The world is run by high achievers. Many might describe themselves as perfectionists because they aren’t satisfied until they have done their best. Healthy high achievers get genuine pleasure from putting every effort into producing the finest quality product—an effective business plan, a work of art, or a well designed computer program.
Healthy high achievers enjoy the process and excitement that bubbles up from within them as they work their hardest. They react to deadlines by generating just enough anxiety to stay energized. Healthy high achievers see mistakes as opportunities for personal growth and as an impetus to learn to do better the next time. They see failures as temporary setbacks from which they will rebound. They appreciate constructive criticism because it informs them about how to improve. Healthy high achievers may lightheartedly label themselves as perfectionists, but they are resilient when they fall short of perfection.
Unlike resilient healthy high achievers, perfectionists reject anything less than a flawless performance. Though what they produce may be of the highest quality, they may not experience the satisfaction of a job well done. They don’t enjoy the process of creating because they worry endlessly about not performing as well as they should. They have a fear of failure that is greater than the joy they experience with success. When they do well, they may not notice because they are too worried about the mistakes they might have made or how they could have done better. The perfectionist soccer star scores 3 goals, but as he is carried off the field on his teammates’ shoulders he laments the penalty kick that went wide. The perfectionist gets a 96 on an exam, but is frustrated that she didn’t get a 100.
Perfectionists see every mistake as evidence that they are unworthy or not good enough. When others praise their successes, they do not trust it because they see themselves as imposters whose faults are waiting to be discovered. When directly criticized, they become defensive, embarrassed, or ashamed. They see even constructive criticism as reinforcement of their ineptitude. Perfectionists fear adversity. They lack the flexibility to rebound from difficulty because challenges paralyze them. The thought of not doing something well prevents them from taking the chances that successful people need to take to reach their greatest potential. They may be graced with creativity, but are hesitant to tap into it for fear that doing something outside of the box will disappoint others. Healthy high achievers are driven by the joy of doing, but perfectionists become paralyzed if what they are doing would disappoint the harshest of critics (who are usually themselves).
We want our children to be successful now and in the future. As they build the achievements required for a college admission—grades and extracurricular activities—we must ask ourselves how they are experiencing the process. If they seem genuinely to enjoy their commitments and if the drive emanates from within them, they are destined for long-term success because they will be able to draw on that energy throughout their careers. But if they are driven to achieve to please others, to gain acceptance, or from fear of failing, they may not be poised for a lifetime of success and happiness. Both the perfectionist and the healthy high achiever will attain the prestigious college slot, but parents should do their best to nurture a healthy high achiever rather than a perfectionist.
The “product” certainly does not distinguish the healthy high achiever from the perfectionist. Both might achieve top SAT scores and participate in many activities, and both might be accepted into top universities. But consider the process: A maestro who writes the finest symphony could have been driven by a healthy desire to achieve or by an inability to accept anything less than a masterpiece. The difference is in how much he enjoyed the process, how much he will celebrate versus disparage his symphony, and how quickly he will burn out. The end product might be the same, but the process was either tortured or exhilarating.