A new definition of perfection

May 27, 2014, 12:28 a.m.

“The condition, state or quality of being free or as free as possible from all flaws or defects.”


We don’t talk about perfection much because this is Stanford, and we don’t want to seem conceited and obnoxious. But the idea of perfection haunts us. We’ve continually strived for it – 2400 on the SAT, 4.0 GPA, starting on the varsity team, admission to Stanford.

Pushing for perfection is what got us here – and we aren’t about to abandon the quest. The adrenaline rush of getting an “A” in a class, the honor of being elected president of your club, the triumph of landing the perfect internship or getting into the best lab, all push us forward. We aren’t satisfied, however, with being the perfect student. We strive to be the perfect girlfriend, boyfriend, daughter or son. We strive for perfect bodies because this is California, with shorts weather all year round. We strive to take as many classes as possible because there are too many amazing classes to cram into four short years. We don’t say it out loud, but we still want to be perfect.

Not surprisingly, then, there’s been a lot of talk about “Duck Syndrome” and mental health around campus recently. CAPS, the Bridge and PHEs all want us to acknowledge our stress, tell each other about it, stop pretending to glide when we are on the verge of drowning. Recognizing the issue is important and valuable, but I’m guessing it hasn’t led many of us to drop a class or club, or even to skip any parties or cancel any lunches. And recognizing that there’s stress doesn’t mean that we’re doing anything about the stressor: our obsession with being perfect.

More and more studies show the damage that chronic stress has on our bodies and minds. We must protect our current and future selves by deciding what we can actually handle. Dealing with stress healthily is crucial.

I’m as susceptible this desire to be perfect as much as the next person. I want to take every amazing class, join every interesting club, make countless lifetime friends, have an ideal romantic relationship and maintain a perfect GPA. Isn’t that what everyone else here is doing? But this is where there is something to be learned from my atypical life experience.

I try to be perfect, but I’ve had to change my definition of perfection.

In sixth grade I became mysteriously ill. Years later, I was diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) – a neurological disorder of the autonomic nervous system. This disorder is complicated, rare and confusing but basically leaves me with a compromised immune system, little energy and constant pain. Getting through high school was almost physically impossible. By choosing to come here rather than a less challenging school, I signed up for more physical pain and stress.

But I’m here. Why? Because I’m a perfectionist who loves learning and refuses to let my illness make me any less than what I would have been if healthy. I refuse to be a lesser person, but I am most definitely a different person. I can’t take twenty units – I work hard to manage ten. I can’t join six clubs – I push myself to participate in three. I can’t have thirty “best friends” whom I see constantly – I push to keep up with the dozen or so I have. I can’t study until two in the morning the night before a midterm, or any night for that matter.

I’ve had to find a new definition of perfection, to redefine what perfect means for me and not anyone else. “Perfect” for me means getting my work done to the best of my ability in those classes that I can take. “Perfect” means joining low key clubs that tolerate my frequent absences. “Perfect” means finding a smaller group of friends who understand why I sometimes cancel at the last minute.

This is my perfection. It isn’t yours, nor should it be. What I urge, though, based upon my own experience, is that we each assess realistically how much we can handle without sacrificing our health. Some amount of stress is necessary for achievement, but something is out of whack when the University administration struggles to stem an epidemic of stress-related suffering. We don’t have to live like this. We can choose to create a balanced life. Taking a night off isn’t being lazy. Staying in to watch a movie or read a book doesn’t mean that you’re antisocial. Taking a reasonable class load isn’t weak. If we want mental health to improve on campus we must change both our collective and personal definitions of “perfection.” My life has forced me to make the changes; your life may be better if you take a deep breath and learn to allow yourself a bit of slack while pursuing perfection.


Jen Ehrlich ’16

Contact Jen Ehrlich at jene91 “at” stanford.edu.

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