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Brave Over Perfect

I come from a long line of strong women. My mother’s mother taught me how to hold a shovel, my father’s mother taught me how to hold a cigarette. People called me tough, independent, and smart. It was a great childhood, and for that I am truly grateful, but I was ultimately clueless when it came to making big decisions about relationships, love, work, and spirit. No one taught me how to be curious about my emotions (Why bother?) or how to take care of myself (Don’t be so selfish!). There were certain kinds of brave that I was good at: I could run up mountains and dive head first into giant waves. But there were other kinds of brave I needed to develop: how to stay true to myself in a crowd, how to face conflict, and how to keep trying when it doesn’t turn out perfectly.
The opposite of joy is not sadness, but perfectionism. When I am straining to do all parts of my life well with the hope that I will rise above confusion and criticism, that’s what I call perfectionism. The world doesn’t need us to be perfect, it just needs us to find the courage to contribute to the common good.
These strong women raised me to believe that I could be anything I wanted to be. But the way I internalized that message was that I must be great. And there were many times that I didn’t feel capable of being great and so I gave up. All I ever saw were the outer, perfect performances of women in my life: my mother, in a graduation gown, receiving her second advanced degree, and her friends’ immaculate homes and flawless appearances. I never heard about their inner conflict, so that when I encountered doubt or my own imperfections as the leader of a school, as the director of a company, and as a mother, I thought that the confusion I experienced was uniquely mine. I assumed everyone else knew exactly what she or he was doing.
You may feel that way sometimes, like you are not good enough, or brave enough, or that there is something wrong with you because you can’t keep up with the world’s expectations. There is nothing wrong with you. Just ask people of all ages for their stories. Then listen to the constellations of suffering and beauty that make up who we are.
In teaching adolescents for over twenty years, I have had the privilege of listening to their biggest questions and concerns. Here’s how one girl I shall call Annie sums up her experience moving through the maze of defining herself. “We are like glass lanterns. There is a bottom: we are lesser than—and there is this top: we better be perfect—and then there is this hollow middle with an elusive wick, waiting for us to strike the match.” Maybe you too were conditioned to be good at striving for the top, reaching for external goals and illusory perfection, but does it leave you feeling anxious and hollow?
As a teacher, I heard this question a lot: “Is this right?” “Is this answer on the test right?” “Am I doing this essay right?” I understood my students’ desire; I had spent plenty of late nights in school erasing what I had written and starting over in order to get it right. But now the challenge is: How do we cultivate enough courage to truly banish the idea that we have to get it right before we begin?
The urgency to take on this challenge hit me one day, far away from home. I was traveling with students in Nepal on a cultural exchange. At 12,000 feet above sea level, we made our way along a narrow path that wound through cultivated gardens and modest homes. We came around a corner and there was a young mother with three of her children walking towards us, carrying large bundles of firewood on their backs. When we met in the path, Jackie, the student in front of our small group, put her palms together and bowed low to the woman to greet her. “Is this right?” She called out to me, at the back of the line, while the young mother bowed back at her. Jackie never saw the woman’s wide, affirming smile, because she was looking back at me, seeking approval. She also never saw the children rushing to embrace her.
It’s not Jackie’s fault. She was used to a system that rewarded her for playing by the rules. It made sense that she was trying to make a good impression, but the moment made me wonder, “What are we missing in our effort to get it right all the time?” Real connection. Abundant joy. Balance. Creativity. Plus the chance to play more, to tinker and try things, to roll up our sleeves and be apart of the teams that are innovating to solve big problems with no single, right answer.
The world cannot wait while we sit alone at our desks, erasing and starting over, trying to get it perfect. The world needs us to iterate and to expand the limits of what is possible if we want to make change. The only thing getting in the way is that we get stuck trying to find the single, right way. We don’t know who we are and what we want sometimes, and how to move forward. The more clear and grounded we can get about ourselves, the more impact we can make. But we have to be willing to do the work of discovering who we are.
Here’s where I want to take your hand in mine and say, “Let’s go find a different way together.” Let’s practice being brave over perfect on a daily basis until we strike the match and follow the light, full of joy.