My Perfectly Imperfect Life!

The astrologer looked at me grimly and announced, “beti (daughter), “You do not have a ‘cookie cutter’ life”.
That’s awesome I thought! A life that’s not ordinary; but extra ordinary.

The man draped in rudraksh beads, perfumed with sandalwood and draped in soft cream khadi clothing, looked at me with a concerned expression, “Nahi beti, it’s not good. You don’t have a ‘normal’ life”

Asians love guidance from astrology. I too love reading my horoscope; it’s prophetic, poetic, provides warning, hope and helps deal with uncertainties in life; protect us from failures.

I always find the astrology predictions open to many interpretations; exclusive, mutually exclusive and exhaustive.  Astrologers express predictions in a way that positions a disclaimer clause that mitigates risk from all likely outcomes!

My take in life is that horoscopes are not written in stone – situations and failures may arise, but whether they result in success or disaster, is really up to us. It’s our interpretation, our call as to whether we want to be ‘victim’ or ‘victorious’.

What is a ‘cookie cutter’ life anyway?

What makes a life ‘normal’?

What makes a life ‘good’ versus ‘bad’, successful versus not successful?

Who sets these rules, boundaries and definitions?

As soon as life is conceived, we pray for a ‘normal’ child.

We follow the books for markers of ‘normal’ development.

Then comes the measure of a ‘good’ student with ‘good’ grades.

If these are the rules for a ‘Perfectly Ordinary’ life, then I was on course – well almost. Teachers throughout my schooling complained that I talked a lot in class and was a distraction!

But is it a ‘bad’ thing to be distracting?

In business ‘distracting’ is often seen as ‘notice worthy’, and ‘different’ is seen as  ‘unique’. Advertising campaigns that break away from the ‘same old, same old’ mold get the most ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ on social media. Why, then in life do we aim for ‘stereotypical’ and ‘ordinary’?

As parents, we invest heavily with time effort and money to build extrovert and confident children; shying away from having introvert children.

I was born into an environment that raised me as a confident child. I am the youngest and only daughter amongst a family of two elder brothers - one five years older, and the other eight years older than me. Though we were a middle class family, I was literally raised with a silver spoon in my mouth – mum always insisted we eat using silver cutlery! Much to my mother’s disgust, I was often found knee deep in ‘galli’ (street) sewerage, using the same silver cutlery to clean out the street gutters. Mum and my ‘amma’ (the lady who was my care taker and is still part of our family home in Delhi) endured my antics with patience and love.

I was a natural born performer – from an early age, participated with ease as lead roles in school plays. I loved dancing and singing (still do), and all guests in our family home were tortured thru my spontaneous “Aaya Basant Dekho Aaya” song and dance performances. They of course received the cute, chubby, full of enthusiasm, little girl with open hearts. With belief and passion in my heart, I would dance confidently in my big, little world.  

Without a care in the world, I danced in ‘barat’ (wedding) processions of strangers. I would also ‘gate-crash’ wedding parties of strangers - my brothers used my cuteness and braveness to their advantage. They would dress me up in my best party outfit and send me into the parties hosted at the big park across from our Delhi based house on Hanuman Road in Connaught Place. I was instructed to return from the wedding party with wedding feast delights like kulfi and paan!

Power, Position, People, Presenting did not scare me.

For me, leadership was not an appointed role, but a way of being that resonated; a sense of confidence that influences and creates a following.

At my pre-school entrance interview in India, the strict headmistress, with her tight hair bun, round black spectacles, crisp cotton saree and an expressionless face, looked at the six year old me, and started her interview question, “Do you know why you are here”? I climbed into the big chair, facing the chair, like climbing over a fence, turned over to sit on my bottom, straightened my dress across my thighs, looked up into her eyes, smiled at her with my ‘India Gate’ smile with my front two teeth missing, and replied, “Yes, I am here to interview you”. Her stern look was shattered as she broke out in laughter, easing my nervous mum.

I oscillated with ease between being ‘one of the boys’, playing rough games and climbing trees, and being a ‘gentle and nurturing girl’, playing ‘ghar ghar’, (home maker and hostess). My perfect home and play kitchen was set up under the cooler vent that jutted out from the house window. I further tortured family and friends with my 5-layer cakes, make from bread slices and creamed ‘Glucose-D’ biscuits with water.  They were extremely kind and ate (pretending) to smack their lips with delight. They must have found it rather heavy as no one could ever manage a second helping!

I mothered my ‘picture perfect’ dolls; who must have been the Courageiest dolls in the world. They were the only dolls in our neighborhood to have their own lavish birthday parties, and one even had a gala wedding. The groom came in a big ‘barat’ (groom’s wedding procession), supported by friends from the ‘gali’ (street). I annulled the marriage later, when the guy who owned the groom doll wanted to take my ‘bride’ doll away as part of the ‘doli’ ceremony (bidding farewell to the bride)! I was not going to give her away, instead wanted to keep the groom doll!

My mum, though working full time, entertained and supported my ‘uniqueness’.

We shifted to Melbourne when I was nine years of age – my ‘tooti phooti’ English (poor grasp of English), did not phase me. I confidently tried to engage in my Hindi-English dialect – the world will and should understand me, and surprisingly, they did.

In retrospect, I was by no means the most popular kid during school; nor the least – I was average.

I was by no means the prettiest; nor the least. I was average.

I was not the tallest or fattest; though I always was on the bigger side. I was average.

Nor was I the most academically inclined; though during the high school scholarship process, I was one of the twelve to have received a special mention as a runner up.

I was happy being the average.

In Melbourne, as an Indian and as a Sikh, I did experience the rare occasion of taunting for my hairy legs, but it was compensated by the compliments I received for my long silky straight hair - both a legacy of being Sikh. I once received a racist comment whilst traveling home from school on the bus, “you piece of burnt toast move away”, he screamed at me, to which I retorted “what’s your problem you piece of processed cheddar”, leaving us both in laughter and a cordial relationship thereafter. Social pressures to fit in had not been part of my vocabulary or way of being.

My year 12 results too were average. My personality continued to shine in university – I continued to dance and do performances, and take risks (within the protected boundaries set by my strict family of mother, father, two elder brothers and a sis in law!). Any dare and I would step right up! My motto was “to be the best of my best”.

I was satisfied with complacency of floating along with my average ‘cookie cutter life”.

Life continued it’s perfectly ordinary existence.

Towards the middle of first year at university, I met my ‘to be’ husband.

We dated secretly for two years and fell in love. Aged 20 years, and still in final year university, I was determined to get married to my 21 year old boyfriend. We were the first ‘big Punjabi’ wedding in Melbourne – with white horse and all for the groom. We had shattered the society’s norms – secretly dating, love marriage, still studying and not even of full adult age per some legal systems, where 21 years and above is defined as an adult.

Family and friends were split in their genuine celebration of the marriage. Some felt it was a marriage made in heaven and some felt it was the making of a disastrous tale – “She must be pregnant”, they exclaimed. “It won’t last”. “They will ruin their studies, career, success and future.”

We had failed per society’s norms; I was no longer part of the ordinary existence.

It was the first time in my life, till then, I had heard society’s judgment for ‘stepping out’ of the ‘ordinary cookie cutter life’ – for failing.

I have extremely supporting in laws, and under their blessing, I stood strong, adamant to succeed in studies, career and marriage. But something inside me had changed. I now aspired to prove success – not my success, but success per society’s definition, so I could overcome the failure they had predicted for us.

Overnight, my university grades shifted from ‘B’ grade average, to perfect ‘A’ grade.

I strived to be, and was, the perfect daughter in law and wife.

Whilst still in university, I worked multiple part time jobs to achieve financial freedom, and later thru career success.

Five years after being married, and six months after our first child was born, I started studying my MBA, and completed the studies when my second child was one year of age. I was a perfect being - balanced studies, rearing children with sleepless nights, breast feeding fully for 14 months for each child, domestic goddess, cooking and playing host to many dinner parties at home, social butterfly, daughter in law, daughter, and even started my own small jewellery business where I hand made each item.

I completed my MBA studies with an 80 percent average. Perfect ‘A’!

Per society’s terms, I was a success and I strived to maintain that success; not slide into judgments of failure. I aimed to please; and please others I continued to do.

My career continued to succeed per goals I had set for myself.

Perfection had taken over my life – I strived and society acknowledged.

I lived to please others; but I had in fact robbed myself of ‘my unique identity’.

I was burnt out and in fact the first symptoms of the ‘perfectionist syndrome’ had started showing up – despite having it all, per society’s markers of the ‘ordinary cookie cutter life’, I felt lost. I should have been grateful, but I was unhappy and dissatisfied, with no ability to articulate why.

Was this a mid life crisis or was I just bored?

Maybe I just needed to be more mentally active and engaged thru greater focus on career?

We shifted to Singapore, and I busied myself settling in – family, socially and to look for a job. With domestic help available, I no longer needed to be as active in domestic duties. I continued to carve my new identity for success – advance my career. I strived to be the perfect powerhouse career woman that balanced the perfect home.  I succeeded. Within a month I had my first job and I busied myself learning the ropes of working in a foreign culture. Within 6 months I had my Couragey break that helped my career fly over the coming many years. I traveled extensively, pushing myself to success with promotions and remuneration increases.

I made many sacrifices to have this perfect career growth – missing children’s school functions, parent coffee sessions, lunch sessions with girlfriends, visiting my parents and in laws regularly (feeling guilty I could not schedule in breaks longer than four days), birthdays, anniversaries, public holidays, personal time, my love of singing and dancing, my hobbies of sewing, painting, making jewellery and my fitness.

Chasing perfection; to achieve success and stay away from failure had made me a person of ‘extremes’. I would either do two hundred percent or nothing at all. Two hundred percent in work often meant little time for pursuing my all rounder activities that gave me happiness and peace. Exercise too fell onto the back burner due to my ‘extreme’ ways – I did not have time to regularly pursue a 90-minute session, five times a week, so I did nothing. To do less than the extreme meant ‘failure’, and doing nothing meant I could not be judged. It was a weird oxymoron that meant I missed out on my balance in life.

The second symptom of the ‘perfectionist syndrome’ had started showing up – Without any clarity on my desired goal, I chased society’s goal markers of success; oblivious to whether I wanted it or not. My confidence had plummeted to please others and focus on what they thought, instead of what I felt. I continued to fear failure, and now was also bitter towards feedback. Feedback to me was a sign that I was failing and not good enough; not ‘perfect’.

My boss at work often said, “Sharn you don’t have to try so hard”. I heard his feedback as criticism, that I was not doing it right. Any feedback, whether constructive or not, left me shattered and I pushed aggressively to try harder to progress in my career. I had now developed the third symptom of ‘perfectionism syndrome’ – ‘the imposter syndrome’.  Instead of viewing feedback as an opportunity to grow and improve, I now felt I was not capable enough. Worried my lack of competence would show up and prove me a ‘fraud’; I pushed harder and put in more time to achieve greater. I was now chasing a career goal, one which I had lost account of what actually was my objective.

Soon the fourth symptom of ‘perfectionist syndrome’ raised its ugly head. I was feeling low in mood, over weight and lacked energy. I had developed pituitary tumor – a tumor on the pituitary gland; the gland positioned in center of the temple that manages the optimal function of hormones in our body. Not recognizing this as a ‘warning sign’ I was adamant to work harder and not allow health concerns to hold me back. Being vulnerable was not for me! With medication I became better, but chasing perfection and success, I was like the duck that glided above the water’s surface but paddled extremely hard below the water’s surface.

My lack of belief in myself had created such stress in my body that it resulted in illness. I developed adrenal fatigue and hypo thyroid. More medications and tests helped me function to continue to push ahead to succeed.

Not happy with the wait I had to endure for my next promotion, I decided to change jobs. In my new role, I was responsible for setting up the APAC operations – this also meant working remotely from the daily interaction and supervision from bosses based in US and Europe. It was a life changing experience. I was away from daily judgment, and the accountability of the corporate office eyes. It was a challenging time initially – whilst I did not receive feedback that made me feel like a failure, I also did not receive constant praise. Praise and validation had become like an addiction to fuel the low self-belief; that had resulted from the constant chase of perfection to appease others. I now had to motivate my self, as I was only accountable to myself. I stopped living for others and started living for what was right for me – my own terms and not to ‘be the best for others’.

First I gave up seeking perfection – it liberated me at work – I would do my best but not kill myself; to ‘be the best of my best’ again.

I have many hobbies and passions – but core to me was being a domestic goddess. But, I no longer stressed to keep my home in perfect order and full of fresh flowers, in case any one dropped in unexpectedly, but to fill it with flowers when I felt like it, and to create order when the chaos felt non functional.

I love to cook and experiment with cooking – an area of my life where feedback and failure had never shattered me to seek perfection for others. I cooked for and fed family and friends from my heart and I continued my passion of cooking.

I was blessed with the opportunity to have my own cooking show on TV – a dream come true. I jumped into the opportunity without thought of what people would say. I received my fair share of praise and accolades and disgruntled remarks of comparison too. But I did not feel the pangs of judgment; this was something I was doing for myself and I felt extremely grateful for the opportunity. You could say my ‘non cookie cutter life’ had started.

I have to say at times with the remarks of judgment and comparison for my cooking, I did sometimes wonder if “I was a fraud”, “could I really cook well enough to deserve my own cooking show”, but I reminded myself that I believed in my cooking. It was an expression of my love and love does not need to be perfect. We are all unique, and this was my own unique style, not open to comparison and judgment. I received the feedback with open arms. Using it for what I thought made sense to grow my self, and ignoring what I thought would not improve my cooking; without feeling any emotional or personal criticism or judgment.

I took up meditation and started living life in the moment – mindfulness. I let go of my life of extremes  - I no longer looked for 90-minute gym sessions five times a week, but 30 to 40 minute sessions two to three times a week were enough.

I learned how to worry more about how I felt and less about what “others, people and society’ may think. I let go the need to please, perform and perfect. I was content with ‘enough’. I started to set for myself realistic goals – not extremes. I started achieving more – succeeding more.

It was a stage in my life that took me back to my childhood self – my carefree approach to believe in myself, curiosity to throw myself into the deep end without fear of failure and feedback; not bound by ‘perfectionism’.

Liberated I felt a deep desire to re-assess my definition of success – not just in career, but also family, marriage, children, friends, health, exercise, fun and spirituality.

What will make me feel peace and happiness? What makes me feel fully engaged? What do I want to do that will make me feel like I am making a difference?

Self-confidence is an essential part of happiness and success; we become more willing to ‘step up’ to take risks, feel more positive about our future and move forward to achieve our goals. Being confident means we have the internal belief that we are competent in what we can do, explore new skills and believe we deserve to be happy.

Low confidence, results from society’s judgments about our successes and failures. This is a mental disease that compromises our growth; limiting it with our defensive approach to feedback and failure, and sadly compromises not just our peace and happiness, but wellbeing too.

We must stop our inner critical voice that says, "I can't do that," "I will surely fail", "I have to prove them wrong”.

Instead we must say to ourselves, "I am going to try it," "I can be successful if I work at it", “I will do this because I want to do it”.

Be comfortable with fear, failure and uncertainty. Failure and mistakes are not the opposite of success, but a journey to success thru learning and growth.

Maintain a balance in life and create realistic and achievable goals instead of striving to achieve extremes in anything.

Focus on your talents – your talents are unique to you and not to be compared with others. Give yourself permission to take pride in your uniqueness. Aim to ‘be the best of your best’; continuously improving but not striving for perfection. Perfection stunts our growth as we believe there is no more to learn thereafter – but we are a continuous work-in-progress.

Stop holding yourself prisoner to judgments and failures of your past. You are no longer the person of yesterday. The world may still judge, but you are in control of your future success and happiness. Be grateful for your life and don’t judge yourself. Belonging yourself; don’t wait to be loved.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Now, I feel joyful and free – my inner critical voice does surface every now and then, but I hush her back to sleep, to reclaim my worthiness; to feel be loved, regardless of my failures and imperfections. I continue to believe on ‘to be the best of my best’, as my way of living life. This liberation has set me free to realize I can and do make a difference – I started my own business. {embrace} worldwide, to champion women and leaders for greater happiness, confidence and success; to ‘help others become the best of their best’.

My five mottos in life:

  1. “Stars shine thru darkness” – embrace your failures as success
  2. “Nirbhau” – scripture from Sikhism that means ‘without fear’
  3. “Believe” – in yourself and others without judgment
  4. “Be Positive” – Stay positive and grateful and stay away from comparisons.
  5. “Keep Dancing” – Spread Happiness & Belonging

Surely success is not in living the ‘ordinary’, ‘same old, same old’, ‘cookie cutter’, ‘perfect’ life, based on society’s norms of success, but in living an ‘extraordinary’ and meaningful life; the non ‘cookie cutter’, perfectly imperfect life.

Yup, mine is not the ‘cookie cutter’ life, but more like a luscious cup cake with a cherry on top ;-)