Why experience is better than perfection or how to avoid “permanent curvature of the spirit”

You know that question they ask in celebrity profiles: If you could invite anyone to dinner who would it be? I would invite Randy Pausch and Anna Quindlen. At the end of the meal I would be so clear on my goals, brimming with self-confidence and ready to break though any obstacles in my way.

Randy Pausch was a professor at Carnegie Mellon who delivered the ‘Last Lecture’ to faculty and students in September 2007. The title of his lecture was ‘Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams’. Anna Quindlan is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and journalist who delivered the 2009 commencement speech at Mt. Holyoke which was later published as a small book, ‘Being Perfect’.

Randy’s lecture takes us on a journey fulfilling his childhood dreams. No matter how out of reach each goal seemed, he figured out a way to achieve it. And then there were the times he encountered ‘brick walls’, which were usually people, not buildings. And he learned: “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.”

Not get what he wanted? Only at first. And that’s when the learning took place.“Brick walls are there for a reason…not to keep us out…to give us a chance to show how badly we want something…the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop other people…”

Anna’s essay frames her story within the pressure to be perfect. Arriving as a freshman at Barnard College in 1970 she had a plan for perfection that was disrupted by her reality. “Being perfect was hard work, and the hell of it was, the rules kept changing…it was harder to become perfect because I realized at Barnard, a place populated largely by terrifyingly well read women who all seemed to be elevating intellectual perfection to a high art, that I was not the smartest girl in the world. And eventually being perfect became like carrying a backpack filled with bricks every single day. And oh, how I wanted to lay my burden down.”

She continues with one of the most striking visuals to illustrate her point: “So if this sounds in any way familiar to you, if you have been trying to be perfect, too, then perhaps today is the day to put down that backpack before you develop permanent curvature of the spirit. Trying to be perfect may be inevitable for people who are smart and ambitious and interested in the world and in its good opinion. But on one level it’s too hard, and at another, it’s too cheap and easy. Because all it really requires of you, mainly, is to read the zeitgeist of wherever and whenever you happen to be and to assume the masks necessary to be the best at whatever the zeitgeist dictates or requires. Those requirements shape-shift, sure, but when you are clever you can read them and come up with the imitation necessary.”

At my imaginary dinner, I can hear Randy respond with a quote from his lecture: “When you’re screwing up and nobody’s saying anything to you anymore, that means they gave up…Your critics are the ones telling you they still love you and care.

Critics are good. They remind you that perfection is irrelevant. Learning is what’s important.

Both Randy and Anna were smart enough, early in their careers to realize what matters is not the external influences but the strength of individual spirit and conviction. And in their respective stories we find an alternative model for success. It’s not about meeting the expectations of others, it’s about living up to your own.

Anna concludes: “… nothing important, or meaningful, or beautiful, or interesting, or great, ever came out of imitations. What is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”

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