We all remember the song, right? Fairground Attraction ride along a canal singing about how it (what ever ‘it’ is) has GOT to be perfect. ‘Too many people take second best/but I won’t take anything less/it’s got to be perfect’ chirps Eddi Reader. Well, it’s a brilliantly catchy song but the message concerns me. ‘Perfectionist’ seems to be held up as a kind of buzz-adjective that high-achieving students seem very keen to apply to themselves, or even worse, seem very keen to have other people apply to them. To be described as a ‘perfectionist’ shows your standards are high, you demand the best from people and from yourself and you won’t stand by to watch the world wallow in mediocrity, right?
I have taught some wonderful students in my time, some of whom have achieved high, some of whom haven’t, (guess what kids, you can still be amazing without getting full marks in everything or in fact anything) but across the board, the unhappiest ones have been those who aimed for perfection. Like some kind of insidious creeping tendril of misery, perfectionism creeps into their blood until they are not only unable to enjoy any victory, but unable to cope with the stress of what lies before them. As the realisation of either how many plates they are spinning, or the unpredictability of the next step in their lives begins to hit them, they become completely paralysed by it. I’ve seen students who could have the world at their feet break down in tears because they are scared they won’t be perfect in their music concert, won’t score a winning goal in their upcoming match, won’t get full marks on this or that test, that their GCSE/A-Level results will contain an unpleasant surprise, or that they need to know what university is going to be like before they get there. They are driven by a need to control – but there are things in this life that we cannot control, and learning to embrace that and make it part of their armour, not its most vulnerable chink, is not only liberating but necessary if they are going to enjoy this wonderful world of ours.
Now, as for what has made them like this, I don’t know. Sometimes I’ve realised that they have had ludicrous expectations placed upon them from an early age; the certainty that if you want to achieve anything in this life, you had better get A* grades and you had better go to Oxford or Cambridge. Wherever these expectations have come from, it makes me both sad and angry that they have been made to feel this way. Whatever the reason, these kids are scared stiff by the prospect that something is coming up that they can’t control, and nobody seems to have given them any guidance as to how to deal with that.
Control is a difficult thing to give up, especially when you’re young and the pressure seems to be put on you so directly and you have absolutely no experience of it. Having fully signed up to the Growth Mindset movement that seems to be sweeping the education world, and read the four core texts, (Dweck’s Mindset, Coyle’s The Talent Code, Syed’s Bounce and Peters’ The Chimp Paradox), I’ve understood better how to deal with the perfectionism that used to cripple me and hold me back. We need to remember though that our students haven’t read these books, and even if they had, they haven’t necessarily had the life experience to digest and properly apply the advice and lessons therein.
I’m thinking of Tennis at the moment. As I write this, it’s Sunday evening and in soon, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic will contest the final of the US Open. Federer has long been one of my favourite sportsmen, and with a haul of 87 career titles, including 17 majors, 1047 career wins and prize money of $93m, he has done alright for himself. He is, to some, the perfect tennis player, but crucially, he isn’t a perfectionist.
“I won’t just put the entire calendar just around trying to win the calendar Grand Slam. It’s something if it happens, it does and it’s great, but it’s not something that’s like my number one goal, not at all. It’s the same as I haven’t put a number on how many Grand Slams I want to try to win. Whatever happens, happens.” – Roger Federer.
Federer is an inspiration to millions, and a blueprint for how to maximise your potential in every possible way. His story is a Growth-Mindset Chimp Paradoxing dream come true. He has categorically identified and worked on his flaws, sometimes undergoing what must have been painful self-examination to figure out where to go next, overcome injury, new challengers to his dominance and the changing face of the men’s game, not to mention the fact that for 15 years he has been the Goliath that every other player has tried to knock off his perch. He has had to completely re-invent himself, despite having reached (according to the pundits) perfection long ago. He knows better though. At 34, some say he is playing the best tennis of his life, and yet he hasn’t been World No.1 for over two years and hasn’t won a Grand Slam since Wimbledon in 2012. So things aren’t perfect. Federer, though, knows that these are things he can’t control. You can’t win them all. For the Grand Slams he has won, he has lost 9 finals, and may lose a 10th tonight if the form book is to be followed. He has lost 18 Masters 1000 finals, three ATP Year-End Championships and an Olympic final. Altogether he has lost 51 finals in his career. This is clearly not perfection, and yet pundits and fellow players alike have often said that not only is he the greatest player of all time, but that nobody can get over a loss quite like he does. So how can he do it?
Simple. He doesn’t pursue perfection, he pursues excellence. Everything he can control, he does control. That way, he knows that if he comes off court a loser, there is literally nothing he could have done about it, which means he can get over it. He did everything he could. There is no doubt he feels disappointment, probably anger at times, but before long, he is getting ready for what’s next. Now, Federer’s career path doesn’t make for a perfect analogy with school students, of course, but one thing that’s clear is that not being a perfectionist has helped Federer become the best he can be, and it’s something I think we should be giving our children and our students.
Andy Murray’s a perfectionist. That much is clear. In Andre Agassi’s words, he is a ‘tortured perfectionist’. Personally, I don’t think there can be any other kind. Now, there’s no doubt that Murray has achieved far beyond what most people could dream of, and I’m a big fan of his too, but for all the talk of how many times Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic has beaten him, I am convinced that the person that has beaten him the most is Andy Murray. Belittling himself after every misplaced shot, expanding negative energy over every little detail that may be beyond him, we have all seen him capitulate against mentally strong opponents, worn down and destroyed by his realisation that he is not perfect. It’s something you simply don’t see from Federer. He is almost preternaturally cold on a court, no matter what the situation. He understands that sometimes, things go wrong. What matters is how you react to it.
When I was 12 years old, I read ‘Jurassic Park’ for the first time. It changed my life. People have scoffed at this before, but I don’t really mind – it was a landmark moment in my life, as it introduced me to (I’m sure a very watered-down version of) Chaos Theory. From there, I discovered Murphy’s Law, and was terrified of both things. The idea that there is order in chaos, and that whatever could go wrong would go wrong really got under my skin. I thought that in order to be successful, I had to defy these apparent laws. I was mistaken; I should have been embracing them.
If you are a perfectionist, then you expect that everything will be perfect. So what do you do when it isn’t? That’s where true greatness lies. As teachers, we plan our lessons, but the best teachers don’t plan down to the minute. They know that you can plan a lesson that exactly for a maximum of 12 seconds. After that, chaos theory comes into play. I don’t know what will happen to throw you off kilter, but something will. Once a shackle, it’s now something I embrace. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have activities ready, it doesn’t mean I don’t need to plan carefully, know my subject and my students inside out, or demand the best from myself and those who learn in my classroom, but I don’t demand, expect, or even hope for perfection from any of us.
My least favourite part of Perfectionism is that it stops people from enjoying small victories. Small victories, unless (or perhaps even if) you are competing in the kind of arena that Federer et al are, are wonderful and not to be under-estimated just because they don’t mean you have ‘won’. This is life. You don’t ‘win’ or ‘lose’, you just win or lose sometimes. It doesn’t mean that you have to suffer unless you also insist on being perfect. In the most recent ‘Secret Footballer’ book, a top sports psychologist says that what shocks him most in the modern game is ‘How insecure the best players are. Perfection is an asymptote. It is never achieved and only two things happen when people go looking for it. Either they live unhappy lives because they are unable to find it or they think they’ve found it and then worry every day that they are going to lose it.’ Andre Agassi echoed that sentiment in a recent interview about why he thinks Andy Murray has recently come up short against the world’s best:
“It’s a living hell being a perfectionist but does it make you better? It can be a strength but it can also be demoralising. You don’t accept less and you can be at your worst. It’s the artist taking the knife to the canvas.”
Think of what has been achieved in the grand pantheon of human history. It’s quite staggering. What if those artists had taken a knife to their canvas? The entire accomplishments of humanity remind me of some of the students I’m thinking of as I write this blog, actually. Wonderful, thrilling, impressive, humbling, empowering, inspiring? Yes. Perfect? No.
Having written nearly 2,000 words of this blog, I’ve just discovered this quote that condenses its message far better than I have been able to.
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
I wish I could have put it that succinctly. Oh well, nobody’s perfect.