By Ashley Lane
"It doesn't interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.”
-The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer
In the weeks before I came to Georgetown, I received a little book in the mail from a mysterious group of people who I distantly knew as the leaders of my pre-orientation program, FOCI. In this book, I came across this excerpt from The Invitation, which was used in one of our application prompts. The question was this: when was the last time you chanced looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive? For the first time, I was forced to ask myself ,when was the last time I did something brave – something truly, completely, nearly foolishly – brave?
I found the answer to be more difficult than anticipated, which I largely attribute to the fact that for the majority of my life, my goal has been perfection. Striving for excellence is one matter: it pushes you to move towards improvement, to perform the best that you can. Striving for perfection is another matter, however: it pushes you towards an unattainable ideal, which can have dangerous consequences. For me, striving towards perfection led to a fear of failure – a fear of making mistakes, a fear of being wrong – and as a result, a fear of taking risks.
Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, argues that this fear is not uncommon in women and girls in her TED talk “Teach girls bravery, not perfection.” Saujani starts by describing her failed run for Congress in 2012, which she says was “the first time in my entire life that I had done something that was truly brave, where I didn’t worry about being perfect.” She argues that women have been socialized to aspire to perfection, and as a result, are overly cautious, avoiding risk and failure. Studies show that it is not a question of ability between men and women that keeps women out of certain fields, as proven by one particular study quoted by Saujani that found fifth grade girls to be outperforming boys in every subject. Instead, the difference is in how we socialize boys and girls. As Saujani says, “we are raising our girls to be perfect, and we’re raising our boys to be brave.” After watching Miss Representation at GUWIL’s last meeting, I believe that we are able to see this socialization clearly just by taking a look at the media. The media propagates the idea that in order for women to get anywhere or to be anyone – to be successful, or famous, or well-liked – they must have the perfect appearance, the perfect personality, the perfect relationship, and the list goes on. On the other hand, the media portrays successful men as strong, powerful, and courageous, teaching boys to value bravery and encouraging them to take risks.
So how does socialization of perfection and what Saujani calls our “bravery deficit” play into women in leadership? Taught to avoid taking risks, women are more likely to gravitate towards careers they know they will be successful in. As a result, we see women underrepresented in a number of fields that can be perceived to involve more risk-taking, from STEM to politics. Furthermore, Saujani argues that simply “leaning in” is not enough because “even when we are ambitious, even when we are leaning in, that socialization of perfection has caused us to take [fewer] risks in our careers.” Innovation, leadership, and change require risk-taking, and we have lost out on the extent women have to offer to our society simply because we are not socializing our girls to be brave.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can undo this socialization of perfection. Saujani found that by teaching girls to code, she was also teaching them to be brave through the trial and error and perseverance that coding requires. But this alone, Saujani argues, is not enough; she believes that we must “combine it with building a sisterhood that lets girls know they are not alone.” It starts in offices, in universities, and in schools. It starts with organizations like Girls Who Code and GUWIL, with building networks and communities of women who support one another. It starts with us, with us encouraging and supporting all of the young women in our lives to be imperfect, to take risks. In reminding each other of this, however, we shouldn’t forget to do the difficult work of allowing ourselves be imperfect too.
You may now be wondering how I responded to the question: when was the last time I did something truly brave? At that point in my life, it was applying and coming here to Georgetown. I left behind the tiny midwestern bubble I had always known and flew six hundred miles away, on my own into uncharted territory. In my first week, I was launched into the most incredible, challenging, and rewarding experience that I have ever had. FOCI was truly transformative, and what I learned and experienced during this week has guided my time here ever since. My journey at Georgetown began with taking a risk; it began with accepting my invitation. I firmly believe that when we risk the most, we also have the opportunity to grow and gain the most. In the end, seeking bravery will take you farther than seeking perfection ever will. So I challenge you to accept your invitation, to take the leap – for your dream, for whatever it is you are seeking – not just for what may be waiting on the other side, but also for what you may discover, about the world and about yourself, along the way.