“I didn’t know until I was in my late 20s that I had choices in life,” Ruth told me. She and I met while sitting side by side at a nail salon and struck up one of those unusually intimate conversations the way one sometimes randomly does with a complete stranger. Ruth got the message when she was young that an appropriate path for her was to become a teacher, get married, have kids, and then stay home to raise them. It didn’t even dawn on her that she had other options — that is, until she was 28 and a friend of hers joined the Peace Corps and moved to South America. “All of a sudden I thought, wait a minute … you mean I can do that?!” At age 62, Ruth says she sometimes wonders what turns her life might have taken if she’d looked within and asked herself what she really wanted.
Something interesting happened when I first started talking with women about perfection. I’d start off by asking them what I thought was a softball question to open the conversation: “Do you believe you need to be perfect?” I assumed the answer would obviously be yes, but nearly all of them said the exact opposite. I began to wonder if maybe I had it all wrong. Then I realized they were answering the question from the very same style of thinking I was trying to unravel. They were giving me what they assumed was the right answer — the perfect answer — the answer that said of course they know that the pursuit of perfection is a demoralizing waste of time and energy. And yet all the stories I was hearing were telling a very different tale.
So from then on, when I spoke to groups of women, I changed the question. Instead of a binary yes or no question, I asked them instead to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being that they were strongly driven to do everything in their lives to perfection. Just as I suspected, once I eliminated the suggestion of a “right” answer, a different picture began to emerge. Once the floodgates began to open, I asked them if friends and family ever suggested that they were holding themselves to unreasonable standards; the answer was usually yes. I asked them if they believed that no matter what they did, they should’ve done better. That one scored an almost unanimous yes.
After talking to hundreds of women ranging from teenagers to senior citizens, from all backgrounds and walks of life, I’ve learned that perfectionism isn’t simple or one-dimensional. It’s a complex knot of lifelong beliefs, expectations, and fears. Our attitudes toward it are confusing and inconsistent; we nurture and feed it but wish like hell we could shake it. It can be an unforgiving taskmaster, naysayer, and critic all rolled into one. It greets us every morning as we stare in the mirror and keeps us awake, rehashing and ruminating over our mistakes, long into the night.
The thinking goes something like this: If I look the right way, have the right job, land the right partner, everything will fall into place and I’ll be happy. I’ve fallen prey to this flawed logic myself. When I was younger, I thought if I worked out five times a week to have the “ideal” size 2 body like my sister’s and went to Ivy League schools, I would meet the perfect guy who loved my brains and would support me unconditionally. We would have three perfect children and I’d become the president of the United States. I thought I could plan my life to be exactly as I dreamed, but only if I followed the script as perfectly as possible. I’m far from alone in this skewed perception.
To achieve our perfect ideal, we log our 10,000 steps a day, work out seven times a week, cut carbs out of our diets. We read endless articles, blogs, and books on how to advance in our careers, find work-life balance, attract the ideal partner. We go after the hot job or role in our community that everyone tells us we’d be perfect for. We have two point five kids, buy the perfect house, acquire all the right stuff.
And yet, are we happy?
The numbers say no. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one out of every four women will experience severe depression in her lifetime. A seminal study done in 2009 at the University of Pennsylvania called “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” (how’s that for telling?) showed that although women’s lives have improved over the past 35 years in terms of increased opportunities, higher wages, and freedom from domestic drudgery via technological advancements, their happiness has declined. We should be happier, but we’re not. When we’re chasing perfection, we can end up in jobs, relationships, and life situations we don’t necessarily want to be in. We think that checking all the requisite boxes will lead to joy and fulfillment, but eventually we get to the bottom of the list and think, Oh, shit … why am I not happy?
Tonya is a talented illustrator who gets paid big bucks for her work. For more than 20 years, she’s been regarded as one of the best in her business, with several prestigious awards to show for it. Her career provides her with lots of praise and admiration from others, not to mention good money. The only thing it doesn’t bring her is joy.
Tonya doesn’t hate her job; she’s quick to point that out. But she doesn’t love it, either. The spark went out of it for her a few years ago, and she’s just going through the motions. When I asked her why she didn’t stop doing it and try something else that turned her on, she just sighed.
I know that sigh. I remember heaving it myself back when I was a young rising star at a fancy law firm, earning lots of praise and a big paycheck but hating every second of it. I’ve heard that sigh from many other women who feel stuck in roles in which they’re “successful.” I know it sounds funny to talk about being trapped by something we excel in. First world problems, right? But all problems demand we develop our bravery if they are ever to get solved.
One of the hallmarks of happiness is having close, meaningful connections with others. But keeping up a façade of having it all together keeps us isolated, because it keeps us from forging real, honest, deep relationships where we can fully be ourselves and feel accepted exactly as we are.
It’s not that there’s anything objectively wrong with our jobs, relationships, or lives — unless they are ones we didn’t authentically choose. After a lifetime of chasing other people’s dreams, worrying about what others think, or following a prescribed formula for what we think our lives “should” look like, our own desires and goals get blurred.
We choose partners who fit the bill, even if we aren’t genuinely in love or happy. Or, like a lot of women I met, we stay years too long in a career we don’t love simply because we’re good at it. Even when we wake up and realize that we are in the wrong career, or relationship, or life, the idea of making a change is terrifying, partly because we take it as a sign of failure and partly because it means we may have to go way outside our comfort zone to start over.
When I give talks at colleges, I often tell the story about how I spent so many years climbing the corporate ladder without ever questioning whether it was truly what I wanted. Once, after a speech I gave at Harvard, a young woman of color came running up to me as I was getting into a cab to say, “Everything you just said in your speech was ME.” She told me about how she’d done everything she could to get to where she is pursuing a Ph.D. in early learning education, never asking herself if that was going to make her happy. She realized now that wasn’t at all what she wanted to do, but she was doing it because it was simply the next credential she was tracked to earn.
We are trained to assume that if we connect all the perfect dots, it’s going to bring us fulfillment. We don’t even know how much of this in so ingrained in us. The thought is revolutionary when it hits us: Maybe “the perfect life” isn’t really all that perfect after all.
Adapted from BRAVE, NOT PERFECT: FEAR LESS, FAIL MORE, AND LIVE BOLDER Copyright © 2019 by Reshma Saujani. Published by Currency, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.