Being the Best Me Doesn’t Mean Saying ‘Yes’ to Every Meeting

Portrait of Reshma Portrait

Reshma Saujani founded a tech organization called Girls Who Code, and she served as the Deputy Public Advocate in the Office of the Public Advocate here in New York City.

In addition to that, she’s just written a new book: Brave, Not Perfect: Fear Less, Fail More, and Live Bolder.

So many of my favorite Secrets of Adulthood are observations along these lines. Don’t get it perfect, get it started. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If I’m not failing, I’m not trying hard enough. Enjoy the fun of failure. The best time to start is now. Wherever I am, and whenever it is, I’m in the right place to begin. Etc.

I couldn’t wait to talk to Reshma about happiness, habits, and productivity.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Reshma: Getting in my morning workout! I know that I feel my best and I do my best when I’ve spent an hour sweating it out and showering before sitting down at my desk in the morning. And my favorite part? I schedule it to be inconvenient to others! Sure, my dog Stan needs to go for a walk and my son Shaan wants to play Rescue Bots with me, but I take that hour for me—and I’m a better mom, a better thinker, and a better boss for it.

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Reshma: When I was 18, I thought I had it all figured out—I was going to change the world, and that meant hitting every checkpoint along the way perfectly. I had to be the perfect immigrant daughter—I was going to go to Yale Law School like so many other politicians and I was going to get 100% in every class and do everything just right. And even though it took a few tries, I did that. I got into Yale and graduated with a law degree, but I still wasn’t happy. It wasn’t until I did something that totally terrified me—quitting my cushy job and running for office—that I realized that bravery (and sometimes failing!) really was the secret to living my best life.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
Reshma: I did a ton of research when writing Brave, Not Perfect, and one story that I can’t get out of my head right now is how deeply ingrained that impulse to please really is. One study from ABC News, with the help of psychologist Campbell Leaper from the University of California, is especially powerful—and the video is even better! The researchers gave groups of boys and girls a glass of lemonade that was objectively awful (they added salt instead of sugar) and asked how they liked it. The boys immediately said, “Eeech . . . this tastes disgusting!” All the girls, however, politely drank it, even choked it down. Only when the researchers pushed and asked the girls why they hadn’t told them the lemonade was terrible did the girls admit that they hadn’t wanted to make the researchers feel bad.

Gretchen: Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Reshma: I think I’m an Obliger! [Gretchen: Yes, that certainly seems correct.] I’ve always struggled with perfectionism, and trying to do everything that was expected of me, but a lot of the times, I’ll give up on listening to myself. I’ve definitely been working on that, and I’m a lot better at doing things for me than I used to be.

Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
Reshma: If anything, I’m usually the one standing in the way of my own happiness! I’m a notorious vacation email-checker, and sometimes I have to remind myself that being the best me doesn’t mean saying yes to every meeting. There are definitely times where I’ve taken a look at my calendar and had to put on my brave face and email people to change my RSVP to no! It’s always a balance—and I’m still working on getting that right.

Gretchen: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
Reshma: My lightning bulb moment came in 2008. I was in a job that I hated, miles away from the life I thought I would be living and definitely not changing the world. I’d done everything “right”—gone to the “right” schools, met the “right” people, and taken the “right” jobs. But I was crying myself to sleep every night and dreading work every morning. When I heard Hillary Clinton giving her concession speech after the losing the primary, something she said struck me: that just because she failed doesn’t mean that the rest of us should give up on our goals and dreams. And I realized that there was no reason not to do exactly what I had always wanted to do: run for office! I called my dad, and I was so afraid to disappoint him, since there’s such a big pressure as a child of immigrant parents to have this perfect life. And what did he say when I said I was quitting my job? “It’s about time!” We’re our own harshest critics and so much of our perfectionism is actually self-imposed. The people in our lives, we think we are doing it all for them—but really they just want us to be happy.

Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
Reshma: One small thing that has totally been a game-changer for me is the word “yet.” Sometimes I get stuck in a rut of negativity, thinking “I’m not good at building my son’s toys,” “I can’t fix the broken setting on my computer,” or even “I’m just not good at saying no.” Tack on the word yet—and it’s a whole new mindset. Psychologist and motivational pioneer Carol Dweck referred to this as embracing the “power of yet” as opposed to “the tyranny of now.” It’s one of my favorite strategies for getting a little braver in my everyday life—I might not be there yet, but I will be one day.

Gretchen: In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?
Reshma: First: I think we mistake perfection for excellence—and they are two different things. Excellence is a way of being, not a target you hit or miss. It allows you to take pride in the effort, regardless of the outcome. The irony is that perfectionism can actually impede excellence because the anxiety about screwing up that comes with perfectionism can actually be crippling.

Second: there’s also a difference between striving for success and striving for perfection. So many women today are ambitious. But being a go-getter doesn’t make you gutsy. Perfectionism leads us to following the “expected path” without questioning if it’s genuinely right for us.



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