Welcome Back Students — Here's to a Beautifully Imperfect Semester

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Welcome to the semester, and welcome back to The Quad, your home base for another year of online courses, college exams, and friendly diversions.

It’s good see you again. As for us, we never really left. While you were out there making bonfires on the beach and taking wacky vacation selfies at weird roadside attractions, we were busy scouring the stacks at your university library, spelunking the secret subterranean tunnels beneath your campus, and digging for buried academic treasure in all the places first-year students fear to tread. All this just to bring you a whole new year of information, illumination, inspiration, and possibly even revelation.

Just kidding. We were making bonfires, baking on the beach, and snapping selfies too. Warm Weather Rule #1: Don’t waste those sweet summer months indoors.

But that does’t mean we weren’t still working tirelessly to bring you all the news, information and insights you need to dominate in school this year. Not to get all whatever about the whole thing, but your sunburn will soon fade, and you’ll be left with only memories of the salt water, the swirling pink sunsets, and the slow-motion drift of the summer months.

In a lot of ways, going back to school is like awakening from a three-month slumber. You’ve got some stretching to do. It’s time to get your butt in gear.

But, before you do, there’s something you should know.

You’re not perfect, and nobody expects you to be.

The Perfection Bug

I know that’s kind of a weird thing to say. We’re not trying to knock you down a peg, especially as you prepare for another year of studying, and striving, and diving into activities that you hope will make you into a well-rounded person.

But college is about more than being well-rounded. It’s about becoming a well-adjusted person too, about learning where you excel and making peace with things that maybe you’re not so great at, or things that stress you out, or things that you just plain suck at.

According to a recent article in The Guardian, perfectionism is actually a rising issue among college and grad students. Driven by factors like family expectations, internal pressures, and the very real competition for future employment, you might feel like your academic performance, extra-curricular résumé, and daily routine must be flawless, that to succeed in school and in life, you must never let others see your weaknesses, that your shortcomings must be covered by maximum effort.

Of course, you should want to succeed. We want you to succeed. That’s the whole reason we’re here. But the pursuit of perfection will bring only disappointment. To wit, there have been 23 “perfect games“ pitched in 140 years of Major League Baseball history. With more than 210,000 games played, the rate of perfection for the very best pitchers in the world is about .011%.

If baseball is a microcosm of life — and we’d like to think it is — the odds of achieving perfection on any given day (without adjusting for unpredictable variables like flat tires, sinus infections, and that time you locked yourself out of your apartment) are about one-hundredth of a percent. As a perfectionist, you can certainly appreciate that our scientific method is far from airtight.

See that? We’re none of us perfect.

Obsessive Compulsive Perfection

Perfectionism may be on the rise, and yet, there has been no notable rise in the number of perfect humans walking the earth. Instead, says The Guardian, pursuit of this impossible dream leads to things like depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The number of students reporting these experiences has jumped by 33% since 1989.

On the surface, perfectionism kind of sounds like a good thing. It’s not unusual for one accused of this trait to take it as a compliment. After all, striving to be your very best is an admirable trait.

But perfectionism is something different from striving to be your best. As a perfectionist, you seek something better than your best, which is, of course, a pursuit with diminishing returns. Perfectionism is both an appetite that can’t be satiated, and the hollow feeling that comes with it. In other words, perfectionism isn’t actually a feeling of excellence. It is an incurable sense that you are critically deficient, and that the only way to overcome this feeling is to shame your flaws into submission.

The Guardian suggests that perfectionism isn’t a mental health condition. It may be more accurately called a personality trait, or a personality style. And it isn’t always destructive. In fact, the difficulty that so many students face in leaving this behavior behind is its apparent usefulness.

Being driven is awesome. Achieving is awesome. And let’s face it — in a capitalist society, besting the competition is encouraged. We didn’t invent curve grading, but it exists.

Moreover, given how much time, money and hope you’ll invest in your education, and how perfect everybody else’s carefully airbrushed life appears to be through the lens of social media, you can be forgiven for thinking that perfection is both necessary and attainable.

It is neither, and in reality, it isn’t even all that desirable. Nobody wants to hang out with perfection. That act gets pretty old, pretty quickly.

The Beauty of Imperfection

The Japanese have a much better idea. (At least the ancient Japanese did. Modern Japanese capitalists are as intoxicated with the idea of perfectionism as we are.)

Anyway, in traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi refers to the concept of finding the beauty in imperfection.

Based on the Buddhist teaching that there are three marks of existence  — impermanence, suffering, and emptiness  — wabi-sabi implies that true acceptance of the human experience comes from the embrace of imperfection, that to be freed from feelings of emptiness, failure, and mortality, we must allow ourselves to see beauty in the balance of asymmetry; in the authenticity of rough-hewn edges; in the ingenuity of all things twisted, gnarled, and aged; in the ordinary blemishes that imbue the world around us with intrigue, diversity, spontaneity; in the incomplete things that put us on this never-ending quest to be  — if not perfect  — better.

The whole point behind this worldview is that life and nature have inherent processes, and that these processes are never perfect. Nature doesn’t achieve balance by being perfect. It achieves balance by making an ecosystem from the best of what’s around.

And so should you.

Your Best Self

Wabi-sabi is more than some esoteric concept designed to help guide your personal meditation. The beauty of imperfection is real, and coming to see it may be the only cure for perfectionism.

The perfectionist is not permitted to revel in achievement. Clouds of doubt and the impending dread of the next task are always on the horizon. But you have a right to enjoy your accomplishments, to take a quick breath for self-congratulations, to praise yourself for reaching benchmarks.

More importantly, there is no greater teacher than failure. And at some point in your life, failure is inevitable. Maybe not in a class. Maybe not in a job. Maybe you just fail at keeping a New Year’s resolution, or you forget somebody’s birthday, or you just never seem to get any better at merging onto busy freeways.

If these experiences are shrouded in the sense that you should have achieved, that this failure is evidence something inside you is broken, and that you need to be emotionally flagellated for your shortcomings, you won’t learn a thing.

This belief that you must be, or even can be, perfect, is the enemy of critical thinking and constructive problem-solving, one that prevents you from seeing past yourself to the real and practical answers to your problems. Honestly, you really need to practice merging with a clear head.

So this semester, try something a little different. Don’t be perfect. Be your best instead. The thing about being your best is, it’s actually attainable.

Now go have a beautifully imperfect semester.

And since we all get by with a little help from our friends, we’ve got a whole bunch of study tips and helpful hints to get you through your classes, assignments and exams this semester. Visit and bookmark The Quad’s Study Lounge and stick with us all year!

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