Less Stress, More Success - A New Approach to College Admissions and Beyond


Chapter 8 - The Problem With Perfectionism

Today's teenagers have more impressive college applications than a decade ago, and far more impressive ones than their parents had. Many teenagers seem to be entering this admissions process perfectly prepared. On paper they look almost too good to be true-dream candidates for any college-socially committed and brilliant, widely experienced in summer jobs, internships, and community service projects. Their resumés suggest their teeth glimmer whenever they smile and their hair blows in the wind even as they stand still.

As we prepare these paper-perfect students for higher education, are we undermining their ability to succeed in life? As we mold them to be so well balanced, are we actually making them feel unsure of their own footing? Are they so committed to being "perfect" that they fear being anything less? The most worrisome thing about this generation of driven students may be the fear of imperfection that's being instilled in their psyches. This fear will stifle their creativity, impede their ability to experience joy, and ultimately interfere with their success.

Not All High Achievers Are Perfectionists

The world is run by high achievers. Many might describe themselves as perfectionists because they aren't satisfied until they have done their best. Healthy high achievers get genuine pleasure from putting every effort into producing the finest quality product-an effective business plan, a work of art, or a well-designed computer program. Healthy high achievers enjoy the process and excitement that bubbles up from within them as they work their hardest. They react to deadlines by generating just enough anxiety to stay energized. Healthy high achievers see mistakes as opportunities for personal growth and as an impetus to learn to do better the next time. They see failures as temporary setbacks from which they will rebound.

Unlike resilient healthy high achievers, perfectionists reject anything less than a flawless performance. Though what they produce may be of the highest quality, they may not experience the satisfaction of a job well done. They don't enjoy the process of creating because they worry endlessly about not performing as well as they should. They have a fear of failure that is greater than the joy they experience with success. When they do well, they may not notice because they are too worried about the mistakes they might have made or how they could have done better. The perfectionist soccer star scores 3 goals, but as he is carried off the field on his teammates' shoulders he laments the penalty kick that went wide. The perfectionist gets a 96 on an exam, but is frustrated that she didn't get a 100.

Perfectionists fear adversity. They lack the flexibility to rebound from difficulty because challenges paralyze them. The thought of not doing something well prevents them from taking the chances that successful people need to take to reach their greatest potential. They may be graced with creativity, but are hesitant to tap into it for fear that doing something outside of the box will disappoint others. Healthy high achievers are driven by the joy of doing, but perfectionists become paralyzed if what they are doing would disappoint the harshest of critics (who are usually themselves).

A person destined for success has passion, creativity, and flexibility. Every new venture is flavored by past experience because every disappointment was used as a learning experience to build skills. A successful person knows that she excels at something, but maintains other interests. A successful person sees interactions with others as a potential to learn and experiences constructive criticism as an opportunity to improve. She will always be open to looking outside of the box for the solutions or strategies not yet tried. She will propel her colleagues forward through her enthusiasm, love of the process, and willingness to take healthy risks.

Fostering Healthy High Achievers

If we accept the premise that perfectionists worry they will not be fully accepted unless they are flawless, our job becomes clear. Unconditional acceptance is the antidote to perfectionism. The most essential ingredient in raising resilient children is an adult who loves or accepts them unconditionally and holds them to high expectation. High expectation is not about grades or performance. It's about integrity, generosity, empathy, and the traits we need our children to have if they are to contribute to the world. Of course, it is also reasonable to expect children to put in a real effort to learn. We also want them to discover their talents, interests, and passions; if we nurture their passion-usually from a distance-they will be motivated to succeed.

Parents must be cheerleaders. We get excited when our kids "win," but we have to learn to encourage and praise more effectively. The difference lies in what we get excited about. We tend to praise an outcome or accomplishment. "I am so proud of you for scoring that goal, getting a blue ribbon in the art show, or getting an A on your chemistry test." The hidden message is "I wouldn't be as proud if you hadn't come home with the prize." Instead we have to encourage the process and show our pride about the fact that they are playing the game of life with integrity, genuine effort, and yes, joy. "I love watching you paint-you seem to care so much about expressing yourself. You are practicing lacrosse a lot-you must love this game. It is good to see you so happy. I know you are struggling with your physics lab, but you sure are hanging in there and trying your best. I am so pleased that you can ask Mr Hannigan for some extra help."

Kids' self-acceptance is fostered when they trust they are competent. If they believe in their ability to manage their own problems, trust their own decision-making capability, and develop their own solutions, they needn't catastrophize their mistakes. We nurture their competence by getting out of the way (by staying behind the line, as Dean Jones says), and by encouraging them to take control of their own lives. We want them to recognize that they each have a compass and can follow its direction.


Chapter 1 My Epiphany


About the Authors


Excerpted with permission from "Less Stress, More Success-A New Approach to College Admissions and Beyond" Copyright © 2006 Marilee Jones, Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed, FAAP, with Martha M. Jablow. Published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. All rights reserved.