirt? If we can’t have each other’s backs in benign situations like this, will we ever have each others backs in the boardroom? Something about the lack of camaraderie and candor really rubbed me the wrong way — perhaps unfairly so.
Was it stupid of me to care so much that I had white sauce all over my black shirt? Probably. Was it wrong of women around me to avoid telling me that something was wrong? Maybe. Maybe they didn’t even notice at all. Or maybe we were all just playing our respective roles — with each of us grappling to reconcile our own perfectionistic tendencies while simultaneously seizing on any small opportunity to pull ourselves up just a tiny bit more than others around us.
Aiming for mediocrity
Will accepting mediocrity help women out of this Catch-22? It’s hard to say.
But if we let ourselves be okay with being…well, just okay…then maybe we can put an end to the insane expectations we’re setting for ourselves.
And maybe, if we know women can achieve greatness with average (rather than an exceptional) performance to every single action that we take, we’ll be a little easier on ourselves and a little more willing to promote and amplify the voices of others around us.
It’s impossible to know, of course. But at the very least, I bet we’d all have a lot more enjoyment along the way. And that’s something I intended to aspire to do a little bit more from no on.
Also published on Medium.