Building Resilience in a Perfectionist Learning Environment with Sara Bierenbaum

Welcome to our Learning to Learn series, where we chat with working mothers on how their own experiences at school shape who they are now at work and as parents. Today, we’re discussing resilience and perfectionist thinking with Sara Bierenbaum, a powerful customer success executive and mom to an awesome 8 year old!

Let’s get started, if you could just introduce yourself. Who are you? What do you do for fun, for work? Who’s your daughter?

Sure, I’m Sarah Bierenbaum. I live in Brooklyn, New York, and currently, I’m a customer success executive and consultant. I run my own business as a consultant for early stages in growing startups, specifically focused on helping build and grow their customer success practice and teams. I live in Brooklyn with my husband and my daughter who just turned eight. I read books and like to spend time outdoors. Trying to get back into swimming soon now that my recreational center is open again. My daughter is into rock climbing right now, so we’ve been trying to go to the gym once a week. I used to do it before I was pregnant with her, so those are some of the things that I can think of now that I actually do. 

Wonderful. How old’s your daughter?

She’s eight. She just turned eight last month.

Alright, wonderful. So she’s eight, tell me a little bit of how you were when you were eight at school? What messages did you get about yourself as a learner and as a student?

That’s like second grade right? Maybe third grade almost? When I was in elementary school I definitely got the impression from my teachers that I was smart and gifted. My school had one of those gifted and talented programs. I grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia. It wasn’t that urban. We had some tracked versions of school where some classes were more advanced than others, and I was certainly in those areas. I do remember in first grade or maybe even in kindergarten, I enjoyed that my teachers would give me extra worksheets to do and I finished things. Third grade, I had a pretty painful teacher that was painful enough for other people, that my mom made sure that my brother didn’t have her. I think that I subliminally got the message that I could succeed in getting As, even in environments where teachers were not nice to people. 

What that meant to me as a kid was I was definitely a good student. I like getting A’s, I like being rewarded. I think I was motivated by the “gold star-ness” of it all, more than I was by learning. I enjoyed math. I liked figuring out that 1+1 is 2, I liked figuring out that there was a right answer, I liked that a lot. I was always a very avid reader. I wanted to know who the people are, and what was going to happen next. So I tended to read very fast and not remember everything I read. 

I love that turn of phrase, the “gold-star-ness” of it all. If we define learning as from not being able to do something and being able to do it. How do you feel that looking for praise, or being motivated by people perceiving you as smart has impacted you as an adult or as a person in the working world?

I had a useful lesson in high school that taught me how not helpful that approach is. In high school I was able to have an extra space in my schedule so I could take an extra class at The College of William and Mary. I’d taken all the math at my school by my senior year, so I could have taken the next level of math, but I took French. I took several years of French in high school and I took a year of William-Mary, so in theory I knew a decent amount of French. My approach during that entire period had been to ace the test, and I did a good job of acting the test. Then when I got to Yale, I kept taking French. The women who ran that department were very French in the very stereotypical casting way of like, mean French ladies. They had us do these placement tests, and once you took the test, literally everyone lined up in the room and they loudly proclaimed how you did on the test in front of everybody. 

 It was horrible, I remember they said to me that in theory I should have been 2nd or 3rd year in French at this point. “We’re going to let you try the second year, but if it’s too hard for you, you can go back to the beginning, based on your performance on this test.” That was embarrassing and I was annoyed because I always valued tests as a quantitative assessment of how well I could do something. I’d trusted the test and they were probably right. They were totally right. I think it’s something that I’ve continued to have to learn in my life, but it’s been a journey for me to learn the value of trying and failing at things, as a way to learn. As opposed to getting the gold star. In life, there is no gold star, there is no finish line. The knowing of all the knowings. I think another thing that I’ve always struggled with as a learner is, I am not a good memorizer of facts.

 So as an adult, I have leaned heavily on my strength as a person and as a worker in general is my ability to either answer the question or find the answer as a researcher and a connector. That is the value I bring as opposed to that I am an encyclopedia myself and that allows me to fuel my desire to get a gold star or the right answer, and not have to be the person who always has the right answer. 

Totally. So with that, do you feel that your daughter is a similar student or different to you? Where do you see that she gets her value or self esteem from? 

It’s so hard to say. Her learning environment is so different, she goes to a pretty progressive public school in Brooklyn. They are not a “gold star” kind of environment at all. They really assess each child individually and how they are progressing as a person, which is wonderful. I think if my kid was in a “gold star” environment, she would be motivated by that. She loves getting stickers from the dentist. The places where she’s been where they’d be like, “You did a good job, here’s a star!”. She encounters so little of that in life because we have never done that either as parents. 

She has a  late birthday – November – so for kindergarten, first, and second grade she was one of the youngest in the class and this year she’s doing second grade again, and she’s one of the oldest in class. At the same time, if she had been in an environment that was more aggressively focused on gold stars or letter grade, we have seen how she struggled with confidence because she was young, and I think that could have exacerbated that meaningfully for her. As a learner, she definitely loves reading, she loves stories, creating art and things with her hands. She and I have pretty different brains. I’m very much a COO, tell me your vision and I will help you get there. She is very much a CEO, I have this vision and I’m not always sure how I’m going to get there. She’ll make these cardboard creations with boxes and tubes and she’ll say, “I’m going to make this a swimming pool.” She’ll have a vision for what she wants.

 Especially when she was very little she would get frustrated when she couldn’t make it do what she wanted to, and I could come and in say, “what if we try this.” And we would make it happen, but I am not and never have been a visionary the way that she is. I think that she thrives in environments that allow her to follow her path and march to the beat of her own drum, which is why we picked the school that we did. We knew that it would be an environment that would allow her to do that. I think I would have been a little uncomfortable in that environment, constantly asking the teacher what I need to do next to get that gold star. 

I think its interesting too that you ask,  as an adult, when I chose a graduate program and in life I have always gravitated towards situations where something exists that I can react to. There is some kind of entity where I can say, “Okay, let me come in and understand how you’re working and try to work alongside you the way that you are, and understand what’s not working and then fix that.” As opposed to “here’s the giant clean slate and make it up.” And my daughter would think that’s amazing and I would break out in hives. 

That’s cool. What messages do you try to give her and send her as she’s on this journey in this school that values the visionary part of her, when something does start to feel hard like with the building or if anything in school starts to challenge her.  

She really struggles with not being an expert immediately. She just wants to be the best at things. Her school has since kindergarten taught them phrases like, “failure is part of learning”, “mistakes are part of learning.” Etc. We definitely try to reiterate that. I always talk to her about trying. The whole point is trying. With the climbing I try to tell her that she’s supposed to fall off the wall, not carefully let go of the wall and climb down. Let herself try and fail to hit the hold and fall off. That’s the thing that’s hardest for her. 

It’s hard for most people. Especially if you’ve spent 3 years in school feeling lower confidence, younger, less capable than her classmates, her reaction has been to want to only do the things where she can be amazing. That has been the message that we have tried to communicate more regularly. Your job is to try your best. When you do make a mistake or fail, your job is to examine that and learn to do it differently next time. The other thing I was trying to figure out when we were talking is the concept of when she gets stuck and she asks for help, I as her parent generally try to help her verbally before I do anything else. When she was little she’d get stuck under this table. I’d say “how did you get there?” “Where do you want to go?” “What part of your body got stuck first?” I’d sort of walk her through before I actually moved her body. I try to do that in other stuff too.

Yeah. How do you see her working on that? What does that process look like for her? How does she react when you do help her verbally?

If she’s frustrated enough she will explode at me, “Just do it Mommy!” I’ve learned over time to spend a moment with the frustration before she tries to address the problem. “You seem really frustrated, do you want a hug?”  When we get passed that volatility of the moment, we can solve the problem. She’s receptive, there have been times when she was younger she would resist. I’ll say, “I’m happy to help you, I’m not gonna do it for you.” It’s something that I think in the end she can totally do, like dress herself. She’s old enough to dress herself and it’s clear that she just wants me to be with her. So I’m saying, “I will help you hold your pants so we can be together, but I’m not going to just dress you up like a baby.” I think sometimes that’s when she’s just feeling her feelings. 

Totally. Interesting. Is there anything that you found that has worked really well and really clicked for her? Then I’ll ask you the opposite. Anything that doesn’t work for her?

Thinking about the rock climbing example, I really only found the right words when it happened, and she finally allowed herself to try something and fell. She was doing the top rope so she fell 6 inches. She did actually fall off the wall and I immediately responded in the way that most parents respond when their kids do anything. “Oh my god, that was amazing!” I was just happy that she let herself fall. I think that the things that sometimes click the most is when it happens by accident or on purpose and you can say, “that is exactly what I’m talking about.” She’ll often be annoyed because I’ll make a big deal out of it. She says, “ahh mom stop, I’m not gonna ever do that again.”  But she will. Sometimes if I get a little too enthusiastic I won’t see the behavior again for 2 weeks, but it’s clearly received because she’s resisting it. 

We call that finding the wins. That’s great. Is there anything that you are still working on or thinking through in terms of how she perceives herself and someone who can do hard or new things?

I can be very specific about that. Her school is fantastic, but they’re not good at teaching math and so we’ve had to explore a number of different ways to foster that because its clear to me that she has an artistic CEO-engineer brain. She’s artistic and she likes to build things and she has a math brain, but because its not taught in a way that clicks with her. It’s not that it’s hard for her, they just teach it in a way that’s not interesting to her and they don’t do it everyday. She doesn’t practice it a lot. 

I guess, I would say as a parent my main struggle is around creating a structure of myself. What is enough? Literally we only just spend 5 minutes a day and that’s all that it is. The way she practices piano and it’s only 10 minutes a day. I think I struggle because she says she hates piano and it’s a fight. The things that I require tend to be the things that she then hates. I’m totally okay as a parent to say there are just some things in life that you just have to do like learn piano, in my family that’s how it is. I want her to love math but ultimately she’s going to hate it if she doesn’t have the foundation going in. Maybe the most important thing is to make sure that it’s there. Resisting that urge  

To make her love everything there are things that are just like a medicine that she has to take. 

What a great way of putting that. Interesting, cool. 5 minutes a day, that’s gotta be something. 

We have this whole beast academy thing that we got. My friend does homeschooling with her kids, it’s graded. She likes it, it’s been sitting on the shelf for a bit. I have an idea of basically making Friday afternoon as the day we read the chapter and for the rest of the week we have a bit everyday. It’s something to look forward to. It’s a comic book/math book. My friend told me about it and you can’t really see the whole thing online so I bought it. 

Wonderful, thanks for sharing all this with me Sarah. 

Of course!

Sarah is a human-centered systems optimizer – she empowers employees and teams with the specific tools, relationships, and processes necessary to flourish. Today she focuses this work in Customer Success, as an Executive and Consultant who helps early stage and growing startups scale their Customer Success organizations. She founded her consultancy, Nimble Penguin, because she believes empowered employees build the best products, the most loyal customers, and the most successful companies. Sarah has always loved school and learning, and she has learned the most, by far, from the last 8 years of parenting her incredibly curious, creative, and passionate daughter.

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