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the soul sucking quest for perfection

November 10, 2010

Maybe you teach a student like this. Imagine the student who is perfectly well behaved, does everything you ask, works to understand every homework problem, does corrections to every test question, sometimes even writing a page or more per question. Seems like a dream, right? I’ve taught a number of these students, and more and more, I’m thinking that there’s a problem. Almost as often, these students never show interest in what they are learning—their focus is entirely on getting it correct, and mistakes are seen as huge disasters upsetting these students on their quest for perfection.

I worry about these students, and their drive for perfection. I think that they leave my class with a grade and little more, and that this doesn’t serve well in the short or long term. I’ve worked with too many of these students as college counselors and watch them be disappointed when all this perfection seeking doesn’t result in admission from the school of their dreams.

So this year, I’m trying to address it a bit more head on, with the hopes of helping students to recognize perfection seeking as a quixotic quest, and to redirect their energies toward engaging the process of learning and developing deep interests. To see how I’m doing this in a rather lengthy post, follow the jump.

It’s what lead me to write this comment at the end of the quarter for one such student (names changed),

By almost every account, Alice is doing wonderful work in physics. She is actively engaged in class, taking careful notes, and asking good questions. She is central to her group’s lab work, and she shines in student lead discussions, helping her classmates to zero in on the central understandings of each lab, and never hesitating to offer a tentative explanation, even when she isn’t sure she is right. It is this willingness to make and learn from mistakes that is one of Alice’s greatest assesses in physics. Alice’s written work is equally strong. She shows strong understanding of nearly every concept we’ve covered, and when she does reveal a misconception in her understanding, she is committed to the process of doing corrections, sometimes doing multiple sets of corrections to make sure that she fully understands these ideas.

My one concern regarding Alice is that she sometimes seems to be on a quest for perfection, which can be a very stress-inducing, exhausting and ultimately unfulfilling path through high school. As good as Alice’s written work is, there are many places where a focus on efficiency could save her pages of writing and possibly hours of work, with no loss (and probably even some gains) in her understanding. Alice seems to be driven mostly by the desire to perfect a grade, which can lead her to moments of great frustration when she gets stuck on a homework problem and can’t move on, or when the class is working out the explanation to a difficult set of ideas that aren’t immediately clear. I think if Alice begin to see greater value of learning for its own sake, taking more enjoyment in her work, especially the moments of frustration that are sure to crop up whenever you are trying to understand something worth learning, and embrace the the process of learning with a growth mindset, I think she will find greater happiness, less stress, and more success.

I have greatly enjoyed teaching Alice, and I look forward to her continued growth as a scientist in physics.

Because I ask students to respond to their comments, this student wrote me back the following reply,

Hey Mr. B!

Th email was down, so I decided to send this to your Gmail
account. I hope Madeline Claire is doing well after her first
week! Class is going well with Mr. Franklin. Again, I am so sorry for
the wait on this email, I have had a lot to do the past few weeks, but
here are a few thoughts concerning my comments.

I have always been a very conscientious and disciplined student, even
as early as elementary school. I recognize you may think I must
stress myself out in order to get good grades. Though, it is just the
opposite. Great grades to me represent my ability to understand
concepts and the ideas covered in class. For me, my grades are a
measurement of my success and definitely motivate me. And yes, they
are important to me. But I feel that you see getting good grades as a
result of stressing out. I have not been stressed out, I have managed
my time well, and I am very happy and organized. I have a good balance
between sports, family time, friends, and school work. I have always
loved learning, and I am happy with where I am right now with my
grades, I look forward to improving during the rest of the semester.

I fear that you don’t know me well enough to make the assumption that
I “seem to be driven mostly by the desire to perfect a grade,” than
“seeing the greater value of learning.” I’d be curious to know if
anyone else has a 98 overall average in your class. I am guessing not
many because I know that others are not working as hard as I am to
learn. I am the one devoting hours to test corrections, and spending
my free time to study and prepare myself for assessments. Why? Because
I care. I care about my progress in the classroom, and I care about my
understanding, but I feel that we have extremely different definitions
of a grade. A grade to me, as I said early, is a measurement for my
success. I worry that you think that I am absorbed in just the grade,
but hopefully this email proves to you that I am not. Most likely
someone with a 98 in a class that was only absorbed in the grade,
wouldn’t care about the comments, but I was alarmed and frustrated
that you see my study habits as a “stress-inducing, exhausting, and
ultimately unfulfilling path through high school.” After reading these
comments, I have added a new goal for this semester, to prove you
wrong. Maybe you don’t know me well enough yet, but if there is any
stress I feel in this class, it is this miscommunication and
misinterpretation between us about my study habits. I care about
getting things right and mastering these concepts.

For example, the opportunities you give us to make test corrections
with no restrictions. Yes, I could stop at a 2, like most probably
do, and feel satisfied knowing I understand that concept. But for me,
since you allow us the ability to try again, with the potential to
earn a 3, I’m going to take advantage of pushing myself. Not only for
the reward to earn a 3, but investing more time to go the extra mile,
I learn even more, connect more dots, and uncover more relatable
concepts. I imagine that’s why you give us these opportunities? I
always go for it and do my best…I always have. I’m grateful to be at
[this school] and expect to continue to appreciate our resources and

A 98 to me, represents a great foundation of knowledge as a scientist
in physics.

This is one of those “we need to have chat about this emails” you occasionally get as a teacher.

So today, this student and I finally had the chance to sit down and chat, and we had a good, but hard conversation. I’m realizing that when I’m the only person in this student’s life telling her that perfection chasing might be a bad thing, it’s pretty hard to hear. It’s also hard to hear that you should be interested in learning, when you thought that’s what you were doing when you were getting good grades all along (and maybe you were).

Here’s a summary I wrote for the grade chair:

My takeaway is that Alice puts a tremendous amount of pressure on herself. She’s incredibly focused on getting into Stanford, and thinks the only way to do that is to get perfect grades. She’s told me that this leads her to stress out when she can’t get problems on homework and more.

I’m trying to help her see that the perfectionism really can be harmful, beginning with how it can rob her of time to do things that are truly extraordinary, like writing a book, or starting a business, etc, but she said she wasn’t really interested in this, her “thing” is getting good grades.

Then I also tried to show her that her feedback to me really seem to be focused on grades and not learning, and after some conversation she readily saw this. I tried to raise the idea that if she can work to really love what she is learning, the grades really will come with greater ease, and less stress. Maybe she saw this, but I don’t think she really knows how to move in this direction.

So, I’m very interested to see where this conversation goes, and I’m particularly interested to see how we can begin to address this perfection seeking in a more systematic way. I think it is something that plagues the young women of my school, and it’s tied up in all sorts of “nice girl” ethos and southern stereotypes.

Put this in the we’ll see where it goes pile.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 10, 2010 3:52 am

    Oh, dear. Kudos to you for trying to help. Have you spoken to her parents? (Though I wonder if their reaction will be similar to Alice’s.)

  2. November 10, 2010 4:00 am

    I haven’t yet, but it’s a very good idea. I think it’s the boarding school teacher in me, but I tend to hesitate before getting parents involved in things like this. Of course, they got the comment, so if they have concerns, they can certainly contact me.

  3. November 10, 2010 5:19 am

    I like the fact that you made a strong effort to make her aware of the difference between learning and getting good grades.

    For what it’s worth, here is a post on perfectionism, by the Scottsdale AZ school district psychologist. It makes sense to me. I quote:

    “What is the difference between high achieving students and perfectionist students? The critical difference seems to be that high achieving students take pleasure from doing difficult tasks, setting high standards for themselves, and putting forth the necessary energy for great achievement. In contrast, perfectionist children are unable to glean satisfaction from their efforts due to their unrealistic goals. Perfectionist students derive little pleasure from their achievements and are driven by the insecurity of not being “good enough”.

    What Does Perfectionism in Children Look Like? According to the National Association of School Psychologists, perfectionism has been linked to crippling performance anxiety, psychosomatic disorders (such as headaches and stomachaches), depression, and suicidal behavior. As a result of feeling as if they have to perform perfectly in all situations, perfectionist children may refuse to try activities rather than risk failing and consequently fall into a pattern of underachieving. They may avoid doing the most basic work or make excuses and blame others. They can also become defiant and rebellious in order to hide their fear of failure.

    What To Do:
    * Explain the importance of making mistakes (share some of your own mistakes)
    * Praise effort, not just product
    * Praise pro-social behaviors such as kindness, empathy, thoughtfulness, in addition to achievement
    * Teach your child not to expect to perform equally well in all tasks or in all areas
    * Focus on achievement of strengths but improvement in areas of weakness
    * Talk to your child and find out how much anxiety and negative self-talk is related to performance

    Ask your children: When you work hard and get a good grade on a test or project, do you feel really good about it or do you quickly start worrying about the next test or project?”

    From this description, your student isn’t a perfectionist — yet you are asking her to “challenge her own understanding”, to become more broadly aware, to set larger goals. Good!

    • November 10, 2010 11:58 am

      Thanks Jane. One of the things I had wanted to do was to search the psychology literature for some additional insights, and this gives me a good start.


  1. a major breakthrough on the road to perfection « Quantum Progress

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