I’ve spent my life trying to get ‘it’ right –‘it’ being anything from a new recipe for a lunch party, to a science exam, to the accessories for a new outfit…
Well, now I’m truly paying the price for my genetic vagaries, through having responsibility for the bringing up of a mini-perfectionist in the form of my young daughter.
On her first day at school each child had to draw a picture. My daughter, along with several other girls drew an intricate, carefully depicted picture of a princess. These pictures were detailed, as accurate as they were able, and coloured within the lines. On the other hand, most of the boys’ pictures were barely recognisable as anything at all. My daughter screwed up her face to her little male friend ‘what’s that?’ she asked disparagingly of the few dramatic orange lines in the middle of his piece of paper. ‘A road’ he intoned. She looked puzzled and screwed her face up at the picture for a while - ‘It’s not a road, it’s a scribble!’ she finally concluded. Laughing inside myself, I bent over and whispered in her ear: ‘you must be nice about everyone’s picture’.
Looking back now, I’m ashamed. I wish I’d instead said very loud ‘Of course it’s a road! I can clearly see it is a very fine road indeed!’ I’d made the wrong point and missed the chance to encourage her to go with the flow, to use her imagination, to allow for self-expression rather than following the rules.
Not, mind you, that I necessarily want an anarchist in the house. But we women all know that the average man (or 5 year old boy) doesn’t care as much about ‘right’. All of us have sat in meetings where men have presented information which ranges from the ill-conceived through the blatantly wrong to the laughable as indisputable fact, whilst we (generally better-informed) sit in silence or in meetings where the men give voice to questions or comments which we were thinking but didn’t say for fear of sounding stupid or wrong (and invariably someone in the room says ‘great point’. This happens every time. It’s a rule).
Annoying. And yet, let’s think about a meeting made up entirely of ‘us’. A silent affair, with intelligent, informed people busily thinking things they do not voice, where nothing is put on the table for fear of being half-baked and so we all leave as we came in: holding cake ingredients but not an actual cake.
The problem is, from a mother praising her daughter for a well-drawn princess through tidying up, to having her hair neat to school and university grades; girls learn early to get praise for getting it right. Meanwhile through natural inclination, social conditioning or both, boys get more comfortable early on with getting it wrong; with falling over, with getting dirty, with being messy, with passing off a scribble as a road.
When we hit the workplace where the schoolmarms’ rules no longer apply and we are forced to live by the rules of men, we no longer succeed by being correct, or good, or neat. Many a woman spends many a decade just getting on with excellent work, in a corner, unnoticed and undervalued because we are in the boys’ playground now and their rules apply (and the boys have far fewer rules than we would tolerate in our playground, dammit! For some reason they just don’t think that rules are fun).
There are massive advantages to getting it wrong; so many scientific discoveries from penicillin to Velcro have happened by mistake. Christopher Columbus was, after all, looking for India!
Trying to let go of getting it right is actually pretty hard: risking getting it wrong in public - mortifying. But unless we join in, and work together on that half-cooked dough the boys are throwing around whilst falling over, there won’t be cake at the party.