Book Review: Brave, Not Perfect: Fear Less, Fail More, and Live Bolder by Reshma Saujani

I needed to read this book after my friend recommended it to me. My life depended on it. I started it last night and finished it this morning. Why? Because I am a Grade-1 perfectionist and people-pleaser and I could relate to everything the author talked about. Of course, there is nothing wrong with saying “yes” to things, but if you say “yes” too many times, people get used to the idea that you will just do what they want 24/7 without you making any time for yourself. In this book, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code Reshma Saujani talks about how she struggled with (and still struggles with, but is getting better at) having the confidence to stop putting other people’s agendas before her own and follow her passion even at the risk of so-called “failing”. According to Saujani, society has conditioned women to not embrace failure and to see it as a burden rather than as an opportunity to keep trying at something that we may not always be good at. From the time people are boys and girls, historical social norms dictate that boys are supposed to get their hands dirty and if they mess up, to just grit their teeth and keep going, while girls are told to play nice and not cause a fuss at the risk of hurting other people’s feelings. Fast forward to when girls become women and those gender norms continue to hold women back and let men move forward.

I remember when I was applying for jobs, I was unemployed and depressed, but I remember one of my friends telling me to keep applying for jobs even though I didn’t have 100 percent of the qualifications for the job. I’m not saying that I blame my tendency to be modest on any of the past jobs I’ve had, and I frankly don’t regret working as a dishwasher, daycare teacher, a barista, or today as a legal office clerk because not only did these jobs teach me how to just show up and do the work even if I was depressed, but for the simple reason that they helped me make money so I could do the things I wanted, even something as simple as buying a $10 tabbouleh, grape leaf dolma, fruit and greens salad for dinner one night during one of my shifts. Although I will say that I still have a deep-seated fear when it comes to applying for jobs where I would make more money, because I don’t want to be seen as ungrateful for my current position, or moreover that I didn’t have all the qualifications and thus, why bother trying? Recently I was looking at jobs in the entertainment industry and I love film and TV just as much as I love music, but the idea of even applying for the job gave me that sickening feeling of “well, if I pitch this idea, what if it’s not what they want?” or even something like just playing and practicing music that someone else wrote because I fear writing my own music. Although quite a few people have told me to just start writing music even though I don’t have a formal degree in music or film composition, I still hold on to this deep-seated fear that if I produce my own compositions for cello or start pitching compositions to producers or other highly successful people in the industry, they will find out I’m not as experienced or as confident as I seem, or worse yet, that they will reject my music because it’s not what they are looking for.

But what’s beautiful and genius about Reshma’s book is that she encourages girls and women to worry not about whether or not we get accepted or rejected, but instead to worry about not trying at all. I auditioned for an orchestra and got on the substitute cellist list back in 2016, and thought I totally messed up when I emailed the personnel manager about how to obtain copies of the cello parts for the season so I could practice them in case they called me to sub for someone. Even though looking back, it was for the best, I still remember days when I would cry and think about how I offended the personnel manager and how, the minute he got my email, he harrumphed and thought, “Well! I never. How rude of her to even inquire!” But after seeking guidance and chanting daimoku about my situation, I realized that he could have not answered my email for a variety of reasons that were out of my control: maybe he wasn’t allowed to make copies because of copyright policies. Or the cellists were all present for their rehearsals (I wouldn’t wish the common cold on any of them, even though we’re human and it happens). Maybe he got busy and had a flurry of other emails to answer. The list goes on. Bottom line is, I auditioned for another orchestra after not getting any opportunities to sub for anyone, got rejected by that orchestra, cried about getting rejected from that. I auditioned for another orchestra after that, submitting my audition videos online, got rejected by that. I submitted those videos for a cello festival, got rejected, too. At first I wallowed in frustration and pity: why couldn’t I get in any professional orchestras? I stopped practicing as much because I was putting all my hopes into, mind you, one of several career paths for musicians. Then, my teacher told me about this opportunity to join a community orchestra, and how the director wanted me to join because they were looking for a cellist. At first, I was still salty about not getting into any professional orchestras, but I took this one because I was tired of sitting alone in my room and practicing in hopes that someone would notice my hard work and talent and magically whisk me away to play with the New York Philharmonic. So I joined and to this day, I love playing in the orchestra. Now of course, I’m also looking into additional music opportunities, but this orchestra will provide the training I need to play with other people. I remember meeting one of the cellists of this orchestra I saw one night. She was one of a handful of women in the cello section and I remember being so happy to meet her and talk with her, and the best advice she gave me was to go for the audition but to not put all my eggs in one basket and not stress out about the audition being the only important thing in the world. She was right; as much as I have looked up on the Internet “how to be a successful cellist” or “how to be a successful musician”, there’s no clear cut answer, and at the end of the day, you don’t become a rich success after acing one audition, no matter how much the media wants you to think so. Orchestra musicians still have to pay their bills and find other avenues to make money, because being in an orchestra by itself will not pay all of your bills. It’s just like being any other musician; it pays, but you should still keep your day job in case gigs aren’t coming in as steadily as you hoped. It is a great opportunity and there are also more creative ways to make money as a musician. You just have to be willing to work with what you’ve got and bring your ideas and talents to the table whether or not you fail or succeed at doing so.

Another important point Saujani makes is that practicing gratitude is important when confronting rejection or failure. Even if we didn’t get the job, or win the political campaign, we should be appreciative of the people who helped us on that path, and especially appreciate that there was even an opportunity to go outside our comfort zone and try something new. I recently started keeping a gratitude journal and while at first I started listing the basics, I found it was hard to stop writing and by the time I was done I had listed at least 50 things I was grateful for that day. It’s hard to be grateful when we’re suffering, but it’s the thing that keeps us going. Looking back, my depression stemmed from a lack of appreciation for my life, and coming to understand this has helped me grow so much more. I remember one time a professional dancer told me that to succeed as an artist, you need to love yourself and have an attitude of appreciation. I think this is especially important as a classical musician, because so much time and money goes into lessons, coachings, festivals, that many of us (myself included) forget that there are people out there learning an instrument who don’t have all those financial resources at their easy access, or they may not have access to an instrument at all. This perspective actually helps my performances and fuels my passion because I am less hung up on the idea that I need to be 100 percent perfect so that the one music critic in the back marking up the mistakes I need to go back on with his/her/their score in hand doesn’t criticize my performance one bit. After reading Saujani’s book, I realize that the reason I couldn’t overcome those butterflies in my stomach when, on audition day, I stepped into the church and checked in at the desk, when I sat in the practice room with my hands clamming up, trying to nail any trouble spots, when I walked into the choral practice room and saw the judges writing their criticisms of the last audition in steely silence, was that I wanted to please each and every one of them.

But I remember watching an interview that cellist Alisa Weilerstein did with Zsolt Bognar of Living the Classical Life, and she said that you can’t please everyone and you just have to perform in a way that is true to yourself whether you think people will like it or not. I remember another interview that Bognar did with opera singer Nadine Sierra, and she talks about how she got teased when she was younger for loving opera and when she got older she got more and more criticism from people who didn’t like her performances, but she tells Zsolt that you shouldn’t worry about pleasing everyone because not everyone is going to like what you do, and that’s ok. Yes, there are times when someone will tell us we are out of tune or need to approach the piece with a different character. However, there is a clear difference between someone who wants you to improve and someone who just wants to vent about how much you stink and should never perform live ever again. And if someone doesn’t like your performance, well, you just keep on performing.

Saujani encourages girls and young women to strive to do our best rather than do a perfect performance without any mistakes. In every performance and rehearsal I have done, there has never been a time where I haven’t played one note out of tune, accidentally rushed or played the wrong bow stroke. However, that hasn’t stopped me from playing music. It may have at times discouraged me from pursuing auditions for a long time, but at the end of the day, it’s important to have a healthy outlook and not put all your life into making the critics happy. My teacher said that it’s important to practice, but you should also practice as if you were going to get up in front of a bunch of people and perform. At times I wondered to myself why I wasn’t getting any better no matter how much I practiced, and after a while, I came to understand that I was working too much on getting every single note perfectly in tune rather than working on the story I wanted to tell through the piece. Technique is important, of course, but it shouldn’t detract you from playing the piece with your own interpretation. At the end of the day, I can only play in the way that is most natural for me. I’m sure that Mstislav Rostropovich, Jacqueline Du Pre, Yo-Yo Ma, Sheku Kanneh-Mason or any other cellist out there would want me or other cellists to stop trying to copy their style and figure out their own interpretation of the piece.

I also like how inclusive Saujani’s definition of bravery is. She references Adam Grant’s book Originals, in which he says that innovative people tend to procrastinate, and take less risks, but unlike people who just let their ideas remain dormant, original people realize that they can’t just keep their ideas to themselves any longer and must share them even if they get rejected, called out, etc. Being a creative person doesn’t mean we need to quit our days jobs so we can spend all the time we need on ideas. Ava DuVernay didn’t quit her day job, neither did Stephen King, John Legend or Steve Wozniak. Instead they pursued their projects while paying their bills just like the rest of society. They showed up and did the work even when it wasn’t perfect, and even when their ideas got rejected multiple times, they kept creating and creating until their projects found a place in the market. Before reading Originals I thought I needed to quit my day job so I could have more practice time. But after reading the experiences of musicians, actors and other people in the arts and entertainment industries, it seemed foolish to quit my day job, especially since I didn’t have much money to begin with. Also, the internet has made it so easy for people to share their art with the world and find fellow artists to collaborate with, versus in the olden days when your talent was the only thing that got you that multimillion dollar break with Capitol Records. While working as a barista, there were times I wouldn’t practice my cello because I was so exhausted from work, but now I do the work even if the practice isn’t perfect or I don’t have all the time in the world to play that one note perfectly. Actors go on auditions even when they wait tables or work in IT, band members still get together and play even when they are finishing up their graduate theses, and stand-up comedians get up on stage even when they drive passengers around in Uber or Lyft to pay their bills. It’s better to try and fail at your craft each day than to put in the towel and quit just because you don’t have all of the financial means or time to succeed in it. Being brave to me means practicing my music even when I’m not (yet) a world class performer. Being brave means writing this post even if I’m not (yet) a best-selling author. Being brave means putting my music on Soundcloud and YouTube even when I don’t (yet) have a big following. (Saujani also encourages girls and women to say “yet” instead of “I haven’t accomplished [x] and will never accomplish [x].”

I’m also more inspired to finish my JavaScript course now that I’ve read Brave, Not Perfect. In fact, Saujani says she had no coding experience prior to starting Girls Who Code, but what motivated her to get the initiative running was seeing a lack of girls in the field of STEM and wanting to change that narrative. Had she waited until she got the skills to start it, she wouldn’t have followed her gut and just done the thing (a.k.a. addressing the lack of opportunities given to girls to learn coding). I remember not coding for a while and even quitting one of my coding courses because I didn’t do as well as I wanted when putting together my final project for my HTML and CSS courses. But I’m going to finish the Javascript Basics course whether or not I think I’m good at it simply because I get an opportunity to work with numbers. I feared math even after taking years of learning center math after school, and even after acing one of my favorite subjects, algebra (probably because geometry and pre-calculus were my least successful subjects), but coding gives me a chance to start afresh, and much evidence has shown that coding is great for creative types like me. So here goes nothing, and cheers to celebrating my willingness to try.

Brave, Not Perfect: Fear Less, Fail More, and Live Bolder. Reshma Saujani. 194 pp. 2019.

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