21 Lessons by 21 — #6: Perfectionism Will Ruin your Life

Very often do I hear people complaining about finding the perfect wife or husband, having the perfect child, getting the perfect grade, building the perfect house, the perfect job, the perfect life… well, you get where this is going.

Truth is. Life sucks. Even at the most expensive suite at the Marriott with your hard-earned cash, you’ll still complain about the room service, or the grumpy cleaning lady on the way up, or the not so perfectly symmetrically arranged flowers on the table (if that applies to you then you have to be a bloody maniac).

Only those who can suck it up will be content with the life they lead and enjoy the balance it offers.

All my life, I have had the chance and privilege of having a loving mother who showered me with the adoration one would ever dream of. At school, professors would brag about me to their classes and set me as an example to follow (the downside of that is that it bought me free enemies I didn’t wish for — I just wish professors stop doing that, we are not asking for it).

In other words, I was the perfect little kid.

Problem is. All of this was mostly acting and forced discipline to meet the expectations of everyone. Most of the times I was stressing just because I was afraid I would deceive people who believed in my intelligence.

I was sick of packaging myself to meet their standards. I was sick of having to be the perfect kid all the time. I was sick of being the role model in the family. I was sick of them assuming what they thought I was.

Reversely speaking, I felt I never had a chance to live a life for myself but rather to others, where I’d work on sculpting, refining and adapting the “perfect” child my mother wanted me to be.

I just wanted to be nothing. I just wanted family, professors and friends to leave me alone. I just wanted to have a life for myself instead of trying to look perfect to everyone.

I called up my mother one day and said: “I just want to have a break down without you and other people judging me. I don’t want to be the next Einstein erudit on the planet. I don’t want to be the girl everyone looks up to in the family. I just want you to understand that I have flaws like everybody else, that sometimes it is hard to stay on top of everything, and that sometimes I just want to disappear to cease all the burden of the attention weighing on my shoulders. I just really want to lead a normal life where I can reflect rather than brag, learn rather than impress, and enjoy simple, idle moments laying somewhere on the grass, watching the blue sky without worrying about the next grade, or the next big thing revolutionary thing you expect me to build.”

We were raised in a culture where successes meant you were smart and failures meant you weren’t. As simple as that. So all you had to do was to pile up the successes and arrange them as a token of your intelligence, so that everybody says how much of an amazing, talented, flabbergasting individual you are. And you could go back home all happy with the comments you triggered by sheer exposure of things you wanted to be noticed.

It was crystal clear in my mind: Why waste your time trying to prove you’re the best/great, while you can spend your time getting better and better? Most of the people waste their time desperately craving for validation to bolster their egos, while avoiding challenge that would lead them towards personal growth.

When I was in Korea, professor would always ask a question, but students would not raise their hand. When I asked why? People told me that Koreans have a high degree of fear of losing face. Even if they knew the answer, they were so afraid of making a mistake they would actually let an awkward silence slip in the classroom until the professor eventually answered the question himself. As a result, the class was more like a slide-sharing space, where the professor would vomit content that students were supposed to come back during the exam, and vomit back again.

As an exemplification of what I said: I remember I went on a trip once and when I came back, I asked a Korean classmate if she could meet me after class to talk about what they have done during my absence. She raised her arms in an X sign and said no she couldn’t, as a sorry expression was being drawn up her face. I was surprised and asked why? She mumbled: “No.. No eng-rish!”

I was shocked and amused at the same time: How could she not speak English when the whole class was being conducted in english? I didn’t insist. But I later told the story to a Korean friend of mine, and he told me amusingly that, most of the time, Koreans will avoid speaking English as they’re afraid of people’s perception of their accent or language skills. It was her fear of speaking English incorrectly, to expose her deficiency. She was just not ready to lose face. And it made me understand how, even after 12 years of English classes, most Korean people still had a lot of difficulty speaking the language, although at University level, they had no problem listening.

The problem with both the latter stories is that this fear of losing face was a serious blockade to a learning opportunity. The more one is confronted with their imperfections, the more they work on honing their skills, learning, and eventually growing.

In the same chain of thought, being in an imperfect relationship with someone will also allow you to learn more about each, understand, and grow together (wouldn’t it be boring otherwise?)

My painting master told me once: “ You know, in fine, the goal of a painter is to ultimately paint like a child. A painter spends most of their life trying to perfect their piece of art, but only a child paints with no perfection in mind, and yet the most beautiful paintings are those of a child. They are free of norms, free of rules, free of daunting limits and expectations. Every stroke is splashed like a cascade of emotions and excitement for what’s going to arise. Rationality has no place. Only emotions speak. A child molds an imaginary universe, and it’s beautiful. It’s careless. It’s limitless.”

Perfectionism is about rationality and standards. It’s boring. It’s blocking your way to making beautiful things because of their asymmetry and carelessness. It will ruin your life, and will get its grip on your self-esteem and even the way others perceive you by extension.

Paint your life, your partner, your child, your job, your house, your Splash in the colors you want, make mistakes, ruin your art, start another one, ruin it again, start over.

It stays art. Because art is subjective after all, and only you know the amount of emotion and work that went into it.