The Burden of Best

“Do your best,” teachers tell students. And most times that’s good advice. But these words place a heavy burden on some students.

The most exhausted students I taught were perfectionists. I found them in all my classrooms—in the prison school, at the middle school, and in the college classes I taught. But perfectionists showed up most often in my gifted classes. These students with high intelligence were familiar with success—but not with failure.

Most of them had grown up succeeding without effort. But at some point, all gifted students—in middle school accelerated classes or high school Advanced Placement courses or college honors or a Ph.D. program—come to a place where effort is required and failure actually seems possible.

Their standards are so high that the new challenges they face can be met only with great difficulty, or not at all. And anything short of perfection, they feel, would lead to disaster.

Some of my students could find only one way out—procrastination. The only way to avoid failure, they figured, was to not start at all or to start but not finish. As long as they didn’t commit, the possibility of perfection remained.

These students linked what they did with who they were. They felt pressured to demonstrate their worth through performance, avoiding mistakes at great cost. Many of them struggled with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and even self-harm.

The irony is that students learn best as they make mistakes. And they don’t learn much when they do nothing because they’re afraid they will make one.

So what tools can move students out of this trap of disabling perfectionism? Here are some mantras for self-talk I passed on to students:

  • It’s not all or nothing. Let go of the on and off switch, I’d say, and use a dimmer switch. It’s not all success or all failure. Look for the bad in the good and good in the bad. According to legend, someone once asked Thomas Edison, “How did it feel to fail 999 times while you invented the lightbulb?”

“I didn’t fail 999 times,” Edison reportedly said. “I found 999 ways not to make a lightbulb.”

  • I probably won’t die. Perfectionists tend to catastrophic thinking. If I make a mistake (or get a B or don’t become the valedictorian), I won’t survive the humiliation. Actually, not reaching a standard can often relieve pressure and increase energy in other parts of life.

“I just wish she’d get a B and find out she’ll live,” one parent told me.

  • Live 3-D. Perfectionists often fixate on the possibility of failure. Their focus narrows, letting negatives push positives out of their thinking. And so they lose the balance other parts of life can bring—the catharsis of exercise, the support of relationships, the inspiration of the arts. When students find extra-academic richness, they keep healthier perspectives.

Teachers dream of classrooms of students who want to do their best. But perhaps a better scenario is classrooms of students who value learning so much they’re willing to risk failure to learn.

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