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The Pit of Perfection

By Xinyu “Cynthia” Zhang, Grade 11
I’m sure many of you have been told to make the most out of everything, to always strive for perfection and to try to be the best all the time. Trust me, I’m no stranger to this mentality.

Being Asian—the “model minority”—I was born from a culture that sometimes sees perfection as the only option. I mean, we all know the Asian grading scale: A’s for average, B’s for bad, C’s for… well, who actually gets below B?
But all jokes aside, this idea was ingrained so deeply in me that if you’ve known me for a while, you’d know that I’m a huge overachiever. I tried to get full marks for every assignment, win the first place in every contest, and produce the best act for every show. In fact, my advisor had once told me that I’m the most obsessive person he has ever met (thank you Mr. G).
One day in grade 9, right after report cards came out, Fernanda went up to me and asked, “Hey Cindy, guess what?”
“What? Did you beat me?”
“Well, what’s your average?”
“94.6…”
“Oh my gosh! I got 96! It’s higher than yours!”
I was later told that the look on my face was priceless. I said, “Congratulations…” and stormed out of the room to have a mental breakdown. It turned out that Fernanda did the calculations wrong, so I kept my precious first place after all.
That was just one out of the many examples of my perfectionism – which, although less academically orientated, is still very much present today. I’m sure there are countless others like me, although maybe in a less nerdy fashion. How many of you have tortured yourself for a body like an Instagram model’s, held a grudge against your teammate because you should’ve been chosen as the MVP, or envied other couples because your relationship isn’t as smooth as theirs seem?
If these obsessions go out of hand, there are many negative outcomes. For me, it’s a major source of anxiety, which in turn makes me mess up even more. What’s worse, my insane expectations often take away my capacity to be grateful. But there’s more than that. It also leads to the need for absolute control. Try to regulate your breathing, for example. It’s supposed to feel relaxing, but what really happens is that now that you’re aware of it, you can’t stop thinking about it and it starts to feel laboring. When this urge of control extends beyond oneself, there’s a bigger issue. Often, being perfect means being the best, which can sometimes mean stepping over others. You can even argue that it’s the same thing that causes conflicts, arm races and wars.
And what happens when the reality falls short of our dream?
Well, a lot of expectations have surely been broken in the crazy year of 2020. For me, as a new prefect, I feel that I didn’t exactly have an ideal start. See, the word prefect is two letters from perfect, and that’s the way I thought it’s supposed to be. Yet, I found that I’m not as assertive or sociable as I expected myself to be, and frankly, there are even times when I have no idea what I’m doing. In my head, I had this image of me going above and beyond, while in reality, I was sometimes struggling to do the bare minimum. And when we look at the bigger picture, the world didn’t plan for a total shutdown. Countless families lost their loved ones out of the blue. People all around the world are disappointed with their governments. No worker was anticipating losing their job. The class of 2020 didn’t get to say a proper farewell. 
So how do we cope with this? Is persisting in our unrealistic expectations the answer?And what’s the point of all this hassle? What even is perfection? It might seem simple enough with things like grades or salary – you can put a number to them. But even if you have straight A+’s or if you’re the richest person in the world… then what? Are you going to be universally likeable, or entirely happy? And when perfection can’t be quantized, it’s usually societal norms that dictate its criteria. For example, in Asia, having pale skin is the beauty standard, but in America, people line up for tanning beds (or dye themselves orange, in the case of President Trump). So there’s no way to be perfect in everyone’s eyes, and that in itself is a form of imperfection.
How, then, do you reach a state that can’t even be defined? That’s like asking for the value of infinity. Unless you’re God (if you’re religious), or perhaps an AI (if you’re not), you will never be free of all flaws – and that’s more than okay. Perfection is not our mission, while imperfection is our destiny. Not only that – it’s what makes us human. I played the piano for 10 years but for the first 7, I hated it. All I played was classical pieces – I was flawlessly reproducing something that has already been reproduced a million times. But when I came here, we were playing jazz in music class. In jazz, there are essentially no wrong notes. At first I was shocked at the idea, but gradually I began to embrace it. I started to create things that are truly my own, and that would never have happened if I didn't allow myself the room for mistakes.
My mom used to tell me, “don’t always make a circle round”, and this is what I want to leave you with today. Try your best to get close to perfection – but not when it loses its meaning, not because society tells you to, not at the cost of your wellbeing, and not when it does more harm than good. Write poetry on your unique page. Yes, the dream of perfection is tempting indeed, but sometimes, it’s better to be human instead.
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