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Releasing Perfectionism

Will Kyle.
Photo by Carla Occaso

by Will Kyle

One year ago, as I began my third semester at Vassar College, my grade point average was in the 2 range. This meant that I could not apply for a junior semester abroad to Barcelona, Spain, which was a dream of mine for a long time.

My third semester was filled with more mistakes. My grades did not improve.

But like a samurai sword tempered by flames, my work ethic was slowly becoming strong and flexible.

I ended my fourth semester with over a 3.5, pulling my overall grade point average to just over 3.

I began my third semester with two classes — advanced Spanish and a contemporary political philosophy seminar — that were well above my ability to handle. I naively believed that my great interest in the classes would allow me to succeed.

I had no choice but to drop Spanish a third of the way into the semester. I failed an important test, and had no option but to either fail, or drop the class. I took this as a lesson not to bite off more than I can chew.

I needed another credit to remain enrolled in college. The only option available to me was luckily an easy credit: a field work class visiting a nearby Buddhist monastery named Tsechen Kunchab Ling for one weekend near the end of the semester.

I had been interested in Buddhism before. At the monastery, I saw how some people meditate for their whole lives. They idolize the Buddha, a person who started out a regular person like anyone else. The Buddha’s only significance is that he learned how to understand his thoughts and control himself, practicing those skills until he was completely at peace. These skills led to his being deemed a sage with more wisdom than others, so he attracted followers who felt his teachings were worth studying.

The magnificence of the monastery displayed the passion that Buddhists have for their religion. The temple is filled with extraordinary tapestries and a huge golden-painted statue of the Buddha. Their library is in a small room filled floor to ceiling with books on hundreds of different topics related to Buddhism. Behind the temple, hundreds of hand-printed prayer flags are hung over a large field from one end to the other.

Every person living at the monastery was humble, down-to-earth, and very kind. Some of them were very well-read in ancient texts, while others followed the practices they were taught while trying to learn directly from their experience. Everyone there was trying to learn about themselves and attempting to be the best people they could be.

The experience inspired me to do the same. The Buddha did it, and thousands of years later his story is still inspiring hundreds of millions of people around the world. Although a monastery is not the right place for me at this time, I can still make an attempt on my own.

About a month later, my winter break became the turning point in my discipline and enthusiasm for school work. I didn’t have a job, so I decided to work on myself.

The strategy I used was to organize my time into an efficient, but fluid, schedule. I would limit each activity that I wanted to do to only the amount of time I needed to be satisfied. I kept my interests in a healthy balance.

The whole idea was to give myself the feeling that I wasn’t neglecting any part of my life that would end up pressing on my mind.

It is worth mentioning that it took years of exploration and playing to even find out what I really like to do. By this winter, however, I had learned that I like engaging with people by reading books, watching things on Netflix, keeping up with news and conversing with people; to be happy I need to have set plans for future employment and keep my house clean; I like to be active by working out, meditating, doing yoga stretches, hiking, swimming and even just hanging around outside; and I like to be artistic and creative, by cooking good food, writing poems or anything I feel like writing, oil painting, drawing, singing and playing music. Although I only have so much time in a day, I’m going to do whatever I can to not need to choose between my interests. To be myself, I have to take my interests seriously.

My normal way of life is to completely improvise and follow my impulses. Although that allows me to be creative, I noticed that any aspect of my life I neglect typically comes back to me later when I least expect it. There will be something that I can’t control, and the thing I neglected is what I need but don’t have.

My new strategy worked toward solving that problem. I could keep my creativity free while taking care of everything I found important. I was able to improve very rapidly, not so heavily on any one talent, but at the talent of being my own unique self.

I discovered how to put my all into everything I do.

First, I became aware of what “my all” was. I did it by paying very close attention to myself and to what was around me, for instance, down to smallest detail of a nice flower or a minor facial expression, and up to the largest worldwide scale of how people were reacting to current events or how the global music scene is changing. This active attention of mine left no thought, feeling, or perception out of my life as long as it could be in my life.

If something I noticed left me confused or unsatisfied, I would give myself time to think about what caused that feeling. When I would judge someone or myself, I would pause to think more deeply about the reasons for those judgements. Since a judgement usually indicates a conflict, I would try to change my way of thinking until I could think of a resolution, whether that be to adopt a new attitude or to take an action. I would only move on if I wasn’t leaving anything unresolved, even if the resolution was that I would keep watching for new perspectives on a problem.

This mindfulness gave me the raw material to my life that I could ask for, but on its own it doesn’t give me the energy and passion needed to do something with that raw material. That energy came from the efficiency and diversity of my schedule, which forced me to consider why I was choosing to do what I was doing, and what part of it was essential to me and my mental health.

I went into my fourth semester with a schedule of classes that I would be able to handle. This time I was much better at deciding my priorities rather than trying to get everything done. I did the things that I really wanted to do and nothing else. If I really wanted to pass a test, I would do what I had to do. If I really wanted to play my guitar, I would do that for a solid hour and think about nothing else.

If I were passing a class to my satisfaction and an assignment wasn’t vital to my academic goals, I would only do what I needed to get a passing grade, even a very bad grade. If I didn’t really want to go to a party, I simply wouldn’t go. This was very uncomfortable at first, and I had to practice not feeling guilty, but I got used to it.

I was only able to take this ethic to an extreme because I’m a journalism student. My writing portfolio will be far more marketable in the job market than my grade point average. Rather than see grades as an end in themselves, I see grades as indicating where my work is satisfactory and where I could improve, and nothing more important than that.

I have always been a perfectionist. This past semester, I stopped placing perfection as goal for any project whatsoever. This new attitude allowed me to comfortably work only on the projects that were most educational to me. The passion that I put into those projects translated into better grades than I would have received otherwise.

My abandonment of perfectionism gave me far more available time to work on revisions and relax. My quality of work and the speed at which I could produce it, ironically, became far higher than any previous semesters.

It seems I learned that I had to release my attachment to achieving my goals immediately. Only by releasing the desire for perfection, even while keeping in mind what perfection would mean for me, could I finally improve towards my goals.

By abandoning my perfectionism this past semester, I became more comfortable with unpolished work. That made me confident enough to make more frequent trips to the office hours of my professors. Those trips helped me to develop my ideas and made my classes more personal and fulfilling.

By looking back and picking apart the process of developing my current feeling of confidence, self-control and self-acceptance, I hope I can share that feeling to other people. Everyone will have their own strategy and process, as we all have different personalities. However, I believe that the key to my quick improvement was becoming well-rounded by developing my positive personality traits that were once weak. To me, if an aspect of my personality is dissatisfying, I must work on it and change myself, although acceptance of myself as I am is always the first step in that process.

I hope that some people can learn something from my experience. I certainly learned from many other people along the way. Still, I don’t think there is any way to avoid going about these things the old fashioned way: plain old trial and error.