TIME feminism

Dear (Female) Grads: You’ve Learned How to Be Perfect. Now Change

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Jamie Grill—Getty Images

The real world, you see, requires an entirely different skill set, one the guys have been busy mastering

Congratulations, ladies. Many of you are or will soon be gliding across the stage to receive your hard-earned bachelor’s degrees — 25% more of you will earn one than your young male counterparts, by the way. The knowledge you’ve acquired is impressive. You’ve aced exams and turned in practically perfect papers. You are justifiably proud of your elegant Spanish subjunctives and facility with algorithms. You’ve learned to play by the rules, to impress, to please and to be well liked. For 15 years you’ve dominated the classroom.

Now take everything you’ve been taught and forget it. The real world, you see, requires an entirely different skill set. It’s a shame that nobody warned you.

The metric that matters now is the one the guys have been busy mastering. You’ve seen it — the one governing all that unruly behavior on the sidelines of your winning game. It’s a style that involves breaking rules, ignoring insults, letting mistakes roll off of backs and moving forward with half-finished reports and imperfect work. It’s the sort of behavior you’ve all but ignored. But pay close attention now, because your new reality will reward risk taking and failure more than perfection. It will celebrate action, even of the messy sort, over inaction. And it will demand confidence at least as much as competence. All of that good-girl behavior that got you to this impressive summit doesn’t breed success in the rough-and-tumble of professional life.

Carol Dweck, the Stanford psychologist and best-selling author of Mindset, puts this paradox to us bluntly: “If life were one long grade school, women would rule the world.”

The classroom, she explains, is our ideal habitat, at least for now. Rules and expectations are clear. Orderly, considerate behavior is valued. Mistakes and failure — not so much. And look at the data. We thrive in academia. We get more degrees than men, more postgraduate degrees and, now, even more Ph.D.s. But somewhere between the classroom and the cubicle, the rules change and women don’t fare so well.

Your mothers, like the two of us, learned this lesson the hard way, watching the guys around them rise to the top — seemingly on a wave of bravado that had little to do with diligence or ability. They and we didn’t realize that sometimes just joining the fray — taking chances, imperfectly or not — was as critical to winning the corner office as ability and hard work.

So, in the interest of teaching all of you what it took us far too long to realize, we’re done congratulating you. We’re not going to tell you that you’re terrific, or that you just need to believe in yourself and everything will turn out well because you are so perfect.

Instead, here’s some unvarnished advice on what it really takes to succeed in the professional world you are about to enter.

1. Drive a stake through perfection. This is going to be a hard addiction to break, so start small. In professional life, getting something done is substantially more critical than getting it perfect, and output really matters. The more time you spend focusing on dotting every i or crossing every t, the more likely you are to miss opportunities.

2. Do more, think less. This will flow naturally from doing away with perfection. The more we think and ruminate and consider and analyze, the less likely we are to act. Soon we’ll see our colleagues have already floated three ideas while we’ve been busy stewing. When in doubt, act.

3. Fail fast. This is the natural consequence of Nos. 1 and 2. And yes, ladies, failure is a good thing. When you aren’t worried about being perfect anymore, you can act and take risks, and that will mean failure. Failing fast is new techie buzz phrase — and one that’s extremely useful for us because it’s an easier way to see failure as success. The thinking is that the world is moving too fast to spend years on the perfect prototype. Test-drive ideas, fail, learn and move on. Look for strategic risks. All of this builds confidence.

4. Toughen your hide. Hillary Clinton recently advised young women to take a leaf from the male playbook and grow the skin of a rhinoceros. Not attractive, but spot on. She was referring to the insidious female habit of clinging to criticism. Let it go. Your boss/friend/colleague is not still thinking about that email or comment or performance five days later. Nor should you be. Try this reframing: Isn’t it slightly egotistical to think you and your foibles are top of mind for everyone? Or this one: When you start to feel emotional — teary, angry, whatever it is — use those feelings not as a jumping-off point for rumination but for action.

5. Nudge, don’t soothe. Don’t just give your friends a warm shoulder to lean on. Women are masters at providing sympathy and support. But too much listening can encourage pointless rumination. And often we avoid telling friends the truths that would really help them overcome bouts of self-doubt and find more fulfillment. Encourage them to be bold or take risks or ask for a promotion or just stop dwelling. Be frank. You can help your friend’s confidence more by giving her a tough, well-pointed nudge than by endlessly telling her she’s fabulous just as she is. Insist she do the same for you.

6. You don’t have to be a jerk to be confident. Now that we’ve asked you to learn all these new skills, we want to reassure you — you can do it all without being a jerk. Many women see male confidence as Mad Men–style swagger and just know it won’t fit. The two of us know from experience that when we act like men, it rarely works. And we’re not just talking about all the studies that show women are penalized for being too aggressive. That’s still true, but it’s changing. The fact is, we must be comfortable with our display of confidence. So raise your hand, sit at the table, apply for that job that’s a bit out of reach, but don’t lose those qualities that make you uniquely female and uniquely valuable. Listen, conciliate, negotiate, collaborate, include. Those are powerful qualities in today’s workplace when employed with purpose. As Christine Lagarde told us, be authentic — dare the difference.

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman are the authors of the New York Times best seller The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know. Kay is the anchor of BBC World News America, based in Washington. She is also a frequent contributor to Meet the Press and Morning Joe and a regular guest host on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show. Shipman is a regular contributor to Good Morning America and other national broadcasts for ABC News. She joined the morning broadcast in May 2001 and is based in the network’s Washington bureau.

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