As the alarm buzzed at 6:15 a.m., I jumped out of bed, got dressed for school, and studied for an hour before I left to catch the school bus — where I would continue to study until I reached my destination. At 13 years old, I already felt deeply motivated to excel at whatever I deemed important.
“You know, honey, you don’t have to get As on everything,” my mom often gently reminded me. But, I disagreed. Once I had discovered the thrill of excelling at academics, I was determined to maintain it — plus, I truly loved learning.
I also enjoyed the accolades I received from other adults in my world — teachers and parents of my friends. School was the area in which I shined — not because it necessarily came easily, but because it felt natural for me to strive to do well.
But, my quest for perfection was a double-edged sword. While succeeding gave me advantages — like freedom from adults who knew I was responsible and smart for my age — it also brought a lot of stress to my life at a time when my body was already under stress.
When I contracted Lyme disease just before my 14th birthday, my world began crumbling. And, when the illness impacted my cognitive function, I had to redefine who I was when I could no longer thrive academically, when even reading and comprehending simple sentences was very difficult.
Having to face what felt like insurmountable challenges at a young age was humbling. The things that I had taken for granted — my health, my intellect, and my ability to learn — now all felt compromised. But, as my health improved slowly over the next decade, some of the lessons I had learned about how to navigate life and be gentle with myself while remaining proactive fell by the wayside, easily forgotten like yesterday’s news.
When I started college in my mid-20s, I slipped back into my old patterns of wanting to excel. I pulled all-nighters, sacrificed social activities, and remained steadfastly devoted to my schoolwork. I don’t regret the academic gains, but I do regret the negative health impacts like constant fatigue and reduced immune system function that came as a result of pushing myself so hard.
Then, I went to graduate school. It was significantly more intense than my college experience and during my final semester, I contracted hepatitis from something I ate and was hospitalized for over a month. I tried to keep up with homework from my hospital bed, but was too ill. I learned one of the greatest lessons of my life — that without health, everything else is much more difficult and I needed to be intentional about prioritizing the habits that support wellness. Ultimately, the degree that had meant so much to me didn’t truly matter if I couldn’t be healthy to enjoy it and put it to good use. I had to stop prioritizing work over wellness.
My school was compassionate and allowed me to make up the work in the months after I recovered. I didn’t graduate with the perfect 4.0 GPA I had been on track to achieve. But, I did graduate with honors and I regained my health. After difficult months, returning to my former level of wellness felt like an even more meaningful definition of success than the actual degree.
I realized that my priorities needed to shift — my health crisis nearly cost me my life and I never wanted to be in that position again. I committed to making positive changes. For the most part, I no longer sacrifice my well-being for work. I try not to overbook my schedule. And, I have refined my perspective on perfection to something more all-encompassing, more human — by embracing my weaknesses and better understanding my limits.
I thought that if I simply worked hard enough long enough, everything would work out, but I learned there are no guarantees of that. There always are unforeseen events that you have to accept, especially those that no one could predict like a pandemic. I realize that tiny shining moments that feel perfect are possible, but a complete life of them is not.
When I reflect on my personal successes and failures, in health, academics, or relationships, I try to be gentle with myself and strive to offer that kind of compassion to others. While I can acknowledge that there are areas of life in which I am more adept than others — like anything creative such as writing or photography, there is always room to grow. I’ve discovered through trial and error and personal reflection that my imperfections are just as meaningful as perfection because they, too, have something to teach me. They don’t define who I am, but help shape who I can become.
I once heard a line in a well-known Leonard Cohen song that stayed with me, “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” By trading the quest for perfection for the quest to do my best, I found my days feel brighter, my steps a bit lighter, and I’m unburdened by my own expectations.
I also have realized that my best varies depending on the day and on what the challenges are that I am facing. For example, several years ago when I had to relearn to walk after a serious injury, my best was taking a few tentative steps with assistance. Now, my best is going for daily walks on my own. Without the weight of perfection on my shoulders, I have felt a new kind of freedom — and that feels perfect.