The article was in the most recent edition of University Affairs, titled "University students struggle with the perils of perfectionism." The mundane and uninspired headline struck me in the way that this "news" article struck me a few months ago: this is not news. There was nothing relatively shocking about the article itself either, just the same tame rhetoric about generalized anxiety and stress targeted by a campaign run by another student at-risk of burn-out. We recognize the problem. We applaud her efforts. We return to normal.
What exactly is this normal, though? What shocked me - what was resonating in my head this week - was my own reaction to the article (that of a shrug and scholastic apologetics). When it comes to issues of race, gender, class, or politics, I've conditioned myself to think critically and systematically. When it comes to education systems - the one community where I am most grossly entwined - I find I try to distance myself as far as possible from the debate and think more abstractly about Ivy Leagues or the values of a Bachelor of Arts, neither of which I have first-hand experience with. I devour journal articles, think-pieces, and the like on "my generation" without ever really grounding myself in the argument and placing myself on the continuum.
Without disclosing too much about my personal life, I think I can largely attribute this psychological phenomenon to my experience both being "the perfectionist" and advising "the perfectionist". What masks itself as rationality and reason is, in reality, absolute fear of the unknown while struggling to be the voice of objective experience (ie. generic advice on success based on theory). This feels incredibly hypocritical, not only because I was NOT the student I am telling them to be, but because I'm not fully convinced that the things I am telling them will help them 'succeed' [I refer to 'success' here as a proxy for financial comfort in a capitalist system, which should be telling of where this argument is going]. To use an example, there are students who divulge their sleeping or study habits in ways that can only be described as harmful and unhealthy. Their context is generally one where their 'success' depends upon their adherence to the "new normal" described in the article - that of the student who has a high GPA, runs several clubs, studies abroad at least once, participates in athletics and enjoys a healthy party or two to celebrate their achievements on the weekend. To obtain this, they believe it is "unrealistic" (actual quote) to expect "more than 5-6 hours of sleep a night" or study "less than 2 hours per class, per day". While their math may be better than mine, I'm still certain that their days only have 24 hours and running on high with that level of sleep is dangerous at most and ridiculous in the least (and this is only what they are willing to disclose via internet, I am sure the actual picture is worse). But are they wrong?
The advisor in me is screaming a resounding "YES!!!!!". Success is about who you know, it's about your values, it's about you as a person and doing what you're passionate about! It's about self-care and sleeping, mindfulness and meditation! Work-life balance! This is what the studies say! This is what literature proves makes the happy, well-rounded person employers and grad schools seek! But the student in me is not as sure. Heck, the student in me ran on 5-6 hours of sleep and was fueled by the toxic combination of anxiety + adrenaline + caffeine. She reads the unemployment stats and sees her friends go from Honours program to hostessing. She is STILL dealing with the consequences of self-harm and an internalized disapproval of underachievement. Admittedly, the student in me is proud of where I am now, and is trying to untangle causation from correlation from coincidence to figure out whether I achieved these goals because of my unhealthy habits, or in spite of them. And I still can't answer that question. But I am starting to work out my role in this conversation, and it is not in the cozy position of "ally" (where I should be stepping back), but rather as an educational byproduct who experiences, to quote the article, the "perils of perfectionism" every day. To continue this post would be running the risk of exposing far more than future-Caillie would appreciate, so I'm going to end with some Neil deGrasse Tyson, my favourite (and most quotable) expert on education: "curious that we spend more time congratulating people who have succeeded than encouraging people who have not."