If I were ever asked to give a commencement speech – and to paraphrase an old joke, I wouldn’t want to attend any college that would have me as a commencement speaker – I know what I’d say. I’d tell all those perfect fresh faces that if they are perfectionists, snap out of it. Today. Right now.
As with so many life lessons, I learned, or am learning, this kind of late. The added knife-twist is I chose pursuits – writing, and briefly before that, playing baseball, among our most failure-soaked sports – that especially mock perfectionists, then knocks them down, beats them about the head and neck with a pillowcase full of oranges and sneers, “Sure, kid, come on back and let’s go for perfection again tomorrow.”
But that was always my devilish deal with perfectionism, that it was in fact the perfect motivator for whatever task was at hand. I figured if I tried to write the perfect story, or play the perfect game every single time, I’d of course have high standards (so admirable!) and would at least get close to perfect when I inevitably fell short of perfect (so determined!).
The problem with such high-mightiness, though, comes when you struggle to accept that inevitable imperfection part. It unbalances the equation. I couldn’t complete the formula. It was as if I should possess some magical infallibility that would make me the only infielder to catch every ball and make every throw. As if I should have some extra proprietary gear, known to the most special achievers, that would propel me toward the glorious sports-writing sun every time my fingers touched a keyboard.
What a bunch of insufferable crap. God. Shut up.
Perfectionism weighed down so much of my life, my 31-year journalism career, my marriage, my parenting, my piano- and guitar-playing (I noodle), pretty much anything I touched. It abused me, tormented me, frustrated me, made me feel unworthy, pretty much made me just a total damn joy at parties.
That isn’t correct, though, because perfectionism only did all that because I allowed it to. Allowed it to explode my head if it took me multiple stabs at some stupid household chore for which I had no aptitude; think Ralphie’s dad in “A Christmas Story,” clanking and cursing the furnace. I was who allowed the satisfaction of conquering an oppressive p.m. deadline — getting the column or story done and in — to die amid almost immediate post-filing angst that Sports Illustrated certainly wouldn’t be sending a limo after reading more of that meatball surgery.
The sports psychologist Bob Rotella writes in his great book “Golf is Not a Game of Perfect” that while “striving for perfection is essential, demanding perfection . . . is deadly.” I read that once upon a time. Must have skipped over that nugget. Pursued golf anyway. Still stink at it. Still tomahawk clubs into the turf now and again after a shank, as if I’m supposed to hit it like Rory Freaking McIlroy.
Ah, but all that internal self-tomahawking happens nowhere near as often, or with such flair, here as I come out as a recovering — I hope — perfectionist. And that hints at perhaps a happy ending, because for pretty much forever, I was as bad as they came at forgiving myself. At being kind to myself, being my “best friend,” whatever you want to call it. I didn’t even understand the concept. Thought it was yoga-babble. It’s embarrassing to be that developmentally challenged, that inwardly inept, so far into the game.
The good news, though, is the game isn’t over. And that while wisdom was later arriving than it should have been – but blessedly so over a past few years of personal tumult and regular shortfalls — it arrived nonetheless, informing me that gratitude is not a platitude, but something real and precious and human and humbling, no matter your transitional stage on the spectrum.
I think that’s kind of what I would yak at the commencement kids, what I’ve tried to reinforce of late to my own kids, who fortunately get it. To take care of others, first take care of yourself. Forgive your flaws. Work to improve them, but forgive them. Breathe. Apologize. Pat your back. Congratulate the full and honest effort. Stir the essential pot of ambition, sure. But don’t muddle it with that demand for perfection, that expectation of it. That’s a disease, the counterintuitive curse that guarantees a complete picture of yourself will never emerge.
Yeah. That’s what I would tell the kids.