Thursday, November 18, 2010

Beyond perfection

The Kiddo has a Perfection Complex. I know this because I have to avert potential thermo-nuclear meltdowns on more occasions than I would like. She thinks she needs to make a 100 on every test. She thinks her hair has to be perfectly straight and glossy every day. She thinks her clothes need to match not only in color, but also to the exact temperature of recess -- never mind that recess is clocking in at 72 degrees, while school drop-off is clocking in at 39 degrees.

I swear, we don't push her. We don't nag. We don't even fuss. We don't have to. She beats herself up far more severely than we ever could.

But her perfection complex is not completely value-less for me. It provides me with a continual life lesson for me and my life and my writing.

When I was in middle school, I never worried about grades. I got what I got, which except for math were usually pretty good, at least a solid B.

Then a fateful moment occurred. A fellow student who had eeked out an A- was bewailing her grade. I glanced from the 83 or so that I'd scored on the same test and asked what the big deal was.

"My mama says that an A- is nearly a B, and a B- is nearly a C!" she explained.

I looked aghast at my 83, which was indeed numerically cheek-to-jowl with a C+. Quietly I folded my paper, tucked it in my messy book bag and vowed never again to have a B, save for math which came with a lifetime exclusion from any such blood oaths.

Fast-forward to high school. By then, even with a C in math (hey, that was a miracle for me, believe me!), I was making honor roll. Most of my grades were in the mid-90s.

That memory of the lowly station of an A minus, though, haunted me. If A minus was cheek-to-jowl with a B, then a 95, was neighbors with an A minus. That would not do.

My grade inflation slowly ratcheted upward, where no grade below a 98 in any subject save math would satisfy me. Oh, yes, I know. I was a tightly wound child.

It was college that saved me -- a psychology lecture on the Bell Curve. Suddenly I realized that statistically I was an aberration. Most people would fall within that heretofore hated C grade.

It was a lightbulb moment for me. No, I didn't start slacking and earning C's. But I stopped beating myself up about it so badly.

That's why seeing The Kiddo go down this same road is so painful for me -- especially when she started down it so much earlier than me.

Writers in particular can be just as severe on themselves. They kick and scream and wad up paper and let their internal editors convince them that any word they put to paper or commit to kilobytes is worthless.

Remember this, however. For most of the world, the prospect of writing a brief note to a teacher or a boss is only slightly less terrifying than having to speak in front of people. If you are a writer -- even a greenhorn newbie who still leans on adverbs and the passive tense -- you are already head and shoulders above most of the world.

So I give you the same advice that I give The Kiddo and myself: be kind to yourself. Be forgiving. Cut yourself a little slack. If you're doing the best that you can, it's all you can do ... and all anybody can expect of you.


Linda G. said...

I still remember my utter horror at the first (and only) C I ever received. It was in my high school chemistry class, during a quarter when I was heavily preoccupied with a play in the drama department. Nobody put any pressure on me, either--I did that all myself. Thankfully, I learned to go a lot easier on myself.

Lickety Splitter said...

I can certainly relate (at least to you). I wasn't an early aged perfectionist, but the quest for perfectionism grew on me. I now have to remind myself not to strive for perfection, only my personal best.

Al said...

I must say the hunt for marks never grabbed me as a child. I always knew I could get them if I wanted but was too bored by school to be bothered.
That didn't change until I went back to University a second time (in my late 20s/early 30s) then nothing but High distinctions were good enough. It seemed to matter then. (and I guess I was interested)

Meghan Ward said...

I was like Kiddo at that age and all the way through grad school, although I did get a few Bs somewhere in between. So I can relate to her. I hope it serves her well, though, and that she learns at some point not to be too tough on herself.

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