A lot of women I know – and apparently about 10,000 that I didn’t know – can relate to that quote from Courtney E. Martin’s book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters. I discovered that on October 2, 2019 when I had the privilege of joining many of my Digitas Health colleagues at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women. After a full day of listening to inspiring, heartfelt talks from intelligent and successful women in the sessions I chose, I came away with two big takeaways.
LESS PERFECTIONISM, MORE PROGRESS
We’ve all heard the statistics. Women only apply for jobs when they meet 100% of the qualifications on a job description, while men do so when they feel they can satisfy 60% of the requirements, according to an often-quoted Hewlett-Packard report. It makes sense in a lot of ways, especially because women are socialized to follow rules and do what’s expected of them. In fact, this is even confirmed in a study that explored the reasons why men and women chose to apply or not apply for jobs. According to a Harvard Business Review summary of the study, “78% of women’s reasons for not applying [to a job]… have to do with believing that the job qualifications are real requirements, and seeing the hiring process as more by-the-book and true to the on paper guidelines than it really is.”
This is only one of many elements that can hold women back at work. For many of us, perfectionism has been a lifelong struggle. As Happier, Inc. Founder and CEO Nataly Kogan explained in her panel session entitled Happier Now: Embracing the Everyday, “women equate perfection with excellence.” In reality, of course, perfection is unattainable, while many women are totally capable of achieving excellence at any stage of their careers. Often, we just need to get more comfortable with the process, rather than achieving a specific result. “Women inflate the consequences of imperfection,” said Girls Who Code Founder Reshma Saujani. “Keep doing things you suck at.”
Doing so can make a big difference. Improving ourselves and achieving our goals does not take a radical, overnight overhaul of our lives, said James Clear as he explained the aggregation of marginal gains in his morning keynote. Just a 1% improvement each day can compound into meaningful change. So rather than torturing ourselves, toiling over everything we want – and expect – ourselves to be, we can choose to make small decisions every day that will get us where we want to be. “True behavior change is actually identity change,” he said. In an article on the same topic, Clear explains that the best way to create and sustain behavior change is through a simple two-step process: first, decide who and what we want to be (our identity), then prove to ourselves that we can become that person through small choices every day. “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you want to become” – even if you suck at those actions at the beginning.
PERSISTENCE AND PRIORITIES
Building on the idea that small steps can make a big difference, according to many of the speakers I saw at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women, the real name of the game is persistence. Jesmyn Ward gave a powerful and moving keynote speech about her journey to becoming a celebrated author. Success, she explained, is not the result of one choice; rather, it’s a lifelong undertaking that requires conscious choices, the commitment to taking things step by step, taking risks, adapting to the circumstances, facing rejection, and bouncing back after failure. Inspiring, yes – but it’s important to note that not one speaker said this would be easy. “Bravery is a practice,” said Saujani in her Happier Now session.
Award-winning author Elizabeth Gilbert explained during her keynote speech that throughout history, we have been told a terrible lie: that women can and must care about everything and everyone. This lie is strangling us – individually and as a society – and the only way to combat the lie is by prioritizing what’s most important. “The reality of priorities is that you actually can’t have that many of them,” she countered. We have to decide for ourselves what is sacred – to draw a line around the things that matter most to us (as Joseph Campbell once said) and to say to the things outside of that circle “the three most powerful words in a woman’s arsenal,” according to Gilbert: I don’t care.
If you want to understand why you’re feeling unfulfilled or unhappy, author Mary Laura Philpott gave two surprising, but insightful recommendations to conference attendees in the Happier Now session:
First, “let your [to-do] list be your assistant, not your boss.” As a self-described checkmark junkie, this fully resonated with me. Striving for the elusive completed checklist might make me feel productive, but does it make me happy? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Philpott suggests adding “things that create time and space” to your daily to-do list to avoid burning out and overwhelming yourself.
Second, do the math. Calculate how many of your waking hours are spent doing things that frustrate or upset you, and use that knowledge to make choices to improve your situation.
It was inspiring to be surrounded by other fascinating and engaged women of all generations who were finding ways to stand up, speak up, and move up in their careers. Thanks to Digitas Health for sending me to such a great event, and to the #pennwomen team for assembling such a stellar event!