Thursday, November 17, 2011

Perfectionism and Steve Jobs

When I began to read about Walter Isaacson's biography of the late Steve Jobs, I laughed: he and his wife discussed furniture in theoretical terms for eight years before settling on anything to furnish their new home. And at the end of his life, Jobs ripped off the hospital mask he was wearing because he hated the design; he ordered five options from which to choose. If he had lived longer, would he have driven himself crazy?

Jobs also ran through 67 nurses before he found three he liked. And so it went with this compulsive, difficult man, who, just after his death, was praised, understandably, as a genius. But it seems that his drive for perfectionism was a maddening obsession that made his life and those of colleagues and family members difficult.

"He needed things to be perfect, and it took time to find out what perfect was," writes Malcolm Gladwell in the current New Yorker , commenting about the authorized Jobs bio.

Obviously, perfectionism can be a dangerous thing and far from a laughing matter.

So when the student I tutor told me this week he always aimed for perfection, I paused with mild alarm, knowing that my own striving for "perfection" can be frustrating and a recipe for disaster. I encouraged him to be the best he can be at school but reminded him that criticizing himself for not being perfect in every subject, at every test, is not a good idea. Where does such a compulsive desire come from?

I told him he has to allow himself to fail and to accept some failure, just as he has learned that he cannot win every game. Perhaps he has been intimidated by his teachers, who remind him regularly that every assignment must follow the guidelines perfectly, use Word Perfect, edit everything precisely, and submit it on time. God forbid any deviation from the rubric, which is enough to instill fear even in me as I read it before helping my young friend with his homework.

I can easily recall as a boy admiring the proverb "Whatever is worth doing is worth doing well," and decided by age 12 to make that my personal academic motto. Later I would come to apply it to my appearance and speech and would be impatient with myself for any lapses from the ideal. Then I learned, gradually, to be more realistic.

I remain grateful for my demanding teachers, and have tried myself to be demanding as a teacher, but I have also striven to remain human, since perfectionism is more a divine than human attribute.

Educators and parents, as well as athletes, have the difficult challenge of striking a balance between the extremes of laxity and perfectionism, which I associate with fear. Fear breeds more fear, terror and/or anger.

Obviously, learning cannot succeed in such a volatile emotional context nor can happiness hope to flourish, as Steve Jobs tragically found out.

We can learn valuable lessons from the lives of others, which keep reminding us of what success and happiness are and how being perfect is not part of the formula for either.

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