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Columns

The “Perfect” Problem

By Gordon J. Ebanks, Crimson Opinion Writer
Gordon J. Ebanks ’24 is a Crimson Editorial editor. His column normally runs on alternate Mondays.

I’m a perfectionist, and I can’t do this anymore.

My heart is racing as I stay up past what should be my bedtime staring blankly at the screen, scared to make one wrong stroke on my keyboard out of fear of blemishing what must be a “perfect” piece of writing. I’m awake late, but I’m not tired. The determination and willpower that keeps perfectionists like me up doing a fourth round of edits on our English essays or committing the last chapter of a biology textbook to memory, into the morning’s early hours, makes the effects of caffeine and study drugs seem mild in comparison.

An unrelenting drive to be perfect all of the time, and in every task, is the unspoken but ever-present mental reality of many of our peers, myself included. In other words, perfectionism is our wonder drug, and the Harvard high we’re chasing is never not worth it.

Perfectionism, as commonplace and innocuous as it sounds, has taken over the interior lives of millions of students who have come to believe that simply achieving is not enough. For those of us at Harvard, perfectionism is often what gave us the edge that inflected our high school careers with the excellence that college admissions officers now demand.

In looking for the costs of a collective drive for perfection, I went searching for the kindred spirits of other Harvard perfectionists. Sophia N. Fend ’24 and Arjun N. Akwei ’24, two freshmen who self-identify as perfectionists, spoke with me about their experiences with perfectionism — and in doing so, showed me the commonalities that undergird the rigidities of this philosophy of perfection.

Fend did not always think of herself as a perfectionist. However, she used our collective quarantine experience to reflect on the experiences that paved her way to adulthood.

Fend describes her journey to Harvard through the lens of her perfectionism. In high school, where she leaned into perfectionism as a motivator to push herself to be her best, perfectionism made her detail-oriented and propelled her to go the extra mile on class assignments. Even though she now tries not to rely on her perfectionism to get work done, she acknowledges that it is an incredibly effective form of motivation, especially in an environment where student output is “gamified” in the form of GPAs: When the quality of a student’s work gets reduced to a number, it’s easy to focus on the percentage of points one missed, however small.

Yet, although perfectionism pushed her on a path that ultimately led to Harvard, Fend said she feels it is a “double-edged sword” that hurts even while it’s helping.

Akwei, who grew up in Chevy Chase, Md. as the son of two immigrants, a father from Ghana and a mother from Malaysia, talks about his perfectionism in a similar light, noting his family’s influence in shaping his work ethic. Perfectionism always prompts him to ask himself what we can do to make something better. Even when something is good, that’s no reason to stop.

But there is also a darker, more all-encompassing side to perfectionism that doesn’t get talked about nearly as often, and which finds its roots in the worst parts of our nation’s history.

I imagine it won't be hard for Harvard students to themselves in the stories of Akwei and Fend. Yet, as both explained, perfectionism does not just find itself in schoolwork, it is also heavily gendered and racialized. In Fend’s words, “creating yourself to be something that others want,” specifically men, is a style of thinking that has been pushed on women for centuries. For Akwei, being a person of color has meant that he has always had “something to prove” because being a person of color is to be socially imperfect in a nation where whiteness is the ideal.

As I have discovered throughout my life - when my fear of the imperfect has made outcomes that are only good seem intolerable - perfectionism becomes a form of self-harm because it is setting oneself up for failure. When good can always be better and perfect is the floor, not the ceiling, there is no room for self-satisfaction.

For me, perfectionism is not just something reflected on my transcript but has evolved itself into a pathological philosophy of viewing the world.

A life of doing everything “right” all the time leaves no room for error or for growth when growth and learning are everything to an education.

The omnipresent culture of competition that permeates nearly every aspect of life today has undoubtedly shaped the mental world that young people move through.

Yet perfectionism is so potent because perfection, on a societal level, is meant to feel attainable. If only we could improve our grades, get into our dream college, or look the way influencers look on Instagram, we could be a little bit closer to perfect. But we must introduce an expression of reality into the cold calculus of perfectionism because “perfect” is not a concept that exists in real life, nor is it ever meant to be attainable.

I may be a perfectionist, but I can’t do this anymore, because a life where good is never good enough and perfect is the floor and not the ceiling, is not a life I can or want to lead.

Gordon J. Ebanks ’24 is a Crimson Editorial editor. His column normally runs on alternate Mondays.

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