It may be, as author Anna Quindlen said, inevitable that some smart, ambitious people try to be perfect. Polish psychologist and psychiatrist, Kazimierz Dabrowski maintained that perfectionism was largely innate and that perfectionism is a positive personality characteristic that propels individuals towards higher level development. Likewise, Patricia Schuler identified that perfectionism can be a powerful force that leads towards high achievement; however Brené Brown describes perfectionism as a shield and Tal Ben-Shahar, an academic at Harvard University, wrote about the unhealthy aspects of perfectionism and the benefits of becoming an optimalist.
Perfectionism is believed to be underpinned by anxiety, with the perfectionistic individual focussed upon what others might think. Procrastination is a way in which a student might avoid the psychological discomfort associated with unhealthy forms of perfectionism. When a psychologically healthy individual strives for excellence, the focus is upon the self and how incremental gains and personal development might occur. This is aligned with the achievement of Person Best – whether in sport or within academic endeavours.
Both benefits and negatives associated with perfectionism have been recognised, although different. Some writers distinguish patterns of behaviour associated with enabling and disabling perfectionism. Michael Law emphasises the importance of students determining the difference between being conscientious and becoming compulsive. He focuses upon students' effective and productive use of time and describes how the individual's thinking and behaviour influence the outcome for students.
Ben-Shahar describes the Perfectionist as someone who perceives a journey as a straight line towards an unrealistic destination. He maintains perfectionism is characterised by a personal fear of failure that shapes a harsh, rigid, defensive approach with an emphasis upon all-or-nothing thinking, finding faults and avoiding action. In contrast, the Optimalist Ben-Shahar describes, is characterised as viewing a journey as an irregular spiral with various twists and turns along the way as failure provides valuable feedback, focuses the individual's positive thinking towards the journey as well as the destination by adopting optimism and empathic, dynamic, and adaptable behaviour.
The ancient Japanese art of kintsugi highlights the process of joining broken pieces of pottery through the use of lacquer and gold to emphasise and make beautiful the imperfection of objects, so it is important that students embrace imperfections and learn from their experiences. By developing an awareness, understanding and appreciation of personal imperfections, it is possible for students to change their orientation from being unhealthy perfectionists to becoming healthy optimalists.
© Michele Juratowitch