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Lessons From Andre Agassi's: The Perils of Perfectionism

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I recently attended a speech by Andre Agassi at Harvard University. Amidst the crowds of people, Agassi strolled in unnoticed. Having seen him dominate the court countless times on TV, I anticipated something different from what I saw. Perhaps I was delusional -- half expecting to see the tennis star in his former glory, flaunting his trademark blonde mullet and wearing notoriously flamboyant clothes. Instead, I saw a bald man in a black shirt.

The infamous rise and fall of Agassi's tennis rankings were only tabloid headlines in my memory. I was skeptical as to how a room full of students and academics could relate to his glamorous-athlete life. When Agassi was number one in the world, he seemed to have everything: skill, wealth, fame, prestige, and even a supermodel spouse. Yet, to my surprise, he characterized tennis as more imprisoning than uplifting, and he said of being number one in the world: "I wasn't satisfied, and I was miserable... I was tired, and I simply had [been through] enough."

Agassi's anti-tennis attitude seemed less extreme after he explained his childhood circumstances. His father was determined to mold him into a tennis star. Every moment of his youth was dictated by his father's maniacal drive. Since success was his only option, abusive training and endless hitting sessions were part of his daily life. Agassi would not accept anything less than perfection. The sport had all but consumed him, and it was only a matter of time until eventually it did.

After becoming the number one tennis player in the world, Agassi lost interest in the sport, and spiraled toward the lowest point in his life -- he admits, "It wasn't just any ordinary spiral. It was a world-class perfectionist spiral. It was slow, methodical, and painful." Within two years, Agassi found himself in a broken marriage and addicted to crystal meth. His plummet seemed to have no end, as he rapidly fell down the tennis rankings from number 1 to number 141.

Perfectionism crippled Agassi. Much like Gatsby's green light, or almost all reflective epiphanies that take place in the shower, perfectionism is an unattainable goal that always seems within reach. This obsession devoured Agassi, and it took a "world class" plummet for him to realize that perfectionism was not his savior, but rather a debilitating infection. Only the option of failure could cure his listlessness. Even entertaining the idea of failure gave Agassi a newfound drive - for once, he could choose. He could choose to fail or succeed. He could choose to quit or go on. At his lowest of low, Agassi decided to flip perfectionism on his head and "become a perfectionist about not being a perfectionist." Instead of wasting away in an endless pursuit for success, Agassi decided to forget about achieving anything.

This change of tactic may seem juvenile or impossible. How can forgetting to strive for success lead to success? Because people who only pursue success are running an endless race. Before, Agassi only focused on reaching the finish line. When he finally got there -- exhausted from the chase -- he was unfulfilled. Agassi was now at the starting line all over again, but this time he would reach the finish line his own way. For the first time in his life, he would play tennis for himself -- not for rankings or success.

In order to re-build himself -- inside and out -- he focused on small daily goals instead of constantly demanding himself to be at an impossible state of perfection. Some days he would set athletic goals for himself, other days his goal would be just to show up; some days he would fail, others he would succeed. Arduously but with great success, he made it to the top again.

At this point, I anticipated Agassi to give us some banal advice such as to "concentrate on the journey instead of the destination." Instead, Agassi continued, "[I'll] tell you, life is the same you're feeling now, and as you felt leading up to here. And the stakes will get higher, and the pressures will rise."

His statement left a paradoxically depressing, yet encouraging feeling in the pit of my stomach. Life never gets easier -- and it most certainly does not spontaneously evolve towards perfection. I guess that Agassi did have a relatable message to the rest of us after all:

"When you feel overwhelmed, allow yourself to be a work in progress because you all, we all, will always be in process."