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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The Perfection of Smooth Seas

A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor.

While these words hold true, I can’t help but wish for smooth, glassy-topped seas. My petite little rowboat would gently wade out into the ocean, gracefully slicing through still, crystal waters. If my life were to reflect the flawless nature of a smooth sea, I feel like I would be happy.

During an economics course yesterday, two of my classmates were engaged in a dispute over the topic of perfection. Upon finding no middle ground whatsoever, one student turned to the teacher for support.

“If you had the opportunity to be perfect at everything, would you take it?” the student asked.

The teacher chuckled and shook his head no, while the other student was smug with satisfaction. The teacher explained that he would reject the opportunity to be faultless, because life would lack spontaneity, possibility, depth, and motivation. In his mind, a life of perfection would be dull, and he would find himself irritable over everyone else’s disability in stark comparison to his own boundless ability.

I was confused. A life of perfection sounded so rich and promising; I imagined myself graduating summa cum laude from my university, followed by a successful career as the editor of Teen Vogue, having an immaculate wardrobe and a seamless vocabulary, as well as being married to my prince charming (who treated me like an absolute princess) in my very own fairy-tale-worthy relationship.

When I spent a moment reflecting upon what my teacher had said, I was able to uncover the wisdom behind his words: if every task were an effortless achievement, goals would hold no worth. There would be nothing to work, sweat, push, or strive for. There would be nothing to dream of.

That’s what makes us so uniquely human, right? We dream of, pine over, and work for the things we desire. We are constantly adjusting our tactics and methods in an attempt to excel. Things go wrong. We learn. We are all on the same journey through life, and there is no assurance of smooth sailing. It is this imperfection that strengthens our values, straightens our moral compass, and inspires our motivation and drive. Because of this lack of perfection, we turn to the One who is undeniably flawless. It is He who invigorates us, quiets us, and aids us while rough waves crash or peaceful waters lap. It is He who takes our dirty, tired imperfections and wipes us clean.

I would much rather be imperfect yet constantly striving for better and have the Lord walk alongside of me than be naturally skilled at everything, fooled into believing that I was most superior.

As Matthew 5:6 states, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”