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Be Brave, Not Perfect – Reshma Saujani

My guest on today’s show is an acclaimed author and the Founder of Girls Who Code.

Reshma Saujani committed her first act of bravery at the age of 33 when she ran for political office in New York. She lost – very badly. Instead of being defeated by it, she was set free… she discovered her bravery muscle and started to exercise it more. For example, she set up an NGO about coding when she knew nothing about start-ups – or coding. Girls Who Code is a US non-profit organization working to close the gender gap in technology and change the image of what a programmer looks like. Reshma’s TED talk, “Teach girls, bravery not perfection,” has more than four million views and sparked a national conversation about how we’re raising our girls. This led her to write her 3rd book “Brave, Not Perfect”.

During our chat we discussed society’s impact on girls and what we could do differently. I asked Reshma for practical tools on how we ourselves could be braver. In fact, this was a great follow-on to the last When Women Win episode with Najla Al Midfa, which explored resilience: how can you build resilience unless you’re allowed to fail? And finally, we talked about coding and how it cultivates bravery in girls and gives them permission to be less than perfect.

To find out more about Reshma and purchase her book, please head to her website

While you’re here, please remember to subscribe to the podcast and do take a minute to rate or review it. Thank you!

Read the Transcript

Note: While When Women Win is produced as an audio recording, we are delighted to produce transcripts for those who are unable to hear. Kindly note that these are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Media is encouraged to check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Rana Nawas:  (00:00)
Hello ladies and gents. My guest on today’s show is an acclaimed author and the founder of Girls Who Code. Reshma Saujani committed her first act of bravery at the age of 33 when she ran for political office in New York. She lost very badly. Instead of being defeated by it, though, she was set free. She discovered her bravery muscle and started to exercise it more. For example, she set up an NGO about coding when she knew nothing about start-ups or coding. Girls Who Code is a US non-profit organization working to close the gender gap in technology and change the image of what a programmer looks like. Reshma’s Ted talk, Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection, has more than 4 million views and sparked a national conversation about how we’re raising our girls. This led her to write her third book, ‘Brave, not Perfect.” During our chat, we discussed society’s impact on girls and what we could do differently. I asked Reshma for practical tools on how we ourselves could be braver. In fact, this was a great follow on to the last When Women Win episode with Najla Al Midfa, which explored resilience. How can you build resilience unless you’re allowed to fail? And finally, we talked about coding and how it cultivates bravery in girls and gives them permission to be less than perfect. So let’s get into it.

Rana Nawas:  (01:27)
Reshma, I am thrilled to have you on When Women Win. Thank you so much for making the time.

Reshma Saujani: (01:31)
Thank you so much, Rana, for having me.

Rana Nawas:  (01:33)
How do you define “brave”?

Reshma Saujani: (01:36)
So bravery is not like dragon slaying or saving a baby from a burning building. Bravery is doing what you want to do; what makes you happy. I feel like the best little visual is, I talk about this in my book, the story of a little girl from North Carolina who during princess week at school, instead of showing up as a princess, showed up as a hot dog, right? Like that to me defines bravery.

Rana Nawas:  (02:06)
And your book, you also refer to it as “a muscle.”

Reshma Saujani: (02:10)
Yes. It’s like a muscle that you exercise and sometimes you fall on and off the wagon. And you know, I think the thing is that for so long, you know, as women, as girls, we’ve been conditioned to be perfect and we’ve been conditioned to people please and we’ve conditioned to put other people’s feelings before ours. And so to be brave is to do something for you, is to say no, is to do the things that are going to make you happy which is literally like a muscle that you have to exercise, day in and day out.

Rana Nawas:  (02:42)
And can you tell us about the first time that you were ever brave?

Reshma Saujani: (02:45)
Yeah. So, you know, I am daughter of immigrants, right? I’m sure you can relate. My parents came here as refugees, literally lost everything to come to this country and so I think I had a profound sense of guilt and obligation to make them happy and to do what was going to make them proud from the time that I was little. And so I went to the right schools, I worked really hard, I got straight A’s and I worked at the right places, all in the effort of seeing that proud look on my father’s face. You know, I went and worked at a corporate law firm and I always wanted to be in public service. My father would read to me when he was little about Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi and, you know, from the time that I was young I had this deep love and affection for the United States and this deep desire to give back. But I found myself at 33 working in finance, like you know, the opposite of public service and I remember I’m like sitting in this kind of windowless conference room and I’m just having this hard moment in my life where I was coming home every day from work in the fetal position and my best friend Bepa calls and I just kind of rush into the conference room and just start crying. I always feel like our best friends have a 6th sense. They know when we’re about to fall apart. That’s always when they call us.

Rana Nawas:  (04:11)

Reshma Saujani: (04:12)
And I remember her being like, “Reshma, just quit.’ And I’m like, “I can do that?” But it was like getting permission from her, to do the thing that I needed to do, was powerful and just started me on this journey. I ended up running for office and it started me on my bravery journey.

Rana Nawas:  (04:31)
And I’d like to hear more about this running for office because, you know, you go into it a lot in your book. At the beginning when you started, you had everyone’s support, right? The incumbent was supposed to leave and all of that. Then she decided to stay and all that support died away. But you went ahead anyway. Why is that?

Reshma Saujani: (04:52)
Because I think I had taken too many steps in my heart, right? Like, I got excited, I was ready, I saw myself quitting my job, I told people that I was going to do this. Like I saw myself sitting in Washington DC, right? And so when it became a harder option, that wasn’t enough to get me to not do it. Because I guess in my mind, I always thought it was going to be hard.

Rana Nawas:  (05:18)
And you still thought you could win, right?

Reshma Saujani: (05:21)
Oh my God, I totally thought I could. I thought I could shake every hand, meet every voter, wow everybody with my ideas and I could win. And I always felt like I was gonna win.

Rana Nawas:  (05:34)
And then you didn’t.

Reshma Saujani: (05:35)
And then I didn’t. And then it’s election day and I’m sitting there, my victory party that never ended up happening. I’m staring at the television screen and holding my father’s hand. I mean, it was just rough like that. I think I barely got 19% of the vote. I mean, I was broke, I was humiliated. I pissed off everybody in the Democratic Primary and Party and I didn’t even have a concession speech in my purse. I wasn’t prepared for that outcome. But here’s the thing, like what was so crazy is that when I lost the next day or the next week, the big “aha” moment was that it didn’t break me. For so long I thought that failure would break me, that if I moved out of perfectionism, if I started making mistakes, taking risks and failing, everything would fall apart – and it didn’t. And that’s when this whole “brave, not perfect” life for me really started beginning, and this idea of bravery is a muscle and you need to exercise it over and over and over again. The next time I try and do something hard, it’s not gonna feel as hard and the recovery is not going to take as long.

Rana Nawas:  (06:54)
I love your book for many, many reasons and one of them is that it is really full of tips, tools and strategies for dealing with different situations. So let’s talk about recovering from failure since we’re there right now in the story. What are your tips and tools for listeners to coming back from a brutal defeat or any kind of failure in one’s life?

Reshma Saujani: (07:14)
I mean, the first thing is like give yourself a specific amount of time to grieve and then move on. So for me, it was a couple of weeks of drinking a lot of Margaritas, asking my boyfriend, who is now my husband, “why did that happen? Why did that happen? Why did that happen? in the depths of sorrow and tears. Then I was done and I moved on and I didn’t think about it. I think we think that we’ll get stuck in that feeling of like, “Oh My God, Oh My God, why did that happen?” And we’ll never get out. And I think if you give yourself a period of time to keep feeling like crap and then move on, you’re able to recover. That’s step one. I think step two is really about, I did that when I ran too, imagining the worst before you even start, right? Thinking about the worst possible thing that could happen and then almost getting at peace with it.

Rana Nawas:  (08:18)
Can I just ask if I can just go back a little bit to when you started this journey; did you find that breaking the first barrier open up other avenues for bravery, say in other parts of your life?

Reshma Saujani: (08:31)
I mean, yes, because I think the thing is once you start getting a taste of brave, you don’t want to go back and you realize how much joy it brings. You see, this was never about “well, if I’m brave, it will work out.” A lot of times, whatever you’re trying to be brave about may not happen for you, but you will be happy that you tried. And so for me, it’s the little things. Like all of us have walked down the street last week and someone bumped into us and we often say, “well, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” even though they bumped into us, right? Little things like me saying “well, excuse me,” or like articulating my space. And it’s been really powerful having the bravery to not wait to ask the perfect question. If I’m sitting in a panel or hearing someone talk, I write about this in my book, when I was younger I would re-write and re-write and re-write the smartest question, and then by the time I was ready to give it, class was over. So now I kind of just say what I want to say, even though it might not sound totally articulate or really smart or whatever that thing is in my head.

Rana Nawas:  (09:48)
And you had three miscarriages before you went for IVF?

Reshma Saujani: (09:53)

Rana Nawas:  (09:54)
What was that like? And I ask this because a lot of women I know have been through this process and it’s tough.

Reshma Saujani: (10:02)
Oh, it’s horrible. I mean, I’ve had two more miscarriages after that. Look, I think part of what was so tough was that I had bought into the narrative that my body was supposed to be perfect and this was suppose to happen naturally and easily. And so every time I had to go into the doctor’s office and have the heartbeat fade or have a failed IVF or you know, a miscarriage, 12 weeks in, I was just like, “why is this happening to me?” And I felt ashamed because everywhere I looked on the subway or down the street, there were these very happy pregnant women and it seemed so easy for them and I kept feeling like I was failing my husband and failing myself. And it was a really kind of dark place for me. And I think oftentimes what happens for those of us, women, is we have to go back into our lives. So I would go to the doctor’s office and I’d get horrible news and then I’d have to get on stage and give a speech about Girls Who Code, you know what I mean? Showing up on TV or…it was always like that. I’m like, “ah, why is the universe messing with me?” But part of it was this lesson; I felt like I had to be so perfect, so together and so poised that I didn’t have the courage to say to people, “hey guys, I can’t show up, I can’t do it,” you know? And it’s still something I regret. And part of it is that you’re sitting there and you’re like, “God, what’s wrong with me?” Like, am I that ambitious or crazy or whatever it is? It’s like for show because then you feel mad at yourself for showing up.

Rana Nawas:  (11:43)
Well, let’s talk a little bit about tips and tools for helping us become braver because there’s a bunch of those in the book that I think are really actionable.

Reshma Saujani: (11:52)
Yeah. So the first thing is that I think you can’t be brave if you’re tired. So part of building a bravery mindset is to be rested, sleep, clear your mind and be at peace.

Rana Nawas:  (12:09)
Oh, Reshma, I haven’t slept for four years!

Reshma Saujani: (12:11)
Are you serious?

Rana Nawas:  (12:11)
I have a two year old and a four year old, they’re in my bed every night and I haven’t slept for four years.

Reshma Saujani: (12:19)
No, but I do too. It’s so funny, my son is in my bed every night too. He’s four. But I try to negotiate. So I tried to negotiate nights with my husband, so he does bedtime and I do mornings. So as best as I can, I try to get into bed as early as I possibly can, knowing that he’s going to come in and wake me up. And I put on a deep sleep meditation app. So my point is, it’s not going to happen perfectly, but set yourself up to get as much rest as you can. And then, you know, the second thing I talk about is practicing imperfection. One of the hacks that I give on this is send an email with a typo in it. And women are like “what?” because we re-read and re-read our emails with nine emojis and 10 explanation points and we don’t just say what we have to say or we won’t go to the grocery store without a full face of makeup on or when it’s our kids birthday, instead of buying the store’s cupcakes, we are baking, when we don’t have time. So it’s like practice imperfection, whatever that means for you in your life because you’ll realize that things won’t fall apart if it’s not perfect.

Rana Nawas:  (13:37)
Well, let’s talk about perfect. In your book, you talk about how we raise girls to be perfect and boys to be brave. How do we do that?

Reshma Saujani: (13:46)
Yeah. So I think all you have to do, Rana, is sit at playground and you’ll see how we interact with our boys and how we interact with our girls. With our boys, we are like “crawl to the top of the monkey bars. Jump! Go down that slide.” Like we encourage them to take risks, right? Risk to their physical safety but with our girls, we are like “be careful honey, don’t swing too high. Give back that toy. Honey, your dresses dirty. Come here, let me clean you up.” We’re constantly fixing, prodding and coddling and we’re literally wrapping our girls up with bubble wrap and it’s all in the name of protecting their security or protecting them from harm.

Rana Nawas:  (14:29)
Self-esteem. Yeah.

Reshma Saujani: (14:30)
Yes. But then what happens is that as they get older, they start giving up before they even try. They become addicted to perfectionism because it’s a way for them to get accolades, right? And so you see this in college where women will declare a major and if they don’t get an A in the introductory level course, they’ll drop, right? If Whereas boys are like “I got a B! That’s amazing!” So perfectionism leads to two major things. One, I think it’s leaving women unhappy, like women are twice as likely to be depressed than men. And secondly, it’s creating a leadership gap, right? We say that it’s never been a better time to be a woman, but we’re not seeing numbers really move in the way that we need them to move and we think that we have to be perfect before we even lead. Is it possible to build resilience without allowing our daughters to fail? I don’t think so, right? To me, it’s about failure and it’s about critical feedback, right? I talked about this in the book – I remember I was giving a speech after I won for public advocate and I had lost that race too. A year later, I was giving a speech and it was at a rally and the woman that I had lost to was speaking right before me. It was raining outside. My son Sean is on top of me, right? And she just gets up and kills it! I go next. I’m like, “ah.” I knew I wasn’t good. And I get into the car with my husband and I’m like, “how did I do?” And he’s like, “you sucked.” It didn’t feel good to hear that in that moment because I knew I sucked. But it started my mind thinking about how can I be better next time? So if we don’t critique our girls, if we don’t offer them criticism, if we don’t let them know what it’s like, then they’re never going to be able to achieve their biggest dreams, they’re never going to be able to feel strong and feel truly confident in their ability and not just in the things that they’re good at.

Rana Nawas:  (16:42)
Well, there’s a point I didn’t understand in the book which is that we do not critique our girls, but we are constantly nagging and needling, right? You know, dust off your shoes, do this, be quiet…etc. So we’re needling them all through their youth and yet we’re saying that doesn’t help girls develop thick skin. How is that?

Reshma Saujani: (17:03)
Oh, I think it’s a balance, right? I think we needle them in the beginning in terms of…for example, my mother would always be like, “stand up straight.” You know what I mean? Like “what are you wearing, right?” I think immigrant mothers are even more intense. But then I think at a certain point we start protecting them. So for example, when they’re bad at gymnastics, we pull them out and we put them into soccer. We stopped telling them to truth.We’re like, “it’s okay honey.” And so I think that fixing and that prodding become a form of protection that we offer our girls where we are not really critiquing or criticizing them. And you know, I have that story in my book about Brad as Computer Science Teacher. And when the kids are building network cables, literally with the boys, he can take out a pair of scissors, cut it and be like, “nope, do it again.” And they don’t start crying.But with the girls, he’s gotta be like, “okay, you did this part right. That was good.” He has got to offer affirmation instead of going straight to the critique, and that’s because we start taking things personally. And what implications does this have for women in the workforce when they get to the corporate world? I mean, I think what happens is like the statistic I shared in my book, which is that women will apply for a job if they meet 100% of the qualifications and men apply when they meet 60%. They’ll look at a job and be like, “oh, I don’t meet that. I’m not going to apply because I don’t want to get rejected.” They literally start giving up before they even try, and I see this at my work, right? When I’m encouraging a woman to take on a new vertical, she’ll be like, “okay, let me go home and think about it” and I know that that means she’s going to come back to me and say no. Whereas the guys are like, “great! I’ve never run HR before, but I’ll do it because they’re not afraid to screw it up.”

Rana Nawas:  (18:52)
What are practical steps that we can take to make our daughters “less perfect,” if you will?

Reshma Saujani: (18:58)
I think the first thing is let them learn technical skills, whether that’s when the toilet’s broken, take your daughter to go fix it. When she’s getting frustrated with the Math assignment, instead of letting her move on from it, let her sit in her frustration. Put her in a hobby that she’s not good at so she knows what it’s like to feel mediocre, but she just enjoys it, right? I always say this for men; every man I know has a hobby, whether it’s soccer or tennis or fantasy football or basketball that they’re not good at, but they enjoy, they just enjoy it, right? We don’t have that. There’s not a woman I know who does something that she likes, but she’s not good at. I mean, literally women will say to me, well, “I’m not going to go to that spinning class until I’m in shape.” And I’m like, “ah, the whole point of going to an exercise class is to get in shape,” but I do this too! When I’m in an exercise class, yoga…I am just “bad” at Yoga, but I like it. However, I used to not go because it would just make me feel bad about myself that I couldn’t do a headstand.

Rana Nawas:  (20:06)
You mentioned technical skills. What is it about technical skills that help girls develop this bravery versus perfection? Or let me ask it differently; why do you think it’s important that young girls code?

Reshma Saujani: (20:19)
Well, I think that girls think that, I talk about the growth versus fixed mindset, they’re either good at something or they’re bad at something and part of what is in Math, in Science and in coding is it doesn’t come to you right away, it takes time. So you have to sit with the uncomfortability of the challenge. And I think that is something really important for girls to learn. Like this girl, Isabelle, was telling me a story about how even if she gets an A in her math test, if the teacher calls on her and she doesn’t know the answer right away, she’d rather say she has to go to the bathroom instead of saying she doesn’t know the answer right away, because in her mind, she has quickly done the calculation that, “okay, I’m not good at math because I can’t answer it in two seconds.” And that’s the thing; anything that’s technical takes time. It’s like coding, right? The annoying semi-colons in the wrong place. You got to do it over and over and over again. It takes time. And so if you learn to enjoy that, sit with the frustration and actually feel gratitude and gratification from the frustration, I think that will help teach you bravery. Does that make sense?

Rana Nawas:  (21:39)
Yeah. When you launched Girls Who Code, did you have this in mind?

Reshma Saujani: (21:44)
No, absolutely not. I mean for me, I had a suspicion that girls wanted to be change makers and we should be teaching coding in terms of how to learn technology to solve a problem you care about, whether it’s immigration, climate change, cancer and that we weren’t teaching it that way in the classroom. I think that the more that Girls Who Code grew, the more I saw the second part of the problem which is that most women in CS will drop out because they think the guy sitting next to them is smarter than they are and they think that they have to just learn more skills. I mean, you hear this all the time and it’s not that we have to learn more skills, we simply need to basically believe in ourselves, believe in our ability and not worry about someone else’s perceived ability because they have so much damn confidence. And there’s a great article in the New York Times about this from this weekend; it’s not about your prior experience, it’s about what you think you’re perceived ability is. And since we kind of kill girls’ confidence, they think that their ability is not as good as boys, or strong.

Rana Nawas:  (22:59)
You think we kill their confidence?

Reshma Saujani: (23:03)
I think we kill their confidence by protecting them. Yes, I do. Because we then essentially put them into things that they’re good at and that universe is very small and becomes very small. So many women I know we’ll stay in jobs that they’re good at but they don’t like. And so slowly our passion simmers and that’s what makes us unhappy. I mean, every one of us has had an idea about something we wanted to do and then we talk ourselves out of it and then we see someone else doing the very thing that we had thought we should do and they’re succeeding at it. And we’re left feeling with so much regret and envy that it creates depression and anxiety. Every woman I know has something like that. And I always say to women, go to that place, go to the place where you feel the most amount of envy and that’s the place where you need to be.

Rana Nawas:  (23:55)
Oh, that’s tough. That’s a tough call.

Reshma Saujani: (23:58)
Yeah, it’s tough. It’s real. It’s really, really tough because it makes you think about all the things that you think you passed up. But here’s the thing; it’s never too late. It’s never too late.

Rana Nawas:  (24:10)
Well, I was shocked when I launched my podcast. A couple of weeks in, I had conversations with various women who came up to me and said, “wow, it’s amazing you’re doing this. I’ve been thinking about doing it for two years.” I’m like, “what? The idea occurred to me three months ago. What do you mean two years? Why haven’t you done it yet?” And yeah, I’m still waiting to see their point.

Reshma Saujani: (24:35)
I hear you. It does. It happens all the time.

Rana Nawas:  (24:37)
But think about it this way; I’m going to be real but when I was starting my podcast, I was really nervous. I felt like an impostor. I started listening to other people’s podcasts. How should I sound? What questions should I ask? And I had all this anxiety about it and it’s like, no, wait, you’re just having a conversation with somebody. Like you simply have to be curious, which we both are, right? But think about how much we build up, right? About how hard it is, how challenging it is, I’m not qualified, I need to practice, I need to do this, I need to do that.That takes a lot of space and time. That time, you talk yourself out of it or you make it seem like it’s so hard.

Rana Nawas:  (25:22)
What’s next for Girls Who Code? Are you going international?

Reshma Saujani: (25:25)
We are going international. We have started growing in Canada, the UK and in India. I’m really excited about it. Look, one of my dreams is to find the most underserved girls in the world, sit with them and teach them how to wireframe their ideas. Like I think we can teach any girl, in any circumstance, how to code. And I want us to figure it out.

Rana Nawas:  (25:47)
Well, my call to action for the listeners would be to download “Brave, Not Perfect” immediately and gift it widely. I’ve actually given it to the principal of my son’s school and he loved it.

Reshma Saujani: (25:59)
I have gotten so many interesting notes from men too about how perfectionism plays in their life and about this idea of men having to be more unconscious about it whereas we’re allowed to be more upfront and honest about how we feel. But I feel like, to me, I’ve never been as excited about something as I am about Girls Who Code. I think that this idea about being brave, not perfect, can incite a bravery revolution that I think will make women happier and more joyful and we will take over the world.

Rana Nawas:  (26:34)
I hope so. I agree. What is your call to action for listeners?

Reshma Saujani: (26:38)
So go to my website and download “Brave, Not Perfect.” Like Rana said, gift it to a friend and start practicing some of the tools in the back. Practice and perfection. Do something you suck at. Just start and start exercising your bravery muscle. You are going to fall on and off this wagon. It is like anything else. Don’t feel like it’s one and done, but if you commit to living a brave, perfect life now, I promise you, you will achieve your wildest dreams.

Rana Nawas:  (27:08)
It’s a perfect place to end. Thank you so much. Reshma. Thank you.

Rana Nawas:  (27:12)
I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. I’d love to hear from you, so please head over to to give feedback. While you are there, you can find all episodes and show notes and sign up for our monthly newsletter. Wherever you’re listening right now, do remember to hit the subscribe button to be notified of future episodes and please write a review when you can, to let others know what to expect. Thanks, and have a great day!

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