Good morning everyone, and thank you, StuCo, for inviting me to speak. I want to talk to you today about being perfect. Actually, and more accurately, about not being perfect. I promise you some stories, hopefully a nugget or two of wisdom, and maybe even a music video. Steward might know what it is already.
This morning is a time when we celebrate academic achievement and the hard work, grit, and perseverance that produces it. These are important qualities; you don’t need me to tell you that. But I’ve also been thinking a lot about perfection recently, and how crippling it can be to aspire to it All. The. Time. For example, there is a fine line between working hard to achieve good grades, and feeling anxious and held hostage by the pressure to do so. So, while I wholeheartedly commend those of you who achieved accolades for your academic success today, I want to take this time to talk about not making the top grade, whether that’s in class, sports, or life in general.
When I was growing up, I felt so imperfect. I’m an introvert, and while that doesn’t always correspond with shyness, I was very shy and unsure of myself in the public middle and high schools I attended. It wasn’t “cool” to want to learn, so I often felt I had to hide my love for reading and my curiosity for learning. I constantly censored myself in front of my peers, trying to do well in classes without looking like a “teacher’s pet,” and that crippled my ability to communicate with classmates without second-guessing myself. Sometimes I’d try to say something or joke around, and my mind would go blank, my palms grow sweaty, my heart race. I’d end up saying nothing rather than take a risk and say something that might cause me to be laughed at. I loved playing soccer, but when I had a terrible try-out for the high school varsity team and looked less skilled than I was, I quit. Rather than accept this imperfect try-out and being “demoted” to JV, I quit altogether. Because I wanted to be perfect at everything -- joking with peers, playing sports -- I didn’t engage at all if there was risk of imperfection. Add to this anxiety a mouthful of braces -- believe me, you could hardly see my teeth for all the metal and rubber bands -- and you’ve got a fairly awkward teenage girl. And, while I certainly had like-minded friends, I was by no means popular. And this was ok; I didn’t want to be popular if that meant dumbing myself down or being someone I wasn’t, but I also didn’t really know who I was or how to be comfortable being 100% myself. I held myself hostage to an ideal of perfection that was impossible to achieve, and that paralyzed me. Looking back now, I see that, as a result, I lost potential friends and gave up a sport that I loved.
As I grew older, I gradually became more comfortable in my own skin. I’ll explain what I think happened later, but that’s why it’s so strange to sometimes hear my name and the word “perfect” in the same sentence here at Stoneleigh-Burnham, because in some ways, I often still feel like an insecure teenage girl. I often wake up and my hair is pointing in 17 different directions, I have a pimple or two, and there’s a hole in the shirt I want to wear. It doesn’t help to check Instagram, as I imagine many of you do, and see polished images I can’t help wanting to aspire to. So, let me be clear: I am so not perfect -- I never have been -- and I also fall prey to the same insecurities that I imagine many of you do. The difference may be that I’ve learned how and when to push myself to do better (and a few tricks like putting hair in the “teacher bun” to make it look less messy), and how and when to accept not being perfect.
Sometime in the past five or six years, I embraced the concept of stepping outside my comfort zone, which basically equates to accepting the risk of failure or imperfection. The “step outside your comfort zone” thing is a huge cliché, but it’s also so true, and it helped me accept that I could not, and should not, aspire to perfection all the time. Some of the most magical things started happening when I decided to pursue opportunities I didn’t know if I’d be good at. For example, I signed up to run a 10K race even though I’m a slow runner; I applied for a master’s program in a very unusual and difficult subject (medieval literature) that I didn’t have a thorough background or skillset in; I embarked on an intense 2-week high-altitude hike in Peru even though I wasn’t in my best physical shape. Though I had fantasies of winning the 10K and getting my master’s dissertation published, the reality was very, very different. When I ran the 10K race, I came in second-to-last. And get this: the person who came in last was 75 years old. And he almost passed me. A 75 year-old almost beat me at running. Similarly, when I began my master’s program, I naïvely expected to be at the top of the class. I wasn’t. Other students had more advanced skills in reading Middle English and working with manuscripts, and I couldn’t develop these skills fast enough to earn all A’s on my assignments. When I went hiking in Peru, I got altitude sickness because I pushed myself too high too fast. I started throwing up everywhere, I developed disgusting and painful blisters, and looked so awful that the guide insisted I ride the “rescue horse” instead of continuing to hike.
I suppose I could have viewed these experiences as humiliating failures that showed how imperfect I was. My old self would have been embarrassed; my old self might even have quit running and hiking. But I made a conscious decision to accept that I couldn’t always be the best, the brightest, the fastest, or the fittest. I also accepted that I still loved these things, even though I wasn’t traditionally “good” at them. And no one else cared that I wasn’t perfect at them, either. I’d imagined the world was silently judging me for failure, and of course, this wasn’t true. No one cared but me, so I began training myself to be easier on myself. So now, you’ll still see me running outside (pretty slowly, though I’m getting faster with practice), and I can’t wait to plan my next hiking trip. And my IB class knows I’m always looking for ways to talk about how great medieval literature is, even though it was difficult to study.
From these experiences, I learned to accept that sometimes, it’s okay not to be perfect. In fact, obsessing over being perfect will definitely hold you back from some of life’s richest experiences, which often look so scary that it’s easier and more comfortable to hang back and not try. For me, accepting the risk of failure was like stretching and strengthening a muscle: the more I did it, the stronger I felt. I started to embrace the mindset that if a challenge or opportunity presented itself, no matter how big or small, I should probably think about taking it. This realization opened up a world of new possibilities to me, because I was more open to trying things that I wasn’t sure I’d be good at. I grew to hunger for adventure, to have a real and unquenchable thirst for doing new things. When I was offered the chance to move to Singapore in 2013 to begin my teaching career, I flexed that muscle and decided to go, even though I had no idea if I could handle living 10,000 miles away, or even if I would be a good teacher.
Now, let me share one story that might show you why I’m really happy I took that chance. A few months after moving to Singapore, I went on a weekend trip to Malaysia with some friends. One day, we rented some rusty old bikes to go sightseeing around the city of Malacca. It was a brutally hot day – probably 95 degrees and 90% percent humidity. We actually wore bathing suits under our clothes because it was that sweaty. By the end of the day, we had sweat through all of our clothes, were covered in dust and dirt that passing trucks had sprayed on us, and felt utterly exhausted. This is when it happened. As we slowly pedaled into a public park on our creaky bikes, several Malaysian men quickly approached us with their hands up, gesturing for us to turn around. I assumed we were doing something wrong and being asked to leave. I could not have been more wrong! It turns out that these men were part of a large production crew filming a Bollywood music video in the park, and they were gesturing for us to back up so that we could join the music video.
Ok… wait, what? I ran through a mental checklist: we were six Westerners, drenched in sweat from a full day of physical exertion, covered in dust from biking across the city, and looking completely messy, unkempt, and smelly. They really wanted us to cameo in their music video? Apparently these people are crazy, so yes. The director introduced us to the beautiful young pop stars, who were sitting in a colorful trishaw (a cart pulled by a bike), and instructed us to line our bikes up behind them. As the male star pedaled the trishaw down the park path, the female star stood up and danced sultrily along to the melody of a song called “Tu Hi Tu” that was blasting from a stereo attached to the trishaw. Our role, as specified in broken English by the director, was to slowly ride behind their trishaw on our bikes while simultaneously dancing along to the music.
This was the point when it would have been easy, and far more comfortable, to back out. I’m not a confident biker, nor am I a skilled dancer. Add the two together, and you’ve got a giant, limb-sprawling face-plant waiting to happen. I was afraid we’d be laughed at not only by the large crowd of spectators in the park, but also by the thousands of viewers who would see the final music video. But after thinking about it, I decided that the world wouldn’t end if I took this chance and accepted being a very imperfect backup dancer. So, that’s what I did, for three separate takes. The finished product looks a bit rough because the park path was very narrow, there were six of us riding with just one hand on our bikes (to free up our other hand for fist-pumping and wave-dancing, obviously), and we were riding so glacially slow that it was impossible to steer our bikes in a straight line. Here’s a clip of the music video.
It goes on for another minute and a half; if you ever want to see the whole thing just let me know; it’s on YouTube. Honestly, I’m so proud I didn’t let my fear of looking foolish stop me from this experience. I may never be a perfect biker or dancer, but on that afternoon I had a blast and now I have a funny story to tell. Overall, I’m a much happier person today than I was 10 years ago, and I’m sure it’s because I stopped pressuring myself to be perfect All. The. Time. I’ve learned to laugh gently at myself, to accept many of my imperfections while also not letting them hold me back from pursuing a full and meaningful life. But I also know that I missed out on opportunities in middle and high school, and that the pressure to be perfect that once paralyzed me is still a trend today. The world continues to tell young women like you that you have to be perfect, and this is a huge problem.
In a recent TED Talk called “Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection,” Reshma Saujani explains some worrisome statistics. She says that girls are taught to avoid risk and failure, to “smile pretty, play it safe, and get all A’s. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to play rough, swing high, crawl to the top of the monkey bars and then just jump off head-first. And by the time they're adults, whether they're negotiating a raise or even asking someone out on a date, they're habituated to take risk after risk.” She describes how men will apply for jobs if they meet just 60% of the qualifications, while women will apply only if they meet 100% of the qualifications. This is evidence, she says, that girls are socialized to aspire to perfection, and are overly cautious as a result. They are taught that they should only take a risk if they know 100% that they’ll succeed, that it’s better not to try at all than to make a mistake. Sometimes I see this phenomenon in my classroom, when some of you make a mistake and then apologize, as if you did something wrong! How ridiculous, and yet how insidiously woven into our culture, it is to treat mistakes as defeats. Saujani explains that this aversion to risk-taking results in a “bravery deficit,” and that is why women are underrepresented in STEM, in coding, in business board rooms, in Congress, and pretty much everywhere else. Her final point is that we have to socialize young women to be comfortable with imperfection, because it is only when you -- and you are half the population! -- it is only when you value bravery and risk-taking over perfection that you can start building a better world for yourselves, and for all of us.
So please, don’t wait until after college (like I did) to accept imperfection. I don’t mean lazy imperfection: it doesn’t count if you don’t try. You know, don’t come to class without having done your homework and say, “Hey, it’s because I’m not perfect!” And don’t lag behind in drills during practice, knowing full well you’re capable of giving more of yourself. Don’t use imperfection as a crutch for not trying. But don’t be perfect on the sidelines. If you only aim for perfection, that’s the only place you can count on being: the sidelines. Maybe you’ll play one or two games perfectly, but you’re missing 50 other ones. The world needs more of us women who aren’t afraid to take risks, and possibly fail a few times along the way, in the pursuit of leading full lives and building a better world.
So start now. Embrace your imperfections: don’t worry if you’re having a bad hair day, and don’t apologize if you get the answer wrong on your first try. But also, challenge yourself to identify which of your imperfections are also opportunities for growth. Maybe you’re not a great speller, but you want to get better. Sign up for the Spelling Bee next weekend! I’ve been to a lot of places, and you’d be hard pressed to find a warmer and more supportive community than right here at SBS to take a risk and try something you might not be perfect at. So, I’d like to issue you each a challenge: first, vow to stop obsessing about one aspect of yourself you view as an imperfection. Give yourself permission to be imperfect. Let’s take about five seconds to think silently about what that might look like for each of us. And second, think of one thing you’re afraid you might not be perfect at, but that you can try in the next week. Take another five seconds to think of this.
Let’s be a community of smart young women, yes, but also a community of brave women who don’t back down from challenges. Let’s be comfortable embracing imperfection as a natural part of our lives, and who knows -- you might even end up with a Bollywood music video to show for it!