It’s back to school time! So you know what we need to talk about? That productivity killer known as perfectionism. Why do we ever bother with the idea that anything we produce will be perfect? Newsflash: It won’t.

Liz Marsh

And yet semester after semester, we find ourselves stressed, exhausted, endlessly tweaking papers and projects in a quest to get a perfect score. I have had a few perfect papers in the past few years, and I’ll tell you what, they fuck with your head. Especially if it’s the first assignment in a class. Give me 10 out of 10 points on the first paper and you’re all but condemning me to a 2 a.m., crazy-eyed rewrite of a perfectly fine second paper filled with insecurity and self-doubt. And as I head into my final semester of graduate school, I am trying to reset my expectations of perfection.

Last weekend, I went to Portland to see my best friend graduate from her doctoral program. She and her fellow graduates had some advice for my final paper. They told me, in no particular order, “it’s going to be bad,” “you’re going to hate it,” “you’re going to hate yourself,” “just produce something and turn it in and never think about it again.” They know all too well that hoping for a perfect outcome, especially at the end of the program, is a death sentence for the final paper. There’s just too much pressure to produce something that will reflect years of coursework. There’s too much riding on one last assignment.

Last night, I sat in my yard, admiring my garden and decompressing after a long day of travel. I was resistant to all the advice I had been given. My paper could be perfect. I would work extra hard and produce something I would be proud of. I was going to finish my degree on top of the world and feel accomplished when I crossed that stage at graduation.

As I was making my triumphant plans for the semester, I noticed an adorable weed that I had spared a few weeks prior. It was a witchy plant with dark purple, bell-shaped flowers, and it was enchanting. I was glad I hadn’t pulled it out during my weeding bonanza — it fit perfectly with a row of other naturally growing plants that I left intact for one reason or another. And then I realized: My perfect garden was made perfect by its imperfections. It was landscaping by fate. I followed my intuition and ended up with the perfect combination of deliberate choices and random, organic additions.

So will be my paper and my final semester of graduate school. It will morph from where I start out, only some of it will be in my control, it will not be perfect in terms of what I thought I would end up with, and I’ll probably hate parts of it. But in the end, it will be as perfect as it can be, imperfections and all.

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