Here's how to navigate failure and perfectionism on campus.
Posted August 21, 2018
“Done is better than perfect.”
Just outside her office, Sheryl Sandberg’s favorite poster packs a powerful message into just these five words. She understands that the drive for perfection can be paralyzing. When is a project ever perfect? When can it not be improved just a little bit more? Will it ever be good enough? Agony over questions like these can take hold of the minds of women and girls until they are not thinking straight.
The cure for perfectionism is simple enough–it’s imperfection. It’s getting things wrong and learning how each stage of a project yields actionable information. Each step of the process can enlighten next steps or, at worst, eliminate a dead-end course of action.
My passion for teaching entrepreneurial skills stems from my love of discovery; and no great discovery in history of the world was made on the first try. The greatest physicist in history, Albert Einstein, celebrated his own mistakes—and there were at least ten whoppers. Instead of whitewashing them, he readily disclosed them and offered this inspiring statement: “Anyone who has never made a mistake never tried anything.”
Yet, for a nation whose future rests on our technological leadership, we sure seem obsessed with perfection; and this obsession is taking its greatest toll on young women. Ironically, the more successful a young woman may be— she earns all As and high standardized test scores, and she is beautiful, athletic, and networked–the more dangerous her drive for perfection can be.
Many female students suffer from ‘imposter syndrome,’ and find the pressure of living up to their ‘perfect’ personas unbearable, until they drop out or more disturbingly, hurt themselves. At one middle school for young women in the Western U.S., the girls talk quietly of suicide. “I wouldn’t send my own daughter there,” said one former math teacher. “I couldn’t believe that these girls at 11, 12, and 13 years old were thinking about suicide. I was scared for them. A lot of them are cutters…” she said, referring to the practice of shallowly slicing one’s body with knives or razors. “Before, when I taught in a rural school, this never happened, so, I wasn’t prepared for it. I truly couldn’t tell whether they wanted to kill themselves, or just fit in with the other messed up girls who talked about it.”
When young men compete, most do so with the knowledge that they’re going to lose sometimes. Team sports have taught boys that “they’ll win some and lose some,” and that losing is not the end of the world. They can still hang with their friends after the game and find comfort in knowing that their teammates won’t drop them - even if they missed that extra point. Unfortunately, for young women (and men) who strive for perfection, losing or disappointing those around them are not options. Sadly, high pressure perfectionism pervades most high schools and colleges and carries a serious weight with sometimes drastic outcomes.
From Ivy League colleges to state universities, young women in college can be undone by failure if they lack the experience of learning from failure.
This is where entrepreneurial learning comes in. In every entrepreneurial class or camp that we run at my non-profit, VentureLab, instructors ensure that there will be plenty of frustrating and laughable failures that elicit, “What was I thinking!?” teaching moments. How do we ensure this? We encourage students to find new ideas, test them, stretch beyond their skill set, and try things that no one thinks will work. Honestly, these ideas usually don't work, but that’s the beauty of it. We need to create an environment where failure is anticipated, welcomed, analyzed, and even celebrated. Epic fails? We might laugh until we have to hold our sides. We’ve also been known to break out New Year’s Eve noisemakers in order to lighten the mood and show kids that failure is okay. When I say celebrate failures, I really mean it.
For girls, learning from failures has never been more important, as social media has elevated expectations for perfection. Young women may sift through dozens of selfies until they find one in which they look their loveliest and happiest, one that is “perfect” for Instagram or Facebook. When so many young women strive to project these perfect personas, comparisons are inevitable, and shame quickly follows. The story of one troubled college freshman—a smart and lovely young woman—speaks for many.
Classmates seemed to have it all together. Every morning, the administration sent out an email blast highlighting faculty and student accomplishments. Some women attended class wearing full makeup…. They talked about their fantastic internships…. Friends’ lives, as told through selfies, showed them having more fun, making more friends and going to better parties. Even the meals they posted to Instagram looked more delicious.
One of the factors that drove this young woman toward despair was a low grade on a calculus test. She’d never made a low grade in her entire life. Thanks to an alert roommate and the help of university counseling staff, she was stopped before hurting herself. Reentering college a semester later, she switched her major from computer science to undecided, but was leaning towards psychology. I bet that she’ll make a wonderful psychologist—but the U.S. lost a prospective female coder. All of this was because of that low calculus grade that crystalized her despair. What’s more, after a class curve, her D- became a B.
For every suicidal thought, there are also elements of shame and despair. Whether comparing herself to photoshopped models or other high-achieving students, a young woman will feel that she comes up short. The death of one such young woman, who took her own life, reminds us that even as peppy and positive photos of achievements adorned her on Facebook: it is important for girls to learn how to fail, young and often.
And they need the help and support of family, teachers, and their community as a whole in the process. We, as a society, need to cast a broad net and ask ourselves, “Are we setting girls up for a shameful failure or a learning failure?” Let’s instill the entrepreneurial mindset in girls, and teach young women that failure is not permanent. Failure is but a temporary state that can be overcome by believing in the ability to face challenges. Something breaks free in girls who internalize what failure can do for them; that a single failure does not define them as failures, and that there is no shame in failing as long as they try their hardest and learn from their mistakes. We need to collectively lift the stigma of failure so that girls have the space to reach their fullest potential.