Normal Is Overrated: The Imperfect Guide to Resilience and Happiness

“Loving yourself as imperfect is the prerequisite to dropping the ball.”


  • How your favorite scent can help you calm down and spiral into the positive, instead of the negative
  • Why being vulnerable can actually make you stronger in relationships and at work
  • What it means to truly give yourself permission

Bonnie St. John is a Paralympic champion skier, Rhodes Scholar, and author of seven books, including most recently, Micro-Resilience. Recently, she joined Tiffany Dufu, author of Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less and catalyst-at-large in the world of women’s leadership, for a conversation on the invaluable art of bouncing back in small ways and letting go of the things you’re “supposed” to do.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full conversation, click the video below.

Tiffany: I have used [your] book, Micro-Resilience, to teach values and resiliency, and I’m really interested in how you wrote it. Why micro-resilience?

Bonnie: I wrote it because resilience has been so personal for me. I’ve had my leg amputated [since] I was five. My mother married an older man who was very sexually abusive of me and my sister. I went on to become an Olympic skier, and am the first African American to win winter Olympic medals. To imagine that you could be an Olympic skier when you’re black, to imagine you could be an athlete when you weren’t even picked on teams in high school. People say, “You skied with one leg?” I’m like, “I skied with no money, too. That’s harder.”

I’ve written different books—How Strong Women Pray is about my spiritual resilience. Live Your Joy is something I really had to learn, to live my joy, but this book, Micro-Resilience, is the culmination of the books I’ve written.

It’s a very practical book, with everything I learned, plus I researched a lot more. Since 2011, [I’ve been] testing these strategies out with real people and practicing it and finding easy ways to be more resilient right now, which means you have more energy and you can focus more on the things you love. I want to hear your favorites—which strategies have done you the most good?

Tiffany: I am prone to the amygdala hijack. This is when something happens or I’m experiencing something and I just lose my last nerve. Sometimes, I’m able to mask it, so I can smile and stuff it down and pretend like it’s not really happening, but inside I feel like I’m going to explode [and] I really do need to take a step back. I usually need to take myself out of that environment temporarily, even if it’s just going into another room and smelling my lavender oil.

“There are ways to counteract what’s physically happening, so you can stay in the driver’s seat.”

Bonnie: That is one of the physiological things. A lot of people act like emotions are imaginary, but [the amygdala hijack] is a very primitive survival reaction and things are happening in your body. There are ways to counteract what’s physically happening, so you can stay in the driver’s seat. Lavender cuts through the process that’s going on, which is releasing cortisol and adrenaline, and you can reverse those processes so that you can be more effective and less exhausted.

Tiffany: Can we talk about the body?

Bonnie: What we do on the metabolism section is really simple. A lot of this is about “How can I be less drained during the day? How can I be less exhausted?” You could exercise and you could do all those things, but you might be letting your metabolism go up and down. That’s exhausting and draining and [can] make you less resilient. You know the term “hangry?”

Tiffany: No. Is it a constant state of being hungry?

Bonnie: It’s when you get hungry, you’re more likely to be angry. When you keep your metabolism more even, it’s easier to be less hijacked, to have your brain be less exhausted. Water is the other thing we talk about. You know you probably should drink six or seven glasses of water a day, but when you’re under pressure, when you’re meeting demands, when you have five appointments in one day, that can go out the window. If I have a chapter to write in my book, if I have a proposal due, I make sure I’m taking a moment to drink water.

Tiffany: Simple. A lot of women that I interact with are overwhelmed. One of the things I really appreciated about Micro-Resilience was that there wasn’t a huge time investment.

Bonnie: They’re tiny, tiny things. It’s an interesting relationship [between Micro-Resilience and Drop the Ball.] Micro-resilience is a little bit of focusing on, “How do I support myself,” you need to make space for it, which is part of doing the work in Drop the Ball, to really prioritize that. It’s a mutual relationship.

Tiffany: What have been your “aha” moments? What has surprised you since you’ve been going around the country?

Bonnie: I find a lot of women do need to stop and give themselves permission. It’s like reading Micro-Resilience gave them permission to take care of themselves in small ways, and we needed that.

“Permission to drop the ball, permission to let go, permission to be yourself. Why do you feel like we need permission?”

Tiffany: I was at this big women’s conference and I did my session [on Drop the Ball], and then everyone let out and there was a long line to get books. There must’ve been some healing circle that formed in the middle of the line because by the time women got up to me, many of them were quite emotional and crying.

One woman came up and she had three books, and she put them on the table. She says to me, “Can I pray on you?” I said, “Of course you can pray on me.” She puts one hand on my shoulder and she puts one hand on my head and she says, “Dear heavenly Father, thank you for sending us permission.” Right? Permission to drop the ball, permission to let go, permission to be yourself. Why do you feel like we need permission?

Bonnie: There are so many pressures on us — our culture, our experience, the voice inside your head telling you, “You’re not doing it right. You have to try harder.” We talk about work-life balance and the struggles of trying to do it all and being overwhelmed, but mostly as professionals, we don’t tell each other the really bad stuff. With Drop the Ball, you talk about the messy meltdown moments that you had to reach some of these epiphanies. We’re starting to have these conversations and to be honest about some of the pain that we have from being overwhelmed.

Tiffany: You are a mother. You have a gorgeous daughter. What have you been able to instill in her in terms of micro-resilience? Because it’s one thing to write about it. It’s one thing to coach professionals about it. It’s another thing to instill some of these concepts in your kids.

“Resilience is about learning to get better at getting up.”

Bonnie: As she reads the book and gets the different ideas, she tells me ways she’s already doing them. It reinforces her good habits and helps her stretch and grow in those areas. As parents, we wish [our kids] would never fall. A lot of our energy is organized to prevent them from failing, but resilience is really teaching them to bounce back. Resilience is about learning to get better at getting up. Is that an important message in Drop The Ball, too?

Tiffany: Oh, absolutely. Even more so, relying on other people to help you get up. If you’ve been not letting other people help you, it takes time to get people used to helping you. We have to demonstrate what we’re asking of people in our lives. I couldn’t ask women to be vulnerable if I wasn’t willing to do it myself. I think that’s really important for all of us that are doing this work.

“We have to demonstrate what we’re asking of people in our lives. I couldn’t ask women to be vulnerable if I wasn’t willing to do it myself.”

Bonnie: One of the fun experiences we had on the book tour was teaching micro-resilience to little kids. We partnered with Girls On The Run and were teaching the Joy Kit, which is a First Aid Kit for your attitude, to fourth graders. Can you teach little kids about dropping the ball? I was thinking, “Wait a minute. I don’t want to teach my kids to drop the ball. I want to teach them to work hard and do things.”

Tiffany: When I talk about dropping the ball, I’m talking about releasing unrealistic expectations and getting clear about what matters most to us and engaging other people. The truth is that kids are way better at this than [adults].

Our friends at Girls Leadership tell us that, but they also are very much influenced and formed by the adults and the grownups who are around them. We can learn what it means to drop the ball so that we can be the models and help them to understand how important it is for them to thrive. People are always asking me, “What can we do in order to teach girls to be confident and to be strong and to really leverage their own voice?” I always say, “Well, we need to be confident and strong and leverage our own voice.”

“When I talk about dropping the ball, I’m talking about releasing unrealistic expectations and getting clear about what matters most to us and engaging other people.”

Bonnie: Yes. They’re not going to do it if you’re not doing it.

Tiffany: Because they’re watching us. I think it’s incredibly important, and I feel like your life and your journey is such a wonderful example, partly because you’re so accessible.

Bonnie: I’ve colored outside the lines. Drop the Ball is a lot about teaching people to set their own expectations and not have everybody else setting expectations. We can teach that to our kids.

I don’t know if it’s because I had one leg or because I’m black or because I didn’t have a lot of money, but I couldn’t live the way everybody was supposed to. I’ve colored outside the lines, probably because I never fit the lines.

“I’ve colored outside the lines, probably because I never fit the lines.”

Tiffany: It’s very interesting to hear you say that because there’s this moment at the end of Drop the Ball where I make this confession, which is that dropping the ball was easier for me because I had two privileges, and one of them was being African-American. I was racially socialized, so my parents taught me how the world really works and I was able to see myself in the context of other people. It was very easy to understand that the reason I am feeling all of this pressure is because there is some external force telling me that I should be perfect or that I should be excellent.

Bonnie: I used to confuse normal and perfect. For example, I [remember] being in the backyard with my brother kicking a soccer ball, and it kept going in a different place. I said, “I can’t do this, Wayne. I have a rubber foot and I can’t make the ball go where I want it to go.” And he said, “Bonnie, nobody can.”

Normal is overrated. I think Drop the Ball has that message, too, this idea of what we’re supposed to do is overrated. You’ve got to find your internal compass.

Tiffany: That’s it. Loving yourself as imperfect is the prerequisite to dropping the ball.