We are living in an age of girls’ empowerment.
Every shampoo and tampon commercial tells us so — urging girls to be themselves, stand proud and redefine what it means to be a young woman. Around the country we espouse language that encourages girls’ efforts over results; risk-taking over complacency; speaking out over keeping quiet.
But we, as women, are living out the same cycle our 12-year-old selves established decades ago: perfectionism over mistakes; playing it safe over going out on a limb; keeping quiet over using our voices. It is time we took the advice we offer our girls: just give it a shot and don’t worry what it looks like or how it turns out. We are working to develop more self-assured daughters, but we are leaving ourselves behind in the process.
Eighteen months ago, I created Dynamo Girl to help girls grow stronger, inside and out, building their confidence through sports and physical activity. In developing our philosophy, I read the work of writers like Rachel Simmons, who articulates the concept that the glass ceiling in America doesn’t begin in the corporate boardroom; rather, in Simmons’ view, it begins in the hallways, classrooms and sports fields across America. In these arenas, where girls are finding great success according to traditional measurements, they are also closing themselves into glass boxes of risk-averse perfectionism. These girls grow into women who have become so good at meeting other people’s goalposts and so petrified of setting their own, that many of them do not rise to the full heights of their professional or personal potential.
The deeper I dove into articulating my business’s mission of helping girls learn to try and fail and try again at new physical and emotional challenges, the more I recognized myself as one of these women. In order for my business to succeed I realized I would need to come face to face with risk-taking and failure and embrace what those experiences could teach me.
Throughout my life, I had never failed at anything. It was simple — if I wasn’t immediately good at something, a sport, a subject in school, an instrument, I just didn’t pursue it. I thrived in settings where the expectations were set by an authority figure, assignments were well-prescribed, success clearly defined — all the right conditions for a risk-averse person to succeed without leaving her comfort zone.
I always imagined that when I went back to work after having kids, I would execute someone else’s vision. One of my greatest skills, one honed in my years as a mother, is my ability to manage time and people efficiently and effectively. With that skill, I thought I could work anywhere, in any field. I never thought my return to the workplace would be as entrepreneur, transforming a vision in which I passionately believe from concept to reality.
When I realized that I was venturing onto the path of an entrepreneur I began to wonder: What would it mean to go back to work in that capacity? It would mean setting my own expectations of myself. It would mean no external validation via good grades, promotions or pay raises. It would mean I would try something and mess up before I would try something and succeed. It would mean facing the thing of which I am terrified – making mistakes.
In that moment, where my definition of what skills I want my Dynamos to develop converged with what I, myself, needed to learn, I realized that I was my first Dynamo Girl. I needed the advice I was going to offer these girls as much as they did. I believe that what the girls learn in their youth — risk-taking, perseverance and self-belief in the face of uncharted territory — they will carry with them into adulthood. I am garnering these skills alongside the girls, grateful they will have these critical abilities earlier than I did.
In fact, re-entering the workforce as an entrepreneur has required me to espouse my own philosophy on a daily basis: I make a mistake and try to let it go, rather than carry it around for a week. I try something new that doesn’t turn out well and approach it again in a different way. I congratulate myself on a solid effort rather than a perfect result.
Going back to work after time away involves the daunting process of writing a new resume, one that might have employment gaps and experiences that were more volunteer than paid. Will your first resume back in the game be perfect? Definitely not. Returning to the world of the employed means creating a LinkedIn profile — I was so embarrassed by not knowing anything about LinkedIn, I put it off for months, only to realize once I did it, that it wasn’t as painful as expected. Putting yourself back in the workforce may involve applying for a job and being turned down. Being rejected? Not being good enough? That is a totally frightening and uncomfortable prospect. But now I tell myself, through the experience of the last year and a half, failure is only the first step to succeeding. It’s amazing how quickly you start to adjust to not being perfect once you try on the idea.
The words my Dynamo Girls gleefully shout in class every week have become my inner voice through the peaks and valleys of the first 18 months of business. Imagine, if you can, the following “call and response” in a gym filled with 2nd grade girls:
- What happens if you make a mistake? NOTHING! GET BACK UP!
- Do we expect you to already know how to do everything? NO! JUST GIVE IT A SHOT!
- Do we expect you to be perfect? NO! TRY YOUR HARDEST!
We close every class with the following mantra: “I am a girl and I believe that my body is strong, my mind is bright and my heart is true.” And when I say it, holding hands with the girls around the circle, looking them in the eye so they know I am thinking of each of them, I am reminded that I am also talking about myself.
Vanessa Bennett is the founder of Dynamo Girl (www.dynamogirl.com), a program that builds girls’ self-esteem through sports and physical activity, and a contributor to Après, a digital recruiting platform that connects women looking to return to work with companies that want them. She lives in New York City with her husband and four children. She is currently working on how to make a mistake and not freak out.