I don’t know where it started. It may have been in the first A+ on my report card or dinosaur diorama. It may have been my parents holding a set of high expectations and rewarding good grades. It may have been a desire to be like other kids that seemed to have it all together.
In middle school I had a classmate that could color maps perfectly. While studying the geography of South America she would shade in the interior border of each country with colored pencil and then lightly shade the area in between. The result was beautiful- and perfect. I wanted my maps to look just like it. They didn't.
In high school I was in a rigorous art class where had to rank order and critique all of our drawings. I was crushed any time my piece wasn’t first. I also enrolled in AP Calculus and when faced with the speed and challenge of the class I politely asked my teacher if I could move to a different (easier) level. I wanted to protect the A’s that I was addicted to.
I thought that my pursuit of perfection was the key to success. It was always rewarded and praised. Looking back there were many unintended consequences of my perfectionist tendencies.
It wasn’t until I began to study the behaviors and traits of gifted learners that I began to understand the darker side of my perfection pursuit. I had students in my classes who would not try something if it meant that they might not succeed. Was this what I was doing as a child? As an adult? Now I have a better understanding of the behaviors contributing to perfectionism and I am working to recover from patterns that have held me back in the past.
Perfection can fuel anxiety and it has for me for a very long time. Entering into situations where I may look silly, unprepared, or uncomfortable makes my heart race. Creating work that may have errors or that others may critique gives me anxiety. I'm working on it.
The thing about perfectionists is that we will try to do it ALL THE TIME. We can be perfectionistic about everything. We can seek perfection in a report we are creating for school, spending hours on the font size and margins. That will surely get us the A! We can be a perfectionist about what to bring to a dinner party, how to set up a home, or in planning a vacation down to the minute. Perfection is control.
If you saw my car right now you probably would not think I was a perfectionist. The difference in my car and my schoolwork or a dinner party is that other people will see it. If someone important were to ride in my car, or even just someone I didn’t know well I would make a point to get it cleaned.
That’s what’s messed up. We are often not perfectionists about things we do for ourselves, but we try to be perfect for others. We create perfect pictures of our lives with Instagram filters and Facebook posts. We delete anything that makes us look like we don’t have it all together.
Whenever I hear little miss perfect chime in I remember one of my favorite phrases. “Done is better than perfect.” It has helped me countless times to wrap something up, put a bow on it, and be done with it. If I’ve done my best and met my expectations then we’re good.
I still seek excellence in what I do but I try not to waste valuable time fretting over things that frankly other people may not even notice.
Luckily I am no longer incentivized by A’s and B’s. I hope that we are moving away from a grading system that fuels perfectionism and encourages excellence, honest and frequent feedback, and risk-taking.
If you give me a map today I can color it perfectly too but don’t ask me to label the countries. In those lessons we weren’t learning how to color but that's what I remember most about the activity. I don’t know what opportunities or risks I didn’t take because I was afraid of making mistakes. I don’t know how much time I’ve lost in my life overthinking and overworking something that was just fine. I don’t know the cost of being a perfectionist but am working on being mindful of when I’ve moved into an unhealthy pursuit for of perfect, which is the pursuit of the impossible.
Education careers are tough. These entries are dedicated to making the lives of educators easier and empowering those who have chosen this path to reach their potential in work and life.