I grew up in a world where perfection was taught as the ideal. I was surrounded by critical (yet loving) adults during my childhood, and each shortcoming that I had was never missed, and pointedly brought to my attention. While a positive take on this particular upbringing would include a constant desire for continual self-improvement, to which I attribute my acquisition of a wide array of knowledgeable tidbits and how-tos, I would like to argue that perfectionism in excess could be damaging to any human being, and even more so, to a child.
We are all human. Meaning we all make mistakes. Perfection is not attainable by any means. Yet it is societally portrayed as an achievable goal. At an early age, we are taught to reach for perfection. Examples of this include staying within the lines when you first learn to color. Using a ruler when drawing a line. Organizing your desks into rows and columns. Dot the I’s and cross the T’s. Aim for 100% on every exam. An A+ is the most covetable grade, would you not agree? This extends into our later school years, when we have to practice our speeches before we present. When we try out for Club sports teams, or for a part in the school play. And so the cycle goes long after we’ve graduated. When we see coworkers getting promotions, friends buying new cars or new homes, advertisements showing off the latest gadgets, Instagram photos of so and so still looking fly at age 30 while you’re trying to hide the dark circles under your eyes. We get graded our whole lives, judged, measured against our peers, our progress monitored with the hope of seeing some improvement. Alas, I am not saying improvement isn’t good. I am only saying perfection is not.
For the entirety of my first decade on earth, and for the majority of the second, I believed that creating a life as close to perfect as possible will yield a very successful life. I remember my personal frustrations when I would fall short of perfect. I would throw tantrums, loathing myself for my humanness. I would watch kids close to my age and aim to beat them in everything I can. My competitive spirit urged me to fight, until I left everyone behind in the dust. If I lost a game, I would be livid. If I didn’t get the highest score on a test, I would not allow myself any joys. Once I did start getting the highest scores on the test, it stopped being enough. I also had to be the first to turn the test in. I had to be the kid with the highest grades in the highest classes with the most volunteer hours while balancing multiple jobs. I was doing well at striving for perfect. I now realize that perfectionism is unsustainable, and if I had continued down that path, I would end up exhausted, burnt out, and defeated, because I would have never, no matter how hard I tried, ever reached the point of perfection. I would have spent more years of my life, afraid of being judged, but being judged anyway.
I got to a point in my early teens where I felt I was never good enough. My ego was deflated to something akin to paper thin. I think if striving for perfection is forced at a very early age on children, it can lead to a number of insecurities that, misguided, could have life-long detrimental effects. I, luckily, am not such a child, but how many teenagers today feel a vast emptiness in their lives? How many people develop eating disorders, depression, or suicidal tendencies? How many adults play “Keeping up with the Joneses”? How many people spend every day trying to be somebody they’re not? I was able to escape the rabbit hole towards perfection before it all together consumed me. It did however, define my early teen years. I was a very shy young girl, who was not confident at all in my abilities, despite achieving more than my peers. I felt like my accomplishments always fell short, although I kept on trying, and because of that, I had a tendency to undersell myself. More importantly, I lived in constant fear that whatever I was accomplishing in life was not good enough by other people’s standards. Because of this, I kept my accomplishments mostly to myself. I was afraid to share ideas, to ask questions, or to take a risk when opportunities arose. I was hesitant to meet new people, to start trends, and to step outside of my comfort zone, avoiding activities such as sports or acting. Public speaking scared the living daylights out of me. I once had to stand up and give a speech in front of a class for Academic Decathlon. I was so afraid, I remember shaking like a leaf. A funny classmate of mine yelled, “Is the wind blowing in here?” I remember starting to cry in front of twenty other students. Not exactly the best impression. The teacher never made me do a class presentation for the rest of the year, and I was forever ear-marked as a sensitive student. Ironically, six months later, I won third place for my speech, in all of Orange County, out of more than five hundred students. It’s not that my speech wasn’t good the first time, or that I improved my delivery dramatically by practicing for the competition. It was because I was presenting in front of twenty peers who I was afraid would not understand my writing style, my topic, or my delivery, VS speaking to two judges who I felt understood multiple writing styles, topics, and deliveries. I would have forever been doomed to this constant, insecure state, if it weren’t for art.
My savior came in the form of an art teacher in 11th grade named Mr. Welke. He was an older fellow who had a gray handlebar mustache, wore a leather jacket, a white tee, and jeans every day, played guitar, and rode a bright blue motorcycle to school. He was my hero. I decided to take art class because, well, I loved to draw, and paint, and make things out of nothing. I didn’t take an art class before that point because it wasn’t considered “productive”. I was only able to take it when I was finishing up a majority of my requirements to graduate and I still needed a fifth period class. Creativity has always been an attractive soul mate, a kindred spirit that stayed the course with me from childhood until now. My problem was that whenever I created something and showed it to a grown up, there was always room for improvement. Additionally, if I ever created anything remotely avant-garde, it would be scoffed at for being a bit too creative, which, little did I know, does not exist. Repeatedly redirected to copying other famous artists’ work, or redoing mine own to be a bit more perfect, I fell into a cycle of non-creativity. I was told I was making art, when really, I was RE-making art. The same art that already exists.
When I started art class, I thought I was going to be great at it. I thought it was going to be an easy course to add to my five AP classes (zero period included), and will allow me time to relax at school. However, for the first few months, I struggled. Not because I had awful hand-eye coordination or lack of attention to detail. Mostly, because my fear of falling short of perfect crippled my ability to produce anything. I fell behind due dates, turning in assignments such as drawing vertical lines without a ruler and making circles with the left hand very late. I remember I struggled most when we were asked to make a self-portrait of ourselves in pencil. I must have stared at myself in the mirror for a hundred hours, scrapping every attempt I made because I felt like none of them resembled a hard-copy photograph of the mirror. I think he recognized my struggles, and one day told me that I was trying way too hard. He gave me a small speech and though the words are now lost to me, the message never left.
You cannot be an artist and perfect at the same time. Aiming for perfection will handicap you in more ways than one. You will not be able to produce, and you will not be able to create. You can only copy what has already been done, and continue to re-do it forever and ever, because there is no end with perfection. True art, or any form of expression of self, cannot coexist with something so definite. If you want to be a genuine creative, you have to let perfect go. The point of art is to produce. At the end of the day, if you made one thing, regardless of what it looks like to others or to you, you have still made one thing. It’s a product that you can sign, or not sign, share, or keep to yourself. You can do whatever you want with it, because it is yours and only yours. A true artist needs to learn to genuinely express what is inside their being, without fear of being judged. An audience should never shape what you are trying to make, or else they will rob you of your true self. You would be a complete waste, if you do not create for the rest of your life.
While it took me many years to start implementing this advice, and I continually tweak it even today, it taught me what it meant to be the real me. At first, I applied it solely to my art. I started to turn in paintings and drawings that were unfinished, but on time. I learned that to finish something, I had to stop spending my time lolling, overthinking, overanalyzing, and scrapping. I stopped running in circles until I was ragged, and started drawing straight lines without caring about their lack of straightness. I stopped being so hard on myself, and I started to love the freedom of making a blob and calling that art. I started to answer questions, then ask them myself. I started to challenge multiple thoughts, and reach out to other people I didn’t know. I conquered the fear of tackling any task that might initially seem too big. I stopped believing in limits. I started living life, one day at a time. My goal is to no longer be perfect. My goal is to be free. Every morning, I wake up with one mission. To be slightly better than I was yesterday. That’s it. I don’t have to reach a milestone. As long as I work towards improving myself in even the slightest bit, then I have already created a better me in a better place. I can put my signature on it, and share it with the world, or keep it to myself. By wanting to become an artist, I learned to reach for something beyond perfect. I started to reach for something completely human.