Imperfectly Brave: Help Girls Learn to Fear Less

Brave, Not Perfect: Fear Less, Fail More, and Live Bolder
By Reshma Saujani
(Currency, 2019 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Bill Ivey

As a teacher in a girls school, I’m acutely aware that my students (girls and non-binary kids alike) often feel trapped between two opposing yet interlocking ideals our culture sets for them – to be their true authentic selves, and to please other people.

A lot of my work on how best to support them is informed by what I hear from the kids themselves, as well as conversations with friends, colleagues, and parents both within my school and in the larger world of education.

Much of my background work centers on speakers and authors like Rachel Simmons (e.g. Enough As She Is) and Dr. Lisa Damour (e.g. Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood).

Another of my touchstones is Reshma Saujani, who founded the highly successful organization Girls Who Code which has served over 90,000 girls to date, and who also gave the TED Talk “Teach girls bravery, not perfection,” which has had over 4,000,000 views to date. Her latest book is Brave, Not Perfect.

When I first got my hands on the book, I couldn’t wait to open it and see how I might help my students, in the words on the cover, “live bolder.” In her introduction, “Daring the Unthinkable,” Saujani talks about her failed campaign to run for Congress in which she got 19% of the vote to her opponent’s 81%.

As she said, what makes this story remarkable isn’t any of the things that first stand out – that she ran for Congress, that she lost by a huge margin, that she rebounded and found an exciting new direction for her life. To her, the truly remarkable part of this story is that it wasn’t until she was 33 years old that she had done something truly brave with her life.

Taking the book to class

When I began reading the book, my Humanities 7 class was in the middle of a self-designed unit on “How do we affect people?” and I decided to use the introduction in a group activity. I read them her story of running for office and paused twice to ask them what stood out about the story and where they thought the author might be going.

I first paused shortly after her declaration to run for office, when things appeared to be going smoothly. Knowing the title of the book, the kids were quick and unanimous in declaring things probably wouldn’t work out that well, and that the point of the story would be that you don’t have to be perfect.

I paused again immediately after giving the disappointing results of the election. The kids essentially felt that their instincts from partway through the story had been confirmed. When I continued to tell them of her realization that this was the first truly brave thing she’d done in her life, they went a little deeper and agreed that it was important to try things even if you weren’t sure how they’d come out.

Throughout this discussion, I was well aware that part of the conundrum of being a girl (or for that matter a non-binary person who was assigned female at birth) today is that, ironically, one way of pleasing people is to say it’s more important to be yourself than to please people.

I wanted to challenge my students to go even deeper. So I asked them to choose an anecdote from their own lives when they were brave but not perfect, and to write to me about it. It proved initially difficult for some, but in the end they all rose to the challenge – in some cases with profoundly touching stories.

Interestingly, a lot of them focused on athletics (both recreational and competitive), and one of the few students who didn’t focus on athletics told the story of a different kind of competition. In the end most said they were glad to have tried, however well it worked out.

One went further to show how she applied the lessons learned to bring success to her next similar moment. And for another, the lesson learned was “hey, I did it but I also did actually hate it and I’m never going to do it again.”

Moving beyond perfection

Brave Not Perfect is divided up into three parts. The first part draws on Saujani’s experience and on the work of other well known speaker-writer-researchers about how girls are trained for perfection. The second part redefines bravery and addresses the question of why being brave matters in particular for women. The third part gives a number of strategies, again for women in particular, for how to strengthen your bravery muscle.

For middle school teachers who, like me, have put considerable time into understanding girls’ psychology and the cultural forces that shape them, a lot of what is in the first part of this book will be familiar. For some others, of course, it could serve as a brief but helpful overview that will open up new thinking paths.

The rest of the book will speak to different people in different ways. For some people, it will be a a sort of self-help guide to build their own bravery muscles. Besides directly helping themselves, they will also be able to better serve as role models for their students.

For some of those people and for still others, there will be insights they can pass on to their students in different ways, whether by internalizing them and having them ready when needed or by actually studying them with their students in class or in a girl power club.

Certainly, though, the fundamental message of this book is important for everyone. For those of us who have internalized the pressure to be perfect, and for our students who are at an age where they are beginning to dig deep and define themselves, letting go of the need to be perfect and finding the bravery to face the fears that result can be liberating in profound ways.

Bill Ivey is Middle School Dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham School in Western Massachusetts. He teaches Humanities 7 and both the Middle and Upper School Rock Bands. He is active on Twitter as @bivey and also blogs for his school.

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