Tuesday, December 07, 2004


When I was in high school and in college, I met a lot of bright and talented people. There was just one thing crippling them: they were perfectionists. Now I'm not saying striving to be a better person is wrong. It's good. Perfection is actually something we should aim for, although in most cases, it's not always obtained. But I'm talking about a different kind of perfectionist. These aren't people who are striving to be the best that they can be. Rather, they're only aiming for the illusion of it.

The first kind of faux perfectionists were the ones I met in high school. Most of them comprised the elite of the class, the "advanced students". Whether it's through sheer genius or hard work, they got the highest grades in class. They won awards every quarter, gaining prestige and the respect of their teachers and parents. And perhaps the problem was the fact that they became addicted to it. Anything less than an A, for example, would be a crime. They all have their own justifications, whether it's because their parents don't want anything less than a perfect grade, or because they want a good record, or simply for the sake of retaining their status. And they maintain this "perfection" through means like cheating. Now we've all heard of the student who resorts to cheating in order to pass his or her subjects. Some of my former classmates cheat in order to get a 100, not a passing grade. Second honors wouldn't do; it must be first honor! Or I have these classmates who refuse to explore for themselves and ponder the solutions independently: when it comes to studying required readings, their first action is to consult their Barron's guide or Cliff Notes, rather than the text itself (now I don't have any qualms with people using guides to help them understand their readings, but at least make the effort first to understand it yourself; guides for me are the last resort, not the first one... don't underestimate your intelligence so actually use it).

While there were still cheaters when I started studying in college, there was significantly less of them. But since college is different from high school in the fact that you could choose your classes or teachers, it introduced me to a different set of so-called perfectionists. When I'm asked which teacher to take in a particular class, I often ask them "do you want to learn or do you want to get a high grade?" It's usually the perfectionists who opt for the latter. I mean personally I prefer the former. Sure, I might not get a high grade (but hopefully a passing grade) and I might even fail the subject (and this has happened to me, although admittedly, I didn't know what I was getting into initially), but I'll learn. These kinds of teachers are those who usually have a high standard of teaching, or they teach in unconventional ways that the typical student who merely takes down notes and reads the readings won't get an A (they might get a B but not an A). When you choose the latter, sure, you might get a high grade on paper, but more often than not, the quality of the teaching isn't as good as you would have gotten if you opted for the more difficult teacher (that's not to say that these teachers aren't capable of teaching; they are, but it's just that they're usually less comprehensive, demand less, or simply teach in a conventional manner that you'll miss out on some material that's more sophisticated). It's like choosing the unknown or something which you already know the result. Sure, the latter is the easiest, since you know exactly what you're getting into. No surprises there. But personal growth can only be found in the former, since you simply don't know what's going to be required of you. And you can take greater pride in the fact that you excelled in something that you were initially unfamiliar with.

To me, the real perfectionists are those who are willing to risk everything and explore the unknown. Will they fail? Perhaps at the start. But the mark of the real perfectionist is that they stand up when they fall down and keep on trying. And trying. And trying. Until they finally get it right. And getting it right is not enough. It must be excellent. And so they try and try again.

I think the problem with society today is that we're too afraid of failing. For me, failure is only a true failure if you didn't learn anything from it. Some of the best lessons I've learned come from my mistakes. I mean if you excel at something, you tend to ignore or underestimate it the next time it comes around. But if you fail at something, the next time you encounter it, you become wary and alert. And so you avoid disaster by heeding your previous experiences. Trial and error, while perhaps is not the best way to learn things (since you often end up injured), has always been the most effective method (since it becomes ingrained in us). And perhaps the most important thing about failing is getting back up. And that's what true perfectionists do. They're not afraid of failing. Rather, failing has no hold over them. They might end up not succeeding but that doesn't stop them. They get back up until they get it right.

We should recognize that failure is not a bad trait. Just because a person didn't succeed doesn't mean he or she is less of a person. It's a radical paradigm from today's modern world where results and perfection are popular. Our parents ask it from us, our peers, our coworkers. For me what's important is that you get back up and learn something from the experience. I may not be the most talented person around, or even the most hard-working. But I know that as long as I have an open minded and an optimistic attitude, I can get back up from whatever failings that I have and become a better person. And that is a better guage of who I am than any report card can give.


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