Cult of Perfectionism: Grades, High Achievement, and How We're Failing Students

It took me almost a decade of being sick before I finally went to a doctor. Entering the office with what I assumed was a stomach problem, I exited with an impossible-to-fathom diagnosis: "You're a perfectionist, and it is crippling you." That sounded ridiculous to me.
12/02/2015 03:33 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2016

It took me almost a decade of being sick before I finally went to a doctor. Entering the office with what I assumed was a stomach problem, I exited with an impossible-to-fathom diagnosis: "You're a perfectionist, and it is crippling you." That sounded ridiculous to me.

I spent years being sick to my stomach whenever I was nervous--nervous before ballet class, nervous before taking a test, nervous of, it seemed, everything. Sitting in that doctor's office--feeling, ironically, nervous--was when it finally dawned on me that I wasn't just nervous, I was panicking. In an attempt to pinpoint the cause of the nerves, I was asked to name what scared me most, and my instantaneous answer shocked me: "Failure."

Failure: A lack of success. And the thing that is keeping us awake at night, our stomachs churning, and mental states diminishing.

As high-achieving reached even higher heights, we rewrote the definition of perfectionism; we turned it into something enviable, astute, and the humble-brag equivalent of someone saying "I work too hard and care too much!" in a job interview when asked to describe their weakness. It is easy to morph "perfectionism" into a synonym for "that person who does everything well and has everything together"--after all, studies have shown that perfectionists tend to set higher goals, they have a voracious work rate and are ambitious. As is usually the case, what sounds spectacular--and dare I say, perfect--on paper is actually the unraveling of any personal success or happiness we may experience. We have made it impossible to measure up: Where one goal stops, another goal starts, slowly transforming a healthy dose of challenging yourself into something far less idyllic. Ambition isn't just ambition--it is fear of never achieving what you feel like you need to achieve. This isn't about squashing someone's ambitions, but to assume perfectionism is a harmless dose of type-A is wrong: The most sobering statistic is that perfectionism is a leading amplifier of the risk of suicide.

In the December 2015 issue of The Atlantic, there was a fantastic article titled: "The Silicon Valley Suicides: Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?" In it, a sophomore student was quoted as saying: "Students feel the constant need at our school of having to keep up with all the achievements."

Perfectionism is no longer just getting ahead. Now, it is about keeping up.

As our college-competitive culture grows at hyper-speed, the former "perfect"--straight A's--is no longer good enough. No, now, it is down to the percentage of that A and how it fits into your GPA. It gets into things like how many Advanced Placement courses you've taken, what internships you've held, how successful you are in your extracurricular activities. However, if we think the perfectionism race ceases upon the final school bell ringing at the end of the day, we're naïve: With the rise of social media, there is the desire--or rather, the need--to seem perfect in all facets of life, all the time, like a twenty-four hour fast food restaurant determined to keep hauling out meals despite the fact that they were cold twenty minutes ago. We need to look perfect. We need to show that we have perfect relationships and friendships. We need to show that, just like our schoolwork is worth getting A's, our lives are worth documenting, that they're something to be proud of.

Thus, we expect students to sit in school roughly seven hours a day and excel, come home, do several hours of homework and excel, go to their extracurricular activities and excel, be a well-rounded individual with hobbies and a social life and excel, and take care of themselves by exercising, eating healthy, and sleeping. A student's day is often longer than the average adult's work day. And we wonder why they are depressed, unhappy, and not easily satisfied? Perhaps it is because we reinforce the idea that nothing is ever good enough...including ourselves. We aren't designed to "settle," apparently including settling for any kind of balance or sanity-things that should be givens.

That's the most depressing part of all this: The bar is too high. Our self-worth is wrapped up in something impossible to maintain. We will always fall short of the goal because perfection doesn't exist, and yet, in our yearning for acceptance (maybe of ourselves?) and success (whose definition of success is this?), we continue to chase the smokescreen.

I have spoken publicly about my dislike of emphasis on grades. They are, at best, a limited measurement of a student's ability, and at worst, an academic noose. The standards are often arbitrary and don't always equal intelligence, true thinking, and learning. In spite of all that--in spite of things I truly believe--here I sit, panicking over whether a 4.0 waits for me at the end of my semester. Why should that even matter? I'm disgusted with myself, honestly, because I started this year with a profoundly better approach: Do your best, try to learn something.

What happened to that? Not just with me, but with society? What happened to having new experiences for the sake of broadening your perspective--even if you aren't the best at whatever it is? Where did learning for learning's sake, rather than for the sake of testing, disappear to? When did happiness become a lesser feeling--somehow not as meaningful or significant or "worthy" as stress, sadness, and panic?

We live in a cult of perfectionism. It is expected, and we assert that expectation every time we glorify a grade as a measure of intellectual worthiness, every time we don't encourage a student to try something new out of fear of failure or botching a GPA, and every moment we don't prioritize a student's happiness over their performance.

I wish someone had told me: There is more to whatever it is you're doing than doing it perfectly.

And I hope eventually, we become a society, academic and otherwise, that believes this is true.