Op-Ed: An Ode to Being a Beginner

Society teaches women to aspire for perfection or nothing at all. The solution? Graciousness and bravery.

My freshman year of college, a boy with floppy hair down the hall convinced me to buy a cheap snowboard off of Craigslist, promising he would teach me how to shred. After one of the most painful days on snow of my life (I grew up skiing), I threw the board with a huff into the Goodwill pile and fumed at myself for failing after just one attempt.

I went back to skiing because I knew I would succeed.

Throughout a lifetime of  outdoor endeavors, many adventure partners have confronted me about being too hard on myself after only a few attempts at a new skill. Oftentimes, it seems less risky to quit rather than visibly fail. It may be that I bail dropping into a couloir or choose the less-steep side of a back bowl. Sometimes I avoid hiking a fourteener with a group, citing errands or other plans, because it’s been awhile and I don’t want them to see me huff and puff the last mile. Then, there are the times when I’m at the crag and predict I’ll struggle up a route, so I quickly divert direction to the next line over that looks much more manageable. Or the trail runs I’ve cut short because I’m tired or in a hurry—and I’m alone, so no one will notice.  

It’s the tiny question that lurks in the back of our heads: Will I be good enough?

There have been a thousand hobbies, climbs, and trails that I’ve wanted to attempt and never did because I hated the thought of being “in progress.” I can recall plenty of times I’ve not attempted a route because I assumed I wouldn’t reach the top or cautiously screened my hiking companions, comparing their pace to my own, always afraid of holding others back. I can remember tumbling down a ski line behind two male friends and spending the rest of the day beating myself up for my tearful flip down the bowl after catching an edge.

Don’t go if you’re going to show weakness is the mantra that often runs through my head. Perhaps it is the fear that my incompetence will be “outed,” and I will be ridiculed. Often, it can be the simplest overheard snippet from a critic.  Am I really cut out for all of this? It’s the tiny question that lurks in the back of our heads: Will I be good enough? What happens if not?

Increasingly, research suggests that this drive for perfection was bred into me as a female. Reshma Saujani, the founder of the tech organization, Girls Who Code, argues that women are socialized to be perfect rather than brave. In studies cited, girls with higher IQs at a fifth-grade level outperformed boys in every subject, but when presented with a problem they could not solve, they gave up much faster. Saujani also cites a study where, on average, men apply to jobs in which they fit 60 percent of the requirements whereas women usually apply only if they feel that they fulfill 100 percent of them. Saujani’s conclusion: “Women have been socialized to aspire to perfection and they’ve become overly cautious.”

So, what’s the solution? In short: Graciousness and bravery.

Many female adventurers remember the trepidation of venturing out amongst male counterparts, never wanting to feel like the girl who couldn’t keep up. Even worse, we’re tempted to compare ourselves to each other, wondering who climbs harder, hikes farther, and runs faster. Often, it seems easier to fade into the background or not attempt something above our skill levels because we don’t want to seem like beginners. We expect ourselves to simply arrive and know exactly what we’re doing.

But we cheat ourselves out of so much when we do this. I’m finding as I get older, graciousness and bravery are a powerful combination that can help us overcome our fear of failure. You leap out on the ledge, fail, and graciously, happily, pull yourself back up again.

If we provide women with fearless and supportive communities, the possibilities are limitless.

Saujani created Girls Who Code to teach women to code and be brave—how might we do this in the outdoor community? If we provide women with fearless and supportive communities, the possibilities are limitless. We nudge each other toward risk and failure, providing strategies and beta, and remind each other that we will be loved and accepted regardless of whether we are perfect. Sow bravery. Cultivate the trying, the progress, the “you’ll get it next time,” the “we’ll get there when we get there.” Having women enthusiastically agree to teach you a new sport and cheer you on as you stumble your way through the awkward stages is important.

A woman who is comfortable with her imperfections and able to leverage them is a powerful force. By asking questions, showing progress, and refusing to buy into the crush-it-or-bust mentality, we can begin to open up and allow ourselves the graciousness to fail. This, in fact, may be harder and braver than any trail, climb, or rapid we could attempt. Thankfully, we don’t have to do it alone.

This post is part of a series about women in the outdoors by the Outdoor Women's Alliance.