“How does 7 minutes for a shower sound?” dad asked one day.
We were trying to find ways to tweak our daily routines to save water. My hometown was having a terrible drought, and we’d just had a “Save water” theme day at school. We all agreed that 7 minutes was enough, so we set a timer in the bathroom.
For a couple of weeks, I beat the alarm with a margin, until one day I required extra scrubbing and the alarm went off while I was rinsing my hair. I came out of the bathroom in tears. It took some serious comforting from my parents before I could let that “failure” go. The alarm, they said, was more for keeping track of time and hurrying when we were lost in tought than it was a competition. I nodded, but internally disagreed.
I was 7 years old, and this impulse still follows me.
Throughout my life, I’ve wanted to be the embodiment of striving for perfection and settling only for excellence. Since it often gave me what I wanted, I deliberately ignored the cost. If I had trouble socializing, at least I was the teacher’s pet. Later I would be the boss’s pet. I took pride in doing everything and doing it well. But I didn’t know when to stop or when it was not worth it. Eventually, I found that being a perfectionist and an overachiever paralized me more than pushed me forward.
We are all bound to fail at one point or another. It is a human thing. Perfection is non-achievable, and excellence can only be reached through learning and a fair share of failing.
There is essentially nothing wrong with wanting to do our best and improve. I believe that it is in fact the only way to progress. But I also believe overachieving is being force-fed to us in a way that is only making us sick. And selfish. And lonely. And permanently unhappy. After all, if I can always do better, why should I be happy with how I do now?
As with everything we need to unlearn, it’s going to take some real effort to let go of the impulse of giving it 200%. Slowly, I’m saying no to more commitments. I’m ignoring the false prophets of academic and professional climbing as the only measurement for success. I’m giving myself permission to make mistakes, and to aim for “zen” as the only status that matters. And let me tell you, it is extremely liberating.