A few days ago, one of our teachers told me she was afraid we had an epidemic being spread throughout one of her classes. It was a different sort of epidemic – it was an epidemic of perfectionism. In an all-girls school, we are fortunate to have engaged and conscientious students. Not only do they care about their work, they care about how well it is done. Simply studying or doing one’s homework is not always enough. Our students want to do well, and we would not want it any other way, right?
As adults, we can spot a perfectionist in our midst pretty quickly. Perhaps we are one ourselves, or we live with one or work with one. That guy who is critical of everyone and everything around him because they did not meet his expectations, or the woman who is not very happy because she struggles to find the right career, or the colleague obsessing over a tiny detail — all of these examples could be closet perfectionists. They are striving for the unattainable. Perfectionists cannot help but become frustrated as they grow older, especially if they have been crawling toward perfection since they were young.
In a teenage girl, perfectionism can still appear hopeful. These girls and young women have youth and energy, and let’s don’t forget they have internalized the constant background noise that hums, “you can be anything you want to be.” In the younger set, it is difficult to distinguish ambition and hard work from the unhealthy extension of high achievement, which would be perfectionism.
Perfectionism is not relegated to the halls and classrooms of Harpeth Hall. Furthermore, it is not just an independent school issue. After all, in the late 18th century Voltaire wrote, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” We have known for centuries that extremes are not in our best interest, and yet we sometimes have a hard time putting aside a paper or project when we just need a few more hours to perfect it, hours that might be better spent sleeping. The artist who needs a little more time to perfect the painting is not to be admonished, but when that painting is past due and other work is piling up, a student needs to see that her painting is “good enough.”
Certainly, mediocrity is not what we are about at Harpeth Hall. We want movement and growth and yes, hard work and focus. We want students who strive for excellence and envision a time when they can master a difficult concept that is beyond them in the present. We want our girls to aspire to great things. All of these things I have listed are about a girl’s progress. We do not want them to fixate on some final outcome or goal of perfection.
When students refuse to accept anything short of perfection, they can become stagnant. We want our students to keep the ball rolling and not give into the gravitational pull of what is perceived to be perfect. More often than not, that gravitational pull, for our students, begins with a need to be accepted and to earn approval even with their flaws and imperfections. The best way for our girls to begin to feel acceptable is for them to be less critical of themselves. They can be imperfect, and at the same time, worthy.