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Credit: Eric Zeng

With the return to nearly pre-pandemic conditions this semester, the thought of on-campus life elicits genuine enthusiasm for what is to come, including offline lectures, more vibrant in-person gatherings, and even lighthearted conversations with friends as we walk to and from classes. In spite of this eagerness to experience college in its full capacity, a part of me cannot help but look back on last spring somewhat nostalgically. The pandemic allowed us to wake up minutes before class and fall right back into the comfort of our beds as soon as the hour was over. It meant a markedly less rigorous workload, an awakening to some simpler pleasures that came with alone time, an escape from constant surveillance. 

A return to campus this semester will mark the return of a more eventful — yet more physically and mentally demanding — college lifestyle, in which classes are more difficult and one’s social battery is more quickly depleted. Our transition to an offline, in-person semester augurs an outbreak of impostor syndrome and, thus, widespread perfectionism. To prove ourselves competent and independent, we may fall victim to the unreasonable pressure to present the best version of ourselves at all times. 

Done right, the coming months will undoubtedly live up to the hype. Done wrong, it could amplify our longing for the previous online semesters that can by no means stay the norm.

In a job economy that is growing more competitive with each passing decade, selfhood is increasingly what we are told to pursue. Cornell economics professor Robert Frank coined the phrase “winner-take-all market” to describe the market’s tendency to reward very few, whereas the rest are left with close to nothing. In order to be among this small handful of winners, we are inculcated with the notion that hyper-specialization is key — that we should follow the “10,000-hour rule” and refuse to waver from one’s laser-like pursuit of a singular goal. 

While there is regrettably some element of truth to this narrative, it feeds into a culture in which we use social comparison as a measure of success and success as a measure of a meaningful life. A sense of self-fulfillment is paradoxically fueled not by oneself but by others — by either rising above them or receiving their validation. We start celebrating not what is, but lament what could have been, and this unachieved potential constantly points us toward our supposed inadequacies. In essence, that is what perfectionism is: the association of self-worth with the absence of flaws, amplified only by the thought that others possess fewer of these shortcomings. 

Earlier in the pandemic, alone time during self-quarantine bred introspection that occurred more so in a vacuum. It meant that you could feel satisfied at the sheer sight of personal progress, as incremental as it could've been. You were able to dictate your own pace. However, observing like-minded peers out in the open making the same progress, only faster, constantly forces you to speed up. We are starting to run an exhausting marathon in a world prescribed by the Red Queen, where “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.”

Some psychologists, namely D. E. Hamachek, claim that perfectionism can at times be palatable. In 1978, he published a study differentiating between “normal perfectionism” and “neurotic perfectionism,” the former of which describes a person who gains pleasure from arduously working toward very ambitious goals and is capable of toning it down when appropriate. Others disagree, arguing that perfectionism is pathological and the notion of striving toward perfection is by nature unrealistic. 

The academic literature on the subject has yet to reach a clear consensus on whether perfectionism can be truly fruitful and rewarding. As I see it, there is a difference between someone who is exacting and another who is a perfectionist. Be that as it may, it is indisputable that steps can and should be taken to relieve one’s perfectionist tendencies when they are causing undue stress and anxiety. 

Acknowledge that you are not purely self-made.

Perhaps the most well-known defense of individualism is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” in which he writes that “[w]hoso would be a man must be nonconformist.” In his view, “the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” The essay is inspiring and uplifting, acting as a powerful reminder that you are the captain of your ship. 

However, the problem with “Self-Reliance” is that it feeds into the self-centered, naive narrative that there is truly nothing beyond your control, not even the “wheel of Chance.” Sometimes you may do everything in your power to achieve a goal, and things do not pan out the way you want them to. One undergraduate admissions officer may be less moved by an illustrative personal statement that reads like a Robert Frost poem. Another may prefer this approach. As long as the final product was the result of countless rounds of editing, the rest is left to circumstances that are frankly not in one’s control. The key is reaching that point, where you can confidently tell yourself that you did everything you could. Confusing outcomes with one's perception of self or the quality of one's work is what causes perfectionists to spiral. 

Live by not only long-term, but also short-term goals.

According to psychologists Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett, who were instrumental in developing the multidimensional perfectionism scale, there are three types of perfectionism. Self-oriented perfectionism involves imposing strict expectations on yourself. Other-oriented perfectionism involves imposing strict expectations on other people. Socially-prescribed perfectionism involves others imposing strict expectations on you. Across the board, the key word is “expectations.” At the root of perfectionism is essentially the inability to commit to reasonable ones. 

When one’s goals are not met, the resulting disappointment causes pessimism and disillusionment. If I failed once, what would stop me from failing again? Am I not capable enough to live up to another’s expectations? Are others not trying hard enough for me? While it is hard to determine what is and is not a reasonable objective, perhaps one step forward is setting more short-term goals — ones that are more easily achievable — can boost one’s motivation through noticeable progress, and can culminate in the realization of a long-term goal. 

Put your fundamental well-being first. 

In the late 20th century, physician Robert Goldman presented what came to be known as the Goldman dilemma. He asked athletes whether they would take a hypothetical drug that would kill them in five years but guarantee they would win every competition until then. In his study, more than half responded that they would. In a New York Times guest essay written by Zoë Ruhl, a third-year student at the Perelman School of Medicine and former skier on the United States Telemark Ski Team, she sheds light on the effect that a win-at-all-costs mentality had on her both physically and mentally, causing her to eventually quit racing.

Even for those of us who are not professional athletes, the takeaway is the same: We cannot abandon our well-being in exchange for success. If you are consistently not sleeping more than six hours a night due to work, ask yourself whether your habits can be corrected, or you are simply taking on more than you can handle. If you are putting off time with loved ones in pursuit of that next promotion, ask yourself at what point in your career you will draw the line.

All things considered, these steps could seem self-evident and easier said than done. Unfortunately, that is the very nature of perfectionism: Only you can take the appropriate steps forward to alleviate the unhealthy pressure of chasing after your idealized self. To draw another quote from Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”

ANDY YOON is a College and Wharton sophomore from Seoul, South Korea. His email address is andyy327@wharton.upenn.edu.

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