In my American Ethnic Literature class on Monday, English associate professor Dr. Jesus Montaño started our day with a video of Jack Ridl giving a TED talk, the topic of which was that it is okay to be “perfectly imperfect.” A phrase such as this can invoke emotions of confusion and disbelief—how could these two incredibly contrasting words join together to make such an impactful phrase?
In his TED talk, Ridl used the example of a high school senior who, after graduation day, met him in her office and started crying, the reason being that she had missed “it,” that she had missed everything. Her focus on being perfect had led her to missing out on opportunities to spend time with her friends and experience the joys that high school life had to offer, and after her graduation, she realized that she would never get those same opportunities back.
This focus on being perfect in school is a pressure with which many teenagers struggle. These teenagers and other young adults are constantly juggling a drive towards perfection and the necessary anxiety that comes with being so hyper-focused on the importance of grades and succeeding in schools.
This focus on achieving A grades raises the question: is this pressure to succeed misplaced or is it a necessary pressure needed in order to succeed later in life? Some would argue that this early drive towards approaching the achievement of perfection is beneficial for future jobs where “climbing the corporate ladder” requires dedication and hard work.
However, in terms of education, sometimes this push to earn the A detracts from the learning experience. Rather than being able to fully enjoy learning about a subject, the fear of failure can cause students to hesitate, to pull back from a new interest because they might not be good enough. Fledgling interests are left behind after a few poor grades or a few misplaced comments that their interest just wasn’t meant for them.
“We learn this saying that anything worth doing is worth doing well. I don’t disagree with that at all, not at all,” Ridl said. “But that’s not how it’s translated most of the time. Most of the time, it’s translated as it’s only worth doing if you do it well. And that’s a lie.”
It’s a terrible loss when someone feels they are too unskilled to maintain a passion. Sometimes peer pressure and even feedback that was meant to be constructive but was construed as negative can hamper anyone’s interests and discourage that pursuit of passion that is such a crucial aspect of humanity.
Ridl notes that “we’re caught up in evaluations and rankings and gradings, and when I started teaching, and with my poetry students, they would show me a poem and I would say ‘look what you could do here and here…’ but all they heard was that their grade went down. I couldn’t come up with anything to convince them. So the only sane thing I could come up with to do was get rid of grades and give them all A’s.”
In most walks of life, grades are undeniably important. It is beneficial for everyone to have access to progress reports that show areas of work or education that could benefit from some improvement. The thought of taking a class without any grades, or that would automatically give everyone an A, might at first seem ridiculous. These kinds of classes could be at risk of gaining the reputation of being an “Easy A” or could influence students to slack off rather than work hard in the course.
But honestly, this expectation seems to be an unfair judgement against a young person’s altruistic interest in learning. As we age, we are all constantly and actively seeking out new opportunities to learn. As infants, we push ourselves to finally be able to roll over of our own volition, then to crawl and then to walk towards our own personal goals and purpose. We learn to associate a color’s name with its correct hue, then learn to color inside the lines and then learn that sometimes it’s better to ignore the lines altogether. We learn to recognize the feeling of accomplishment that accompanies pursuing our interests, to seek out friends who share those same interests and then learn the benefit of new friends with whom not a single interest is shared, but with whom a new interest could have the potential to be born.
“You can do something imperfect and something wonderful comes out of it,” Ridl said.
If altruistic interest in learning seems to be lacking, it has most likely just been heavily muted after years of believing that only work of excellent quality is worth displaying for the world to see.
Don’t let the pursuit of perfection erase the beauty of the perfectly imperfect.