The Perils of Perfectionism and Delay - Kingswood Oxford

Big Thinkers Blog

September 29, 2022

The Perils of Perfectionism and Delay

David Baker ’04 – Upper School History Department Chair


What constitutes academic success? Many of us make the mistake of defining academic success as perfection. Considering this view, a test, essay or project isn’t a success unless it’s flawless and earns an A or A+. As a result of this mindset and message, students are likely to obsess about their work, to spend hours making endless revisions on a paper, or cram every particle of information into their heads for a test.


This frantic quest for perfection often leads students to ask teachers for extensions of deadlines or postponements of assessments. Such requests are often accompanied by statements such as, “I just need more time to make this paper better!” or “If I had just one more night to study, I know I’ll ace the test!”


The Value of Making Mistakes 

By pursuing this false god of perfectionism, students are seeking to avoid an essential component of the educational process – making mistakes. Deep and essential learning often takes place when a student gets an answer wrong and discovers why it’s wrong, or when a student responds to a teacher’s suggestions for improving an essay. Goals are achieved during the process of learning, not by turning in the final product.


Not getting it right the first time is OK. This provides the opportunity for constructive feedback, productive adjustments, and for thoughtful revision. Just by doing the work and trying, a student is already succeeding.

But when students seek perfection, they’re trying to avoid the mistakes they actually need to make to understand the material and, more importantly, themselves. Fear of being imperfect can also erode a young person’s willingness to try new activities and experiences. A runner, who focuses solely on training only for the 200-meter dash, for instance, is missing out on the success and enjoyment to be savored by trying the 400-meter or the high jump. Those additional events can help with the 200-meter training and can lead to new growth as an athlete and competitor, even if the times and heights aren’t as competitive.


Doing, Not Delaying

As high school students have already discovered, there are no extensions in the real world. Before firing the gun at a track meet, the starter doesn’t pause and ask the runners “Does anyone need more time to prepare for this race?” A barber doesn’t keep customers when he turns people away because he’s still perfecting his craft. An attorney doesn’t help a client if she misses the trial because she still needs more time to prepare. And future professors, bosses, or colleagues won’t say, “That’s OK; just turn it in tomorrow” when deadlines are missed.


Thus, a key responsibility of educators is to prepare students by establishing high standards, not only for the quality of academic work but for its timely and consistent completion. Students learn most effectively when expectations are high and they’ve done their best work in the time allotted to do it. Doing so helps students become more resilient and more independent as lifelong learners and as soon-to-be adults in a demanding world.


To Delay Is To Stress

Ironically, the stress generated by continually asking for exemptions from deadlines can actually lead to lower rather than higher grades. This desperate scramble produces even more stress in students because now, rather than completing the work and being done with it, they must agonize over the assignment for an even longer period. This takes time away from their work in other classes, leading to even more academic panic. It’s better to do the work than to delay it.  


A Healthy Balance

Adolescents today are pulled in many different directions. This requires them to learn how to plan and organize their time, balance the simultaneous and competing responsibilities of academic, athletic, extracurricular, and personal activities, and make difficult but necessary decisions about priorities, preferences, and passions. 


In my experience, students actually do better academically when they’re actively and authentically involved in a variety of activities outside the classroom. That’s because the organizational skills and resilience they’ve developed to handle competing tasks bring discipline to their studies as well. Moreover, participating in sports, performance groups, publications, and clubs provides an invigorating break that enables students to return to the classroom refreshed and re-energized.   


True Academic Success

A complete and effective education means, not only absorbing information and mastering concepts, but also developing the self-discipline, resilience, and resourcefulness to meet the challenges and tasks of learning: to complete essays, homework and assessments on time, to do one’s best work under existing constraints, and to forsake perfect grades for true learning and a happier, less stressful life.  

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