Welcome to the University of North Carolina or, more apropos, the University of No Chance. At least regarding my likelihood of graduation.
A self-conscious freshman, I remember the red ink coating my first Chapel Hill exam. As I replayed the exam, those latent doubts about my academic ability crescendoed into full-throated roars. What am I doing here? I wondered. I don’t belong at such a prestigious university. Will I even make it to graduation?
During my freshman year, Fear Factor was more than a reality television show. There were panicked phone calls to my beleaguered mother. Somehow an Econ 101 exam (or another test) was indicative of my intelligence, academic future, and job employability.
From my admittedly strained logic, an unsatisfactory grade doomed me to a career specializing in office drudgery. In this black and white (and Carolina blue) environment, I first experienced the perfectionist’s pratfalls.
Growing up, I was an unrelenting perfectionist. For one middle school science project, I shredded one draft after another. The project needed to be “perfect” — or else it faced a quick, merciful death in the wastepaper basket. An overflowing wastepaper basket.
Welcome to the perfectionist’s creed. In our ceaseless quest for perfection, we forget that pretty good is, well, pretty good.
As I have aged and wizened, I chuckle and, yes, wince at my youthful perfectionism. But there are still those nagging questions: Is this good enough? Am I good enough?
Like most perfectionists, there is a perverse pride in criticizing — even demeaning — myself. By holding myself up to lofty, unrealistic standards, I inoculate myself from external criticism. It isn’t valid; they don’t share my ambition and drive. But in this vicious quest for perfection, I mastered the art of self-sabotage. As my overriding fear of failure and rigid adherence to perfection threatened to topple me, I would retreat into the familiar and — shhh — easy.
With a hat tip to Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, I have slowly learned to change my thought process. How so? I have learned to embrace failure — albeit grudgingly.
As a youngster, I chafed at failure. If I couldn’t immediately grasp an academic concept, my roiling emotions would boil over. Perfectionism and impatience have been swirling currents throughout my life, derailing personal and professional accomplishments with a cold sneer.
Even now — before a new challenge, the fear of failure echoes through my synapses. My mind shrugs off accomplishments with a casual wave. But Rubin’s “failure is fun” maxim reverberates–even more so as I transition into a new profession. I am more willing to embrace the unknown–writing for Psych Central, traveling to foreign countries, pursuing a graduate degree.
Failure still stings — that’s a given. But as a recovering perfectionist, I understand that you can ace one test and fail life’s most important one. And that lesson is more impactful than any degree or Econ 101 exam.