Women like Stacey Abrams and Serena Williams are proof that bravery trumps perfectionism

Reshma Saujani
Stacey Abrams delivers the Democratic response to President Donald Trump's State of the Union.

Recently, Stacey Abrams said to an audience in California: "I'm not going to change my hair, my skin color, my gender to win this election. And there's no amount of Jenny Craig that's going to solve anything in six weeks."

It was her way of saying, sorry folks, but I am not going to alter one single iota of who I am to fit your mold. I may not be your "perfect" candidate — but I am "frustratingly" myself.

Her words stopped me dead in my tracks. But why?

Since giving a TED Talk on the socially ingrained bravery gap between girls and boys, I've been on a nationwide crusade against the perils of perfectionism. And wherever I go, I hear the same thing from women of color: perfectionism isn't a choice for us, it's a requirement. And bravery, quite frankly, is a privilege.

As women of color, there are two messages we receive from the time we are little girls that are so thoroughly drilled into us they are basically a part of our very being. Lesson 1: it's not enough to be good, you have to be better than everyone else just to be equal. And lesson 2: if you fail, you are bringing your family and your community down with you.

It takes bravery to admit to and own our so-called flaws, to ask for raises or promotions, to quit our jobs and go off on our own — essentially to follow the "Lean In" playbook. But, to quote Michelle Obama, well, "that s--- doesn't always work."

Because although we live in a culture that fetishizes failure — the failed Silicon Valley startup, the career pivot gone wrong, the congressional aspirations cut short — we simply don't celebrate that kind of failure for women, and definitely not women of color. More often than not, we're actually penalized for our bravery, for taking chances.

Look no further than the appalling treatment of Serena Williams at the U.S. Open this year for proof of what can happen when women of color advocate for themselves. It's not just using our voices that gets us into trouble. When black women in leadership make mistakes — an inevitable consequence of taking risks — research shows that they are more likely to be criticized or punished for organizational failures than male, or even white female counterparts.

Cue the perfectionist drive. Stay on track, do and act as you're told — by your family, community, society. Aim to please. Worse, conform.

As a brown girl and the daughter of Indian immigrants who came to this country as refugees from Uganda, this phenomenon has played out for most of my life.

In my family, there were three options when it came to careers: doctor, lawyer, engineer. Being the "perfect" immigrant daughter meant conforming in spaces like Harvard and Yale, trying desperately not to be found out for not belonging. Somewhere along the way, being "perfect" turned into being inauthentic, into ignoring my lifelong dream of running for office because I was afraid of losing and letting people down. Before I knew it, I'd lost my bravery muscle.

That's why I was so stunned to hear my friend Stacey Abrams say what she did. In one fell swoop, Abrams turned these powerful myths about perfectionism upside down. Rather than sink under the weight of others' disappointments, recoiling in shame and pain over a narrow loss, she bravely re-committed herself to her dream to serve as Governor. And, rather than change who she is, she vowed to continue leading with her so-called imperfections, with her whole self.

And she's not the only one. Gabrielle Union recently laid bare her experience of using a surrogate, a brave thing to say out loud because — according to the toxic narrative of perfection — being a "successful" woman necessitates effortlessly navigating the journey from girlfriend to wife to mother. Rep. Ayanna Pressley negotiated with Speaker Nancy Pelosi for a seat on the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force — risking criticism that she should "wait her turn."

Because the bravery gap between is socially ingrained — it will take society at large to change. Our employers, media, and peers must stop holding women and girls of color to a higher bar. Because, ultimately, we shouldn't have to achieve fame or perfection or wealth before we are allowed to — or prepared to — be brave.

And although there is no overstating the work to be done on the part of our institutions to ensure that women of color have the space to fail safely and live authentically —we also don't have time to wait. There's a bravery revolution on the horizon. And I'm thrilled to see these women leading it, opening up the space for women everywhere to fear less, fail more, and live bolder.

Reshma Saujani is the author of "Brave, Not Perfect," and is the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code.