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How to be perfect in a pandemic: Don't

"If we are going to come out the other side of this crisis intact ... we’re going to need bravery, not perfection to succeed," says Reshma Saujani, the CEO of Girls Who Code and author of "Brave, Not Perfect"
Reshma Saujani, Girls Who Code Founder & CEO, Visits \"Maria Bartiromo's Wall Street\"
Reshma Saujani is the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, the international nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in technology.Steven Ferdman / Getty Images file

Earlier this month, I put on my best sweat suit and got ready to perform an author rite of passage: filming an “unboxing video” for social media to celebrate my book “Brave, Not Perfect” coming out in paperback. An “unboxing video” is exactly what it sounds like: a video of an author, opening a box of copies of their new book, and getting to see, touch and smell them for the first time. Easy enough.

So, there I was all ready to go, with my husband as videographer and my dog Stan by my side. Well, lo and behold, about 15 seconds into filming, my 5-year-old son walked into the frame, picked up a copy of the book, and threw it straight at the camera. Cut.

My first thought was, I need to reshoot. Afterall, I didn’t get a chance to tell everyone how I chose colors for the new cover, or where they could go to buy it. My publisher might be mad, or my family might seem out of control. In other words, it wasn’t perfect.

And then I remembered where I was. At home in New York, under mandate to quarantine by our governor because of the coronavirus pandemic. I decided one take was plenty, perfection be damned.

Of all the personality types struggling to adjust to our new way of life, no one is worse off than perfectionists “What about extroverts?” you may ask. They’re hurting, no doubt, but you can still find them on Zoom or Houseparty, hosting virtual murder mystery dinner parties and doing what they do best, minus the hugs.

It’s the perfectionists in my life who are having the hardest time letting go, trying to get straight A’s like they are competing in the Quarantine Awards. We’re devouring articles about how to be more productive, refining our banana bread recipe, homeschooling our kids while working full time and also trying to enrich our minds and tighten our bodies with all our extra “free time.”

And surprise, surprise: it’s not working. Because here is the truth. Perfectionism is unhelpful at the best of times. The relentless pursuit of perfection holds us back from taking risks because we are terrified to fail. It stops us from saying “no” to things, because we want to be perceived as kind and generous (and don’t want to be perceived as the “b word”). And it runs us ragged, laying awake at night ruminating over tiny mistakes.

If we are going to come out the other side of this crisis intact, ready to tackle a new normal, a constantly changing landscape, and even an economic recession, we’re going to need bravery, not perfection to succeed. To that end, here are three ways you can let go of perfection and build your bravery muscle… in quarantine.

1. Move the goal post.

One of the lessons in my book is to stop aiming for 100 percent when 90 percent will do. Why on earth would you expect to be just as productive at work when you’re now also a full-time cook, teacher, and housekeeper? And you have none of the support systems you set up to thrive under normal circumstances. And there is horrible suffering and uncertainty happening all around you. And… you get the idea. Setting an impossible standard is a good way to drive yourself crazy. So, step one, cut yourself some slack.

2. Show the mess behind the scenes.

For most of our lives we have been brainwashed to believe that polish = perfect. If we get the blowout before the job interview or the date, it will make us invincible. They’ll be so blinded by our well-tailored outfit or fresh manicure, that they won’t see we are nervous, or… human. Well, forget about polish, these days getting in a daily shower is an achievement, and our messy, imperfect, chaotic lives are on display on Zoom. But showing it is how we normalize it ⁠— so don’t hold back.

3. Support the sisterhood.

I firmly believe that perfectionism is cultural — it’s what we were taught to aspire to as little girls, while our male counterparts were taught to be bold, brave risk takers. We got into this mess together, and we’ll break free of it together too. When we all start to say no to norms that don’t serve us, that’s how we make progress without being penalized. Whether personally or professionally, find a way to uplift another woman this week. It will come back to you in spades.

Reshma Saujani is the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, the international nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in technology. A lifelong activist, Saujani was the first Indian-American woman to run for U.S. Congress. She is the author of the international bestseller "Brave, Not Perfect" and the New York Times Bestseller "Girls Who Code: Learn to Code and Change the World." Reshma lives in New York City with her husband, Nihal, their sons, Shaan and Sai, and their bulldog, Stanley.