I suppose that I have always been a perfectionist. At times my compulsion has served me well. On the whole, however, it has often lead to more stress than I actually needed to have. I not sure where or when or how I picked up such tendencies, but they seem to have been part of my nature for as long as I can recall. My mother never really pushed me, but she was certainly proud when I did my best. Nonetheless I can’t say that she was responsible for my obsessive need to strive for the ideal. I sometimes wonder if my tendency to continually refine the quality of all that I do is simply a quirk of nature rather than the result of nurture.
When I was still in my early twenties I worked as a teacher in a pre-school program where I had a student who reminded me quite a bit of myself. She was never satisfied with a simple fulfillment of my requests to the students. Instead she endeavored to continuously do just a bit better. She was quite pleasant about her self motivation, but always unwilling to accept anything less than perfection. I eventually asked her mother how she had raised the child to be such a model of hard work and devotion to being her best. The lady, who had five other children, just laughed and shrugged that her little girl was an anomaly who seemed to have been born that way. She noted that her house was home to chaos and a “live and let live” attitude that hardly lent itself to teaching someone to always strive for more. She was not sure at all where her child’s drive originated, but felt that it had certainly not come from any guidance at home.
In my years as an educator I heard many such stories again and again. The family whose son was accepted to Rice University and later became a doctor had no idea from whence his intellect and his perfectionist proclivities had come. They seemed to believe that he was an outlier whose genes somehow came together in a manner unique to the rest of the clan. They saw his proclivities as not less than a freakish combination of all of the best possible traits in the family’s genetic code.
Being a perfectionist certainly has brought a great deal of positive attention to me both as a student and in my career, but it has also been a kind of demon that makes me all too often dissatisfied with myself even when I know I have done my very best. Like most type A personalities I am my own judge and jury, and sadly I often fall short of the demands I make on myself. It can be exhausting being me, even on a seemingly uneventful day. I have had to retrain my brain over time to make allowance for just being ordinary or even subpar, two very normal human conditions. Of late I have been striving to accept that just enough is just enough. It is a state that is both terrifying and freeing at the same time.
I have learned that being perfect all of the time is totally impossible and actually unnecessary. Each of us must pick and choose our battles so to speak. It’s important to differentiate between times when a bit of perfection is in order and those when slacking is a healthier choice. I suppose that I have been greatly inspired by one of my grandsons who appears to have that concept down pat.
He has both the intellect and the will to be the best of the best at whatever he does, but he doesn’t use his talents and skills at every single turn. In high school he considered exactly how much he needed to achieve to reach his goals for acceptance into college. He did that much and then thoroughly enjoyed his teenage years, building memories that will always sustain him while also doing just enough to graduate with honors and gain acceptance to a prestigious program at a good university. Now he is focusing with laser sharp precision on earning the respect of his professors and keeping a GPA that will help him to gain access to the kind of job that he hopes to one have. While he’s working quite hard, he still manages to find ways of balancing perfection with just enough. He’s a really healthy and happy individual because he has already mastered incredible self awareness and an ability to chill when needed.
An engineer designing the navigational system of a space craft must insist on precision, just as a surgeon cannot allow anything less than perfection in the operating room. Doing just enough in less important areas is not only acceptable, but no doubt necessary. None of us is one hundred percent perfect, and attempting to always be so can become destructive.
I’ve known individuals who are so intent on appearing perfect that they rarely invite people into their homes. They continually insist that “when things get settled at the house” they will send out invitations. Others laugh, kick the clothes and toys strewn on the floor out of the way, and brew a cup of coffee for anyone who drops by. They are welcoming and willing to be seen as questionable house keepers because enjoying time with a friend is more important to them than keeping up perfectionist appearances. They have learned, like my grandson, how to walk the fine line between demonstrating pride in important work and knowing when just enough is the right approach.
Perhaps if we are to be truly insightful parents and teachers we will show our children how to achieve such remarkable balance in their lives. Demonstrating how to differentiate our efforts depending on the situation is an invaluable lesson. Letting them know that mistakes are an inevitable part of existence is an attitude that is more important than always being the best. Life is a series of up and downs, praise and criticism, winning and losing. The best adjusted among us know when just enough is just enough, and when giving it all that they’ve got is the ticket. They achieve the joy factor of life, and in truth nothing is quite as wonderful.