It’s that time of year when many of my students get a wild look in their eyes. The look suggests they’re almost having an out-of-body experience as, although they physically sit in my class, their brain has floated off to focus on all the things they must do before the end of semester. Being present and in the moment is almost impossible for some of them.
It’s this inability to be present coupled with an immense pressure to do well that can make life really difficult. These students will be extra hard on themselves, procrastinate (because starting an assignment is often scary because…what if they don’t do well) or totally mess up their submission because they’ve over-thought the whole thing and made it far more complicated than it needs to be.
As a former student with a strong perfectionist streak, I look at these students and can totally relate to their experience. But with the benefit of hindsight and yes, a couple of decades, I know that seeking perfection is a complete waste of time. As I said to one stressed teenager the other day, ‘Perfection doesn’t exist in nature so how could it possibly exist in humans?’
It’s a recurring theme and I feel like a lot of people keep trying to be perfect when they should just be themselves and know that’s enough. I mean, doing well at university is important because it will help you with your job prospects. But punishing yourself because you did your best but your marks aren’t as high as you would like is a pointless exercise. Far better to learn from what you did wrong and then apply that knowledge the next time – because you’re not perfect.
Similarly, worrying about all the things you haven’t done yet or will have to do at some point, is also a waste of energy. These types of thoughts will fry your brain with negativity and stress so that, when you finally sit down to do the work, you’ll already be exhausted and definitely not at your best.
Of course, this drive to be perfect and to constantly worry about or plan for the future is wholeheartedly supported and propagated by much of our mainstream media. Its focus on physical forms that are out of reach for the average person (um, supermodels are genetically wired to look like that) and the sentiment of needing to push for success and live the capitalist dream are everywhere. To be successful is to have money, have a high profile, look as physically perfect as possible and always be on the look out for the next best thing.
The voices advocating for looking within for your answers, accepting who you are as you are, doing your best and doing what is right for you, are frequently murmurs in the background rather than heard from the loudspeakers in our contemporary cultural conversations.
So, as I look at my students (who are frequently merely reflections of a much younger me), I just want them to know that if they do their best it will be enough. I want them to know that, if they can just be present in every moment as much as possible, it will help them to do better at their studies and at life. And above all, I want them to know that the pursuit of perfection is a journey without end. It is the pursuit of a mirage that will never take a tangible form.
So for all my fabulous students and every other student struggling with the pressures of end of semester, my advice is this: be present, be yourself, do your best, and know that is enough.