You Don't Have to Do Everything Perfectly

How to navigate the pressure to be a perfectionist.

Photo: Unsplash

One of my worst habits is, paradoxically, an incessant desire to do every task I take up the pursuit of near-perfectly. Surely this would be a virtuous attitude in a college student, this instinct of mine which shirks from half-assing, from any ill completion of what is demanded of me by my academic obligations. I’m an honors student, having made the Dean’s List every semester of my years thus far in attendance at my university. I’m a Division-1 athlete on top of this, hurrying to the first classes of the day immediately after daily practice, still laden with sweat and unable to catch my breath. By all measurements of my transcript thus far, I’m successful, a good student with a good work ethic, eager for challenge, hungry for it. I’m doing the work and want to do it well.

I do not want to just do ‘well’, I want to perform exceptionally. I want to put all of myself into everything I do - how can such ambition, with such results as I’ve previously listed, then be a bane upon my being? How is it setting out to master every little thing I place in my path is destructive?

The most human attributes are our flaws, I would say. And as such, it is becoming of humanity to be this imperfect sort of creature, unable to do everything, and unable to do what we can do constantly. We are not inherently designed to be perfect - I sure as hell am not - and this brings a sort of diversity to the population of this planet, each of us with different skill sets, weaknesses, limitations.

And here I am trying to bash away this very human element of mine, to sprint through the motions of one demand and into the next, and the next, and the next; again, hungry for challenge. Every essay I try to make a thesis, every piece of writing I try to make art, and this enforcement of effort and energy into every channel of my life has the expected results. I take too long to complete assignments, trying to cultivate every paragraph of a response to some reading or another, trying to comb out every hint of a textbook. I get maybe five hours of sleep every night - if it’s a good night with little in the ways of overlording classwork. I siphon all I can to pour back into these efforts and end up taking from myself in the process. I end up stretched thin between all these things, each of my classes, each of their workloads, and then the rote of the routine I put my body into that my athletics are honed alongside my scholarship. I constantly produce, constantly expel, and what’s left of my energy and creativity shrivels inside of me. The carcass bangs on my head, strains my body, these pains being often treated by either caffeine or Tylenol. I exhaust myself, though I still do the work, though I still get stellar grades and remarks of praise from my professors, my family, those peers of mine I consider friends.

I have been doing this for over two years, and despite the results I keep producing in my want to do more than the bare minimum, more than just passing, it isn’t working. All I’ve mentioned in writing this article is my academics, my athletics; not once have I mentioned things in my life which aren’t tasks I do. What time have I left for myself to unwind? To apply myself to my relationship with my girlfriend, strained by timezones and crappy schedules between us? To function in a manner that does not draw from my being? This is my fault, my flaw - I put so much of myself into wanting to do so well, that I leave nothing of myself for me when the day ends, when the breaks come. I find no time to just exist, putting all my hours into one industry or another. The days I find these hours unoccupied go wasted on sleep, trying to assemble something of a reserve of motivation, fuel, for what I throw myself into next. I keep producing, producing more than well, and it eats at me in taking all I have to keep consistently doing so.

And I don’t have to. I never have to do any of my assignments, attend my classes, or wake up for practice. I don’t have to spend the extra hours going over my writing, debating with myself what days I do what classwork on, revising a paper I wrote moments before the deadline. An essay won’t become a future doctorate. My understanding of a text won’t be transcribed into a novel. This article I put myself just the same into won’t be anything like Song of Myself. I am not here to generate revelations nor critique the human condition - I have a deadline. Surely it’s okay to find the space to breathe, put off the next thing, scrounge around and procrastinate the work, fulfilling it without trying to make my writing something beautiful. Surely nothing comes of these efforts either way, whether I make art or just fulfill another assignment. I get my credits in the end anyway.

I can half-ass, I can perform less. I leach away my humors, my mind, my time, to make all these trivial things I may never look at again into masterworks. I’m straining myself reaching for a quality within them when they had never needed nor were ever expected to reach such an apex of scholarship. I end up lamenting the time and the struggle I’m responsible for spawning. I grimace beneath the weight of the crunch I create in making the work of classes I chose to enroll in into something to disdain and avoid. I chose to take on all these things, and I chose my exhausting approach to it all. Whatever feeling of suffocation might analogize my circumstances, the mindset is the thing keeping me from breathing. I am here because I chose to be, chose my university, chose to go through the efforts of impressing those responsible for my acceptance therein. These obligations are something I want, and I never had to throw myself so violently into the demands.

There is nothing that I’m failing to surmount in allowing myself the time to charge. I need not empty myself of every ounce of energy, focus, and inspiration for every minute and rote task that is thrust into my schedule. I do my work and I do it well, and always have. That will not change suddenly just because I do not spend the extra time mulling over every word I write, nor annotating every sentence of a text, nor deciding to take a fucking nap for once instead of studying. I am human, innately imperfect, and so should not wear the sinews of my hands thin and taunt trying to wring some grand achievement from a mid-term essay.