On Perfectionism

I sent out my graduation announcements last week, & now I'm feeling all sorts of nostalgic.

What a sweet five years it's been! I am so thankful for the English and Religious Studies Departments at Cal Poly for teaching me what it means to be tenacious and purpose driven but gracious, gentle, and kind. What a gift it has been to know and be known by this community of brilliant, open-hearted people.  

Of course, it wasn't always peachy. Peppered among the joyful moments and rich friendships were stress tears, quarter-life crises, and heartbreaks. But most consuming was the perfectionism that seeped into every inch of my life during my last year of college. 

Before I fully grappled with perfectionism myself, I had a hard time taking seriously any person who claimed to be a “perfectionist.” Wasn’t that just a dramatic way to say that someone puts effort into their life? And didn’t it seem a little… pretentious? I felt that nestled in the word “perfectionist” was a self-righteous claim that the person in question produced flawless work or lived a perfect life. But as perfectionism gained a firm grip on my life during my last year of college, I realized just how serious and harmful that mindset can be. 

Let’s turn back the clock two months. 

It’s the middle of March at 3:00am on a Tuesday morning, and finals are quickly approaching. I’m sitting crosslegged on the floor, surrounded by thick literature anthologies and miscellaneous stacks of paper. The town is trudging through a heat wave, so my windows are flung open in the attempt to coax a sea breeze inside. But instead, my studio is filled with stale, hot air. I've stripped down to my skivvies with a fan pointed at my face and my chin propped up in my hands. I’m underfed, underslept, and probably overcaffeinated. I can’t remember the last time I slept for more than five hours or had three balanced meals in a day. All I can think about is the Israeli-Palestinian War and literary surrealism and Hindu metaphysics and Emily Dickinson and the impact of artificial intelligence on monistic and dualistic religion. It’s all melding together, and my strands of thought are tangled so tightly that I can’t even remember which topic is for which class. I’m struggling with nightmares, panic attacks, and food aversion, but I don't know how to stop. 

Up until this point—we’re still frozen in that moment at 3:00am on a Tuesday morning in March—I had never gotten a B at my university. Never. I had received a few A- grades in the past, all of which left me feeling deeply disappointed in myself. It was like those minus signs were little malicious smudges on my transcript, soiling an otherwise-perfect record. But this quarter, having taken on too many units and responsibilities, my grades were suddenly teetering not on the familiar edge between an A and A- but between an A- and a B+. Numerically, this is a very small difference. But in my mind, this was of towering significance; if A- meant mediocrity, certainly B+ meant failure. 

Strangely, this dichotomy I had cleaved onto (that A = perfect, A- = mediocre, B+ = failure) was not something I projected upon anyone else. I rejoiced with my friends when they received a B on a term paper or a C in a challenging class. I was able to celebrate their achievements and see their lives more clearly than my own. 

I wish I could tell you that after that 3am morning in the middle of March, I was able to push through the quarter with straight As. Instead, my very last quarter of college was pockmarked by an A- and three B+s. Yes, three of them. The girl who had never gotten a B received three all at once. I wish I could tell you that despite those three B+s, I still graduated with highest honors. Instead, I missed graduating summa cum laude (the highest of the three honors levels) by 0.006 grade points. Yes, 0.006. And no, they don't round up. 

I'm still coming to terms with the fact that I can't do it all, and I certainly can't do it all flawlessly. By putting so much pressure on myself, I had made "perfect" the enemy of "good." I felt like if I couldn't do something perfectly, it wasn't worth it to just do it well, so maybe it wasn't worth it to do it at all. 

After finishing college, I started working in a startup incubator—a fast-paced environment where perfect isn't an option. When we work on a product or design, we shoot for 80% satisfaction. For one thing, it's impossible to make 100% of customers, investors, and mentors happy. For another, we're a small team, so we don't have the luxury of lingering over tasks for long periods of time. Startup culture has quickly taught me that aiming for perfection is unreasonable, and that it's much more productive to set small, measurableattainable goals.

I recently stumbled across a passage in John Steinbeck's East of Eden that has guided my mindset over the past two months. Steinbeck writes about accepting imperfections and mistakes as part of the human condition, and allowing yourself to be good rather than perfect. His words are already plastered across my graduation cap in preparation for the official ceremony in June, and I know those same words will help guide my efforts in graduate school next year.

"And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good." - John Steinbeck, East of Eden

 

joyfully + imperfectly, 

 
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Wandering Feet, Anxious Heart

It wasn't the first time I found myself being yelled at in Sudanese Arabic.

Actually, it definitely was.

I wasn’t sure if the taxi driver was yelling at me to get out of the taxi—perhaps he wasn’t available—or to get in and close the door. So there I was, perched in an uncomfortable squat, half-sitting in his taxi, half-standing on the pavement. Eventually he managed the word “door” in English, and motioned to the phone clenched to his ear. Enlightened but thoroughly annoyed, I closed the door and sat back in the grimy taxi van seat, embarking on my overpriced journey from the airport to my college campus.

Once he got off the phone, he told me that he was from Sudan. It had been his wife calling from overseas, so he couldn’t hang up when I climbed into his taxi. He was here in Texas and driving this van to support his family back in Africa. At one point he fluidly shifted from English to Sudanese Arabic, forgetting that I was just a little English (-speaking) girl—pun intended. In fragmented sentences and broken English, he talked about war, uprisings, and water. When I got to my apartment that night, and took a drawn-out shower and left the sink running too long, I thought of Mr. Taxi Driver’s wife, and a Sudanese water purification struggle.

Sometimes my world gets a little too small.

As it shrinks, my own problems metastasize. My rapidly narrowing perspective makes running out of coffee into a disaster, or an imperfect outfit or homework assignment into a tragedy. Sometimes it takes a little bit of exaggeration to make a point. Obviously these things are not disasters, tragedies, or heartbreaks, but I will sheepishly admit that I let extremely mild annoyances turn into mildly extreme problems. 

It's like the love-hate relationship I have with my major.

I love my major because I’m a thinker. My brain loves to finesse complex ideas and break down multifaceted concepts. I’m passionate about happiness—the science of it, the thoughts behind it, and the way to get to it. Through my major, I learn about the Buddhist “Six Perfections” that a bodhisattva must practice to become enlightened. I love relationships and examining all that comes with them. I can explore the tensions between the four branches of Judaism, or the many Christian denominations. It’s fascinating to me—I devour the words in my religion textbook like they were tiny, chocolate-laced pastries doused in powdered sugar or sprinkled with sea salt. But other times... I hate my major; studying other people and cultures is a harsh reminder of how small my own world and problems are. I’m glad for this wake up call, but it doesn’t always feel good.

I’m passionate about so many things—healthy oceans and beaches (Surfrider Foundation), nutrition, rainforest preservation, and animal treatment—so how is it that my fading tan and minor stress breakout were all I really thought about today? The older I get, the more aware I am of my little world. I want to preserve it, nurturing and protecting my “innocent” mind, and staying safe within the boundaries of a white picket fence and trimmed rose hedges. At the same time, my empathetic nature makes me hurt for impoverished people I will never meet, abused pups I will never play with, and oil-drenched oceans I will never visit. 

And so here I am, back in the uncomfortable position. I am half-sitting in a taxi that promises to show me a beautiful, corrupt world, and half-standing on the pavement, where life is safe and feet are rooted to the ground.

My anxious, wandering spirit craves both comfort and chaos. My feet and heart and mind want to roam; my body doesn't want to get out of bed. And here you are, feeling the same way. Or maybe you're rolling your eyes, yelling at me through the screen to buy a plane ticket to Sudan--I received an email a few months ago asking me if I had ever stopped to think about the children in Africa, because certainly that is the only meaningful issue in the world. I beg to differ. Although I feel stuck, unsure if I want to venture into the world or stay with my feet on the ground, I know that meaning can be found in daily life. Though some of my worries today were laughable (how did my leggings get so see-through?!), I think you and I can really make some positive change happen here. Here. Where we are. Now. Gandhi said: "In a gentle way, you can shake the world." He was right. Ask someone how they're doing--how they arereally, genuinely doing. Challenge yourself to not engage in gossip. Send someone a letter if their corner of the world is feeling a little broken and gloomy. Hop off the social media and do something productive. Go to the beach and pick up every styrofoam fragment and bottle you can find (recycle when applicable, of course). Buy someone sunflowers. Talk to the cashier (working in retail taught me that small talk is, indeed, meaningful). Find something you're passionate about and pursue it. Do something today that is productive and positive--something that helps someone other than yourself. Besides, those who bring sunshine into the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.

It all began by being yelled at in Sudanese Arabic.

Joyfully in Christ,

Today, Not Tomorrow

My sweet and beyond wonderful first grade teacher shared on Facebook an incredible quote that really stuck with me:

"Everyone can change tomorrow. Everyone solves problems tomorrow. But the only changes that matters are the ones I make today. Tomorrow is the easiest day I'll ever live. Today is the scary one, which is probably why I've spent so much time avoiding it."

This school year I am swimming—drowning—in schoolwork. Contrary to what I wish would happen, this increase in vigor didn’t fuel my drive, but depleted it. This week I have caught myself skimming my readings, as my assignments have become more perfunctory than enlightening, and I actually consider not going to class at all in order to avoid the stress completely. This is absolutely and incredibly unlike me.

Not only have I been blessed and cursed with the conscience of a nun and a burning desire to please my parents (and be showered with their attention...dreaming big, I know), but also I have consistently had an intrinsic desire to succeed academically in the past. This month I’ve been praying for purpose and motivation, and here it was on my screen. It is easy to assume that tomorrow I will begin working harder. Frequently this month I have pushed tasks from one day to the next, and suddenly those once-important items drop off of the to-do list all together, floating off into the void of unfinishedness.

No matter how many color-coded schedules I make, my work won’t get done until I do it. It’s convenient to think “studying” is synonymous to playing on the computer with a textbook opened in my lap—as if each time I glance down is the equivalent to dissecting and finessing the material itself!

Here’s the vow: I will not start on Monday, this weekend, or even tomorrow. My to-do list begins now.

I Belong in a Different Generation

I belong in a time when he would call me on his family’s rotary telephone after football practice in the evenings, as I would sit in the parlor beside mine in anticipation, still in my pleated cheerleading skirt.

He would arrive promptly at 7:00 in order to receive my parent’s permission to take me out. I belong in the generation of ice cream parlors, soda fountains, and drive in movies. I want red lipstick and patent heels, a powdered nose and bobby pinned curls.  I crave letters with wax seals, vintage stamps, postmen that walk house-to-house, and mint green convertibles.I so badly want to know how my mind would work without the constant vibration of my iPhone or the siren call of my Mac. I want the simplicity of spending time with the “gals” without the constant distraction of “he texted me this,” or “she tweeted that.” I want to go to the library to do my schoolwork, dutifully researching in books, not Google.I want a flower box and a window seat, with saturday morning sunlight streaming into my bedroom. I want to wear an apron when I bake, and sit around the fire with family to listen to the radio. I want him to bring flowers and chocolate on Valentines Day, both for my mom and me. I want him to hold my hand and kiss me goodnight on the porch. I want to go for a drive, cranking up the radio with a chiffon scarf trailing behind me in the breeze. I want to order one milkshake, two straws (he pays). I want to pull my hair back with a barrette, call blush "rouge" and be allowed to wear a dab of mom's perfume on special occasions. I want pearls and oxfords, and skirt suit dresses. I want matching striped pajamas, and my mom to turn my bed down for me every evening. I want lace-rimmed socks, thick reading glasses, a stack of books, and a reading lamp by my bed.

I belong in a different generation.