Truth is I am tired. Today I spent an hour and a half watching most of the CNN US Presidential Debates; consider it intelligent procrastination. But I found that as I was watching a very engaging piece of political theatre, in the back of the theatre of my own mind, restless thoughts were circling, jostling. I have a test and two essays looming and out of a fear of failing them, or more specifically, failing my own expectations of myself, I could not relax. I could not enjoy any time not spent working, let alone feel that I was making progress when I did. I could not even feel good taking a lunchbreak. Moving through my first semester of third year, I have come to expect this: the Week 5/6 Blues; the library becomes a steadily busier repository of coffee and traded vignettes about how stressed we all are all the time. Everyone is moody; everyone begins to feel the spectre of imposter syndrome again…
Why is this okay?
At what point in my time here did it become acceptable, did it become supposed best practises, for me to wake up unhappy, anticipating a day filled with work that at its end I would dejectedly brand as not good enough? I suspect that the answer is that there was no moment. No magic switch was flipped. Perfectionism seeped into my idea of what “good enough” was; honestly, “good enough” was never good enough until it was perfect.
This school is filled with high-achievers, autodidacts and the perennially ambitious, so failure is not something we really do here. In fact, we avoid it like the plague; it is the strategy we used to get into this school, to make sure our Sub-Honours grades were just right, to fastidiously ensure that the internship or job we want is sufficiently dazzled by us. Nobody here ever intends to fail, so nobody ever has a plan of attack for when they do.
And being as small a school as we are, comparisons with others – no matter how unhealthy and ridiculous – become the easiest barometers by which we measure our own success or lack thereof: that guy who was in a tutorial with you last semester just got a consulting internship at McKinsey – so why did you not apply for their programmes? Or the girl who spent the greater part of last summer volunteering and travelling through Europe, and who then worked as an intern on Capitol Hill – what were you doing? The problem with comparisons is that they oversimplify important details. Doing something that makes us happy should be the only necessary qualification, the only justification for doing it.
But, being perfectionists, “happy” and “good” are terms too nebulous for us to deal with. We also want security, and in the perfectionist’s mind security equals ubiquity: “If I am perfect at everything all the time and I have the best grades and I am in the coolest societies and I get the best internships and I live in the best house… yada, yada, yada…” The happiness of a perfectionist is always relegated to the future – to the grade given on the next class test, on the next paper, on the next confirmation of an internship offer. Obviously, this is painful and damaging, but what I think it is too easy to forget is that tying our happiness to things in the future, versus enjoying whatever happiness we can get now, is immensely alienating.
If you cannot survive without an 18 on the next essay coming your way, if you force yourself to spend 8 hour stints in the library, cramming all you can to make sure you ace that upcoming test, you can do all these things, as well as probably sacrificing a healthy sleep schedule, and be locked into your own world. As easy as it is to see someone you know outside the library, within it, in the deep web of fear-driven work, a whole day can pass by without speaking to a soul. Which then becomes two. Which then becomes a week. And day by day, the joy of learning is destroyed by the fear of failure, the fear of inadequacy, of uncertainty, and all the other fears we subsume under the F word we are all trying to avoid.
So what do we do?
I would like to say that we all give our best, and if our best does not get us a 20, so be it. Somehow, this seems too simple of a problem to the complex entanglements that fear of failure can drive us into. But maybe that is what we need; simplicity. No longer trying to game the grading system to ensure that we write what a lecturer or a tutor should want to hear in an essay, ditching the midnight rides to 4 and 5am studying, allowing ourselves to confront our own ideas of what it means to succeed and to fail, and not “literally dying under this mountain of work,” and making stress the default setting of our time here. Of course we work hard, and of course it is taxing at times, but if we are free to fail, are we not also free of fear, free to succeed?