By Teresa Swartz Roberts
Blog post 16. Copyright 2017
There is something wrong with perfection.
I wrote this sentence a few years ago as a discussion topic for honors students in their first year of college. I’ve grown to believe it more as time passes. Anybody can suffer from being perfect.
Students who come to college with stellar academic records occasionally were big fish in small ponds, so small that the seven people in the senior class are co-valedictorians– or “valid Victorians,” words I saw in more writing placement essays than I care to admit. Honors students from all backgrounds are in danger of failing as much as any academically-needy student. Honors students are the ones who want to put the finishing touches on their project before anybody sees the first draft. So they do not turn in the first draft. I tried to sell the message: Done is better than perfect.
Perfection breeds perfectionism. That’s where perfection goes wrong. First of all, being at the top means a longer way to fall if– or rather when –you slip. Perfectionism can urge us to climb to the top, or it can slap us down. I was one of those kids who expected to be perfect at everything I tried. If I couldn’t be perfect at bowling, then I didn’t want to try. What a waste of a perfectly good family outing.
How many times did I let my imperfections stand between me and joy? My hips are too big. My breasts are too small. Everybody’s looking at my scar. Why do I have to stutter?
I was lucky in love. I found the perfect man. I really did, eventually. I found the perfect man FOR ME. When we got together over 30 years ago, he was not society’s idea of perfect because he went to college for what he wanted to learn instead of to get a degree that guaranteed him a career. My Honey graduated with a degree that qualified him to be a telephone solicitor or work in a shoe store. Luckily, he was qualified to go to graduate school and eventually earn a living at something he cares about: helping people learn as a college librarian.
I graduated with a degree that led to what was supposed to be my perfect career. I wanted to teach high school English along with an extra-curricular subject such as journalism or theater. I got the perfect job. Except it wasn’t the perfect job. It broke my heart because I wasn’t perfect at it. I eventually ended up in the right job, one that combined my love of writing and teaching with my Rain Man-like obsession with little-known grammar rules. I was able to help students edge toward perfection in their writing and provide them with confidence in their sentence structure, even though writing is about so much more. I mentored other students who worked alongside me in the writing center to become the best writing tutors possible.
Now that I have Parkinson’s Disease, I am far from perfect, but I am still sometimes a perfectionist. I spend most of my time just working on myself, and I wonder if I would be a more perfect me if I tried this or stopped that. I’m bothered when I drag my right foot. I’m embarrassed when I have to think about how to eat a sandwich rather than just doing it. I sometimes let friendships slide because I don’t have the energy for them, and then the guilt I feel about that sucks away more of my life. It’s just more of a life-long theme. I’ve never been perfect enough. I’m working on that. Not on being perfect. On being perfect enough.
A few weeks ago, I started to write one of these essays, and it wasn’t going perfectly. Instead of writing, I put off writing. I put it off until the month was gone. I’m talking about a self-imposed deadline, but, being a perfectionist, WHEN I posted mattered to me. Finally, I wrote the piece. Once it was written, I kept thinking of better ideas, better words I could have used. And then I posted the essay. I was satisfied. Know why? Done is better than perfect. Done is perfect enough.