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I wrote my name at three and started reading at four. In kindergarten, I had a conditional friend who would stop playing with me when I could read words she couldn't. In the second grade, I was called "Brainiac" and "Walking Dictionary," as if those were insults. I was threatened with getting beat up because I consistently won academic competitions and awards, and I didn't get the lead in the fourth grade play because my classmates thought it was enough that I was class president multiple times, a cheerleader, and, of course, the teacher's pet. I was not just good at whatever I set out to do, I was the best. If I couldn't be the best, it wasn't worth doing.
In my years working as the coordinator of a women's leadership organization at a higher education institution, my approach to leadership evolved. Witnessing perfectionism in the young women I was leading showed me how destructive such a trait could be. I saw women taking on all of the work meant for a team, because, "if I want it done the right way, I have to do it myself." I witnessed the resentment that would eventually come as a result of not being able to say no. And I also saw arrogance and pride alienate really great young women from their peers. I knew that much of this attitude came from me - the person who thrived under pressure, who took on way more than one human should be capable of; I was their example of a woman in a leadership position. Yet, the perception that I had it all together was just an illusion. There were so many nights when I would drive home after a successful event, feeling accomplished, but knowing that when I got home there was no one with whom to share my achievements. No celebratory meal or glass of champagne awaited me; nothing but an empty apartment, a shower, and bed.
At some point, I realized that I didn't want the young women I was mentoring to feel as alone and empty as I did. I wanted them to feel supported by one another and to know that perfectionism was not only unattainable, it was harmful to their relationships. I don't remember the day I said this phrase and why, but once I said it, it stuck. I'm sure we were debriefing an activity when I said, "Strive for excellence, not perfection." I remember thinking that we weren't holding ourselves accountable for finishing well because we were spending so much time aiming for perfection - an impossible task. We would give up or procrastinate rather than try and fail, and in avoiding failure for the sake of achieving perfection, we were letting each other down. I began to tailor my training sessions around working to develop areas in need of growth while celebrating our strengths. Our activities were created with the goal of appreciating our respective journeys rather than awaiting a perfect result. The outcome was that our relationships with each other grew stronger than ever, more genuine and authentic. I am proud to say that many of the women grew in confidence; not just in themselves, but in each other.
It's been a couple of years since, and I currently work with young people ages 12-18 who are gifted and high achievers. They, much like I was in elementary school, are the "walking dictionaries" among their peers. But in this age of technology that moves faster than the speed of light, young people are smarter than they've ever been. Because my students live around the country, I have to schedule time to talk with them over the phone. Often it is so challenging to schedule calls, not because I have so many that need to fit into my own schedule, but because they have multiple activities scheduled throughout the week. When talking about any endeavor, they must win, they must be the best, the first. In them, I see myself as a young child - needing to be the best in order to feel accomplished. Needing to be perfect in order to be valued and affirmed.
I struggle now, because high achievers expect the person advising them to be the most knowledgeable, the most able to get them into the best colleges and universities, the one who has the answers to all of their questions. They trigger the perfectionism I'd thought I'd recovered from. I find myself tipping the balance between work and life - once again, waiting to hear the words, "well done," but coming home to the emptiness borne of my own ambition to be perfect. No one benefits from striving for perfection, least of all those of us who never fail, because we are afraid to take the risk of trying something new and different.
What if the "new and different" is what we need in order to live the lives we were intended to live? What if striving for perfection is keeping us from the very thing we need in order to feel fulfilled in this life - relationship and fellowship with others? What if, instead, striving for authenticity in our relationships is actually what will draw unto us that which is perfect, and good, for us?
As with anyone who is recovering from an illness, there's a possibility of relapse. But, to paraphrase the cliche on recovery, "the first step is admitting the problem." I humbly admit that I have a problem with perfectionism, but I won't continue to strive for it, nor for excellence. Rather, I choose to strive for authenticity. At the end of my life, I don't want to be able to say that I accomplished so many things all alone. I want to say that I left love in the hearts of many.