The Allure of Perfectionism

Posted | Posted in The Student Voice

This was written by a student (and friend) involved with Challenge Success. We appreciate his wlllingness to share his personal story with us.

High school was the first time where I ever saw something other than a straight line on my transcript. I was shocked. But I should have seen it coming. My entire semester of AP calculus had been a grating experience, but being the stubborn student I was, I refused to really do much about it. Although I didn’t fail the class, seeing the physical manifestation of my struggles printed on an official document was a particularly humbling experience—especially because it was in a subject that I never expected to have difficulty in. 
 
In middle school I had been placed in an accelerated algebra class with a dozen other kids under the assumption that we would all be able to thrive in advanced courses designed for students two years our senior. The first few years weren’t easy, but still reasonably challenging, and I found myself excelling in the classroom. And it all went according to schedule. That is…until the first semester of my junior year.
 
Perhaps it was the overwhelming expectations that I was holding myself to which ultimately did me in. After all, nobody was making me take the class—I thought I was doing myself a favor by throwing myself into such a rigorous academic climate. I thought that the thrill of being stretched past my limits would make me stronger. And although I didn’t know exactly what ultimate goal I had in mind for myself, I gravitated towards the hardest classes and tried to get the best grades. Not really to quench a thirst for knowledge, but rather to see it all add up on paper, to go beyond excellence—to be perfect.
 
But the inherent paradox in “perfectionism” is that by its very definition, it promises a state of flawlessness which can never be obtained. Had I approached the class (or perhaps its less-rigorous equivalent) with a more realistic mindset, and not with the expectation that utterly brilliant formulas would spout out of my pen every time it touched paper, maybe it would not have become so overwhelming. At the same time, it is important not to confuse “perfectionism” with the pursuit of excellence that every person should be striving for. It is always in your best interest to be trying your hardest, but it is equally important to reconcile the fact that although “hardest” may look different for everybody, it never means “perfect.”
 
Episodes of failure are just as important as those of success. My struggles with high-level math pushed me outside of my comfort zone and forced me to think of new ways of coping that were invaluable later in my high school career and also in college. Once I had accepted my limitations, I asked my teacher for help, I formed study groups with my friends; I formulated new ways of studying which made profound differences down the road. Embracing disaster was difficult, and coming to terms with my personal flaws was even more so. However, it was far better to learn and move on, than to live with the crushing frustration that inevitably accompanies striving to attain the impossible.