It’s an admirable goal. But we often miss the risk that is inherent in this pursuit. We miss the dangers of the facade of perfection.
Back in high school, I was fortunate to have some public successes. And because of that, I would occasionally be referred to as “Mr. Perfect”, or something similar.
I knew it was partly a joke, and I always knew at the deepest level that it wasn’t really true. But after hearing it enough, it started to wear on me. Slowly, my expectations for myself crept to an unrealistic level.
Fast forward a few years to college, and I realized the downside of being “perfect.”
When I started college, among other things, I expected that I would graduate with a 4.0 GPA. I had the top grades in my high school, so why couldn’t I do the same in college?
In some ways, this was a useful goal. Knowing that I wanted to have the best scores in each class, I was forced to create effective study habits and take my schoolwork seriously.
But chasing the idea of a “perfect” 4.0 GPA was crippling because it led me to focus on the wrong things.
After a few semesters of all A’s, I found that my approach to school changed. Rather than focusing on what I could learn in college, my priority became figuring out how I could get an A.
When I was picking classes, I started to choose the easy grade rather than the most interesting class. When I was writing a paper, or working on a group project, I chose the option that I thought would result in the best grade. Not the most interesting, or productive option.
Until I got lucky.
Going into final exams at the end of my junior year, I slipped up.
I had been killing it in my Intermediate Structures class. I hadn’t lost more than a point or two on any assignment all semester.
But when it came time for the final exam, I forgot to put two formulas on my formula sheet. And it just so happened that both of those were critical on the exam.
So I earned my first A-.
In hindsight, it’s ridiculous to think about, but this A- was devastating to me.
It sounds like such a little thing. My GPA went from a 4.0 to a 3.99. So what? I was still going to graduate, and no logical recruiter would even care.
But it was bigger than that. This one class had cracked the facade. I was no longer “perfect.”
For almost two weeks, I couldn’t sleep. I had nightmares about that exam and the formula sheet.
But when I got back to school the next year, I noticed something incredible.
For one thing, the tremendous pressure I had put on myself was gone. For the first time, I started to focus on the learning process, and to take advantage of aspects of the college experience that I had been missing.
Rather than prioritizing my grades, I took classes that really interested me, even if I knew the professor was a tough grader. I also took on more responsibility at my job, which helped me grow as an individual and meet some incredible people. And in general, I finally started to act like a college kid. I went out of my way to meet new people in my classes. I allowed myself to occasionally do stupid stuff with my friends. I made room for fun.
And the most amazing part?
My grades really didn’t change. Even while facing some of my toughest classes, and while placing far less focus on my grades, I was able to graduate with a 3.98 GPA.
Through this process, I realized the flaw in my perception.
Really, perfect doesn’t exist. A 4.0 GPA doesn’t mean that you know everything about the material you learned. An undefeated record doesn’t mean you’re perfect.
But we often forget this.
The dangers of the perception of perfection can be seen on the sports field every season. There’s almost always a team or two that seems unstoppable. They annihilate every opponent they face. They seem perfect.
Until they get hit in the mouth.
When they finally face a worthy opponent, the facade of perfection comes crashing down.
The best teams are able to pull themselves together and respond. But more often than not, these types of teams can’t handle the adversity.
So yes, a pursuit of excellence is worthwhile. And even the pursuit of perfection can be beneficial. As long as we focus on the right things, and we realize that the end goal of perfection doesn’t really exist.