I remember in 6th grade I got an essay back. I don’t remember what it was about, but I do remember the grade at the top of the paper: a 98. Luckily, it was just a first draft, and we were able to revise and turn it back in — our final grade would be an average of the two drafts. I went over the essay, putting in the time to fix the grammar and sentence fluency errors that had knocked off those treasured two points. My final (average) grade was a 99.
At the time, I remember being frustrated by this — even though by almost anyone’s standards I had gotten a great, even phenomenal, grade. Except maybe my own standards, that was. I didn’t think of the fact that I had done well on an essay that I had worked super hard at and learned a lot from in the process. Instead, I thought, “I could’ve gotten a hundred.”
Looking back, this moment seems to encapsulate something I’ve carried with me my whole life — the desire, the need, to be “perfect.” This would most often manifest itself in school, where we were overwhelmed with a constant influx of grades. Everything had to be an “A” and it was something I expected of myself. Anything less was a failure.
And I don’t say this as someone who’s always gotten all A’s. Sure, sometimes my perfectionism has paid off, causing teachers to tell me I have “good attention to detail.” But I’ve had more than my fair share of failed tests and assignments (failed in this case meaning failed, not like, “I got a B-” failed). Because I had set the expectations so high for myself, these failures were often very devastating, even debilitating. If I got back a test that I did poorly on, or thought I messed up a question on a test I just took, I thought about it for the rest of the day. I would question how smart or hardworking I really was. Small mistakes could derail my entire sense of self-worth, just like that.
I’m not exactly sure when I started to try and overcome this perfectionism. I think it was somewhere around my senior year in high school and kind of happened by accident. I was taking a lot of classes then and also had to complete college applications. With so much to balance, was it really worth it to go over every sentence of an assignment to make sure it was perfect? I began to rethink my priorities, and I realized I was a lot happier when I was just getting things done, even if they weren’t perfect.
Interestingly, this gave me a lot more free time than I had ever had before. I had the time to hang out with my friends, to read new books, to try new hobbies, and to learn new things that weren’t related to school. In a strange way, I was actually able to accomplish more. And when school closed because of the coronavirus, I began to really think about what was important to me and what I was interested in. I realized all that stressing over points and mistakes just wasn’t worth it.
I still definitely feel pressure to do things “perfectly,” especially in school. I have to fight the impulse to meticulously pour over every detail of every assignment I turn in, like I did on that essay from 6th grade. But now I make time to do things I enjoy. I’m able to explore more of my passions and just take in my surroundings. A mistake is no longer an inescapable vortex of self-doubt and regret. Even with failures, I can keep growing as a person and pursuing new opportunities, even when I think I might “fail.” I can explore the world without boundaries.