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April 10, 2011 / missmarymax

Better than Perfect: How Geekery Pwn’d Perfectionism.

So, I decided to write a short series on perfectionism – addressing the various costumes that beast wears as she tries to hijack my life.  Hilariously–by which I mean, I presume this will be funny in another week or so–I’ve been struggling to finish and post this installment – because I can’t get past the notion that it’s one more in a string of self-helpy, philosophical posts (which, let’s face it, are so much less effective at convincing you I have the right to exist then other things I could write.)

Because clearly the whole point of blogging is to convince you not to have me assassinated.

This kind of thinking—the attempt to negotiate which face you’ll like best and then to wear it at all times—underscores for me the extent to which perfectionism is not merely behavioral.  We tend to think of it that way, as the frantic pursuit of the next A+, the next 4.0, next gold star.  But at its heart (to the extent that it has one), perfectionism is ideological.  It’s a perspective that says, “I have to earn my right to be alive. I have to convince people I deserve to be here. I have to compete for the incredibly scarce amounts of love and support and security that are available, and if I fail—even once—to convince someone I’m good enough, I will cease to be.  Cease to be good enough.  And cease to be, full-stop.”

This is the perspective that keeps me spinning, desperately seeking absolution for every perceived failure, fiending for the 110% I equate with “average,” perpetually uncomfortable with rest.

It’s a perspective that’s most obvious in my experiences with school. 

I like to think that taking a semester off in high school, when semesters off are unheard of, fundamentally altered my relationship to learning.  And in some ways, it did.  Before my hospitalization at 16, I don’t think I could have imagined a world in which the A was not the most important thing, even though I was routinely not turning work in (because it wasn’t good enough or because I was too sick and tired and sickandtired to try).  When I understood that my health could –in fact, had to—come before school, the all-important As began to deflate, leaked of their seemingly inherent power.  There were more important things than school–and one of those things was me. 

I started college with this perspective, but still tripped up in old habits and continuing anxieties.  Still, as I stumbled and soared my way through undergrad, I discovered something shocking, something that – if I’d ever known it—I’d long since forgotten.  I discovered that I was extraordinary. Smart.  Insightful.  Rare.  As a kid, I had written off my academic abilities, thinking As were nothing to be proud of, that – essentially – school was a game at which I excelled because I was a people-pleaser.  My brothers, whose creativity and ability to think outside the box landed them both detentions and Ds, were the true heroes of academia, the true geniuses. I was a yes-man with a decent ability to retain and regurgitate. A suck-up of unprecedented proportions.  They were something greater than the highest A.

When I entered college, my faith in my ability to excel—even at the useless game of Straight As—was completely shaken.  I’d been out of school six years and expected very little.  When, during my first semester, my papers earned comments like, “Are you sure you’re not a grad student?” I was equal parts shocked and pleased.  Still I assumed I was just good at writing, good at the game,–nothing special, really.

Junior year, having defined my identity on campus in new and exciting ways—as a student leader, an organizer, an activist—I nevertheless broke down in my advisor’s office one afternoon, after receiving an A- on an essay.  It wasn’t the lowest grade I’d gotten in college (nor was it my best essay), and I knew, rationally, that my reaction was entirely unwarranted.  I sat there, crying, and explaining how ridiculous it was that I was crying. Simultaneously devastated and rolling my eyes at that response.

I explained to her later what it came down to for me: I was so excited to feel singled out for my abilities as a student, to finally understand that I had something to offer.  I liked getting essays back with paragraphs of constructive praise, being pulled aside and told I made our tiny college feel Ivy League, seeing professors light up at the opportunity to actually teach (me).  For perhaps the first time in my life, I was allowing the positive feedback I received to—how do I put this— sink in, and “slips” (like this A-) made that all feel so tenuous.  I was terrified to lose something so meaningful and only so newly gained.

And then the shocker:  My advisor, my professor, mind you, replied: Mary.  Your ability to get As is not what makes you a good student.

…I’m sorry, what?

Because clearly, good students get As.  This is absolutely elementary for me.  Before I learned my times-tables, or my cursive alphabet, or my state capitals, I knew that my ability to get As on all three of these tests made me a good student.  By college, the mind-boggling affirmations I received from my professors went hand in hand with the As on my semester grade reports.  It’s not that I thought professors liked grade-grubbers or suck-ups or (frankly) perfectionists.  I’d just assumed, for years, that being a “good student” meant being good at the game, at following the rules, breaking the curves, and making the grades. (Maybe with a bit of self-deprecation thrown in to curb the sense one was tryig too hard.)  But if not that—what?  What made me a good student?

The list my advisor gave me was far removed from any I could have made.  It included things like my tendency to compare studies between classes.  To keep thinking about a topic after a class—or course—had ended.  It included the e-mails I sent covertly to instructors, linking radio stories or blog posts that brought up new perspectives on information we’d discussed.  The time I stayed after class and drew Venn Diagrams with a professor as an alternative to a timeline he’d offered.  The mix tape I handed my Psych of Women professor at the semester’s end– a soundtrack I’d made to her syllabus.

Just remembering those things makes me smile.  They reveal why “academic” is a core part of my personality; they help explain why I want to be a professor when I grow up.  But as the explanation of why I’m a great student, they floor me.   These things aren’t me being good.  They’re just me being a geek.  They’re just me being me, being the person I can’t help being.  These things require no effort; in fact…these things…are fun.

This is the limitation placed by perfectionism on my experiences, academic and otherwise.  The total inability to realize that my ability to succeed in the system (of someone else’s rules) is not what makes me special. The notion that my identity, the way I approach life when I’m not attempting to prove anything, the things I bring to the table when I quit—even for a moment—to try and prove myself—are actually the most I have to offer.

Trying to be the perfect student (or the perfect employee, or the perfect blogger), I exhaust my ability to be myself.  I fence in the space of creativity, my ability to examine what I might learn, express, offer—if I weren’t trying to keep in line with a pre-selected script of what is expected, right.  Some of my best work, as it turns out, comes in the moments when I decide to just let it go, just do, just be.  I get about as many accolades when I kick perfectionism to the curb as I do when I let it run my life.  But I get them for different reasons.  The A on the paper becomes less about my ability to write 9 pages without a single passive verb and more about what I actually have to say.  I don’t have any less to offer.  As it turns out, my world—and self—are actually much bigger when I give them the room of imperfection. 

I don’t quit working when I kick perfectionism to the curb; I just work differently.  I pull all-nighters only when I’m too excited by an impending discovery to sleep.  I do not burn out.  Perfectionism is the trudge to nowhere on a stationary bike, its absence a ride through the park.  Without the burden, I fly down hills, around curves.  Surf the breeze.

I begin exploring questions simply to explore.  And as I trade desperation for what Melissa recently called that “hungry curiosity,” I learn and re-learn the bonus lesson: I have so much more to offer when I stop trying to prove I have enough.

When I let go of the rulers and levels and blueprints of perfection, I discover–for starters–that I’ve two very capable hands.  Busy, and messy, and covered in paint.



Leave a Comment
  1. Christine / Apr 10 2011 7:45 pm

    Another jewel, lady. 🙂 Love you.

  2. Ily / Apr 10 2011 7:53 pm

    Not feeling very eloquent at the moment, but as an epic perfectionist, I’m looking forward to the rest of your series. Thinking to myself, “I’d better stop being a perfectionist and just freakin’ post this blog comment!”, I started wondering about the relationship between perfectionism and technology. Like maintaining a “persona” online, having many more people with which to compare yourself…stuff like that.


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