How to manage your perfectionism at university

In her student blog, Camilla at the University of Sussex takes inspiration from Natalie Portman to help you build up academic self-worth
May 25 2016

Last summer, Natalie Portman delivered a commencement speech to crowds of soon-to-be Harvard graduates. 

The weather was beautiful. Sunning themselves below the stage were some of the world’s smartest students, all gathered to listen to this accomplished actress and Harvard graduate throw pearls of wisdom their way  –  to tell them how to be great, how to set themselves apart, how to win coveted prizes and capture the hearts and minds of their future colleagues.

Natalie Portman’s Harvard commencement speech is one of the single greatest speeches I’ve ever heard. 

Natalie does not deliver some secret Oscar-worthy recipe for all the successes she has had in her life. Rather, Natalie’s speech is perfectly perfect because she simply describes how perfectly imperfect her life has often felt. 

As a child, Natalie attended a private high school on Long Island. The girls at her school had expensive handbags and straightened hair, and spoke with accents she attempted to emulate, to fit in. She explained that her fellow students did not pay much attention to the fact that she was an actress, and were more concerned by her tendency to sport a rucksack bigger than she was and to always have correction fluid on her hands.  

Natalie was a geek: a clever kid, who didn’t like to make mistakes.

When she arrived at Harvard, Natalie was still that geek she was at school, and she still didn’t like to make mistakes. She feared that people assumed she had got into the university because she was a famous actress, and that she was not worthy of the intellectual rigour of such an elite institution. 

Natalie felt terrified. Completely overwhelmed. She was alarmed and intimidated by other freshmen who proudly proclaimed, without a hint of irony, that one day they would be president of the United States. She listened in horror as they bragged that, compared with high school, the workload at Harvard was “easy”

Natalie tried hard to keep up. She’d chew through her work, writing paper after paper, signing them off with the punchy motto: “Done  – not good”. 

While I find it extraordinary that Natalie should have felt so disorientated and disappointed by her jaw-dropping achievements at Harvard, I can also see myself in her. Natalie became so consumed by the results of her efforts in academia that she lost sight of the purpose of her studies. 

When I found myself at a top university, I felt utterly lost, completely confused by the purpose of my essays and dumbfounded by the talent of those surrounding me. How could I ever be taken seriously in such a place?

In sum, Natalie, like me, is a perfectionist. Nothing she did ever felt good enough to her because she constantly compared herself with others – a gold standard of achievement that will always exist as long as there are other talented students around you. Hailing from a family of academics, at Harvard, she was keen to be taken seriously. She sought to find a sense of meaning and achievement through her work, but struggled to connect with it in any emotional sense. 

I, too, have found myself drowning in a quagmire of essays conjured under the intense pressure of “just getting it done”. I, too, have slogged from morning until night rearranging quotes into pretty patterns ready to entrance my tutor under the false pretence that I was actually learning something.

I, too, have become an essay machine.

In academia, seriousness for seriousness’ sake gets you nowhere. A sense of value and self-worth does not stem from high grades and double firsts. In fact, the grade of a well-written paper is a mere emblem of the broader learning experience that led you to write it. 

It should not be about the quantity of work you produce. It should be about taking pleasure in the beauty of research. It is all about what is “good”, and not what is “perfect” and “finished”. The joy that we feel at each new moment of learning imparts a new joy in those with whom we might share our findings. If you can’t feel joy and excitement in your learning  then neither will those you are so desperate to impress. 

For me, learning to be a perfectionist is to accept all these things. It is to stop fantasising about perfect grades and perfect jobs. It is that moment of getting so lost in a book or a research paper that you forget that your fellow students, the university and your tutor even exist. 

It is to accept the moment, to revel in reading books for reading books’ sake, and to take very small, practical steps every day towards achievable goals but to not let those goals define who you are or where you are going. 

It took Natalie a while to realise what Harvard was all about. I’m still not convinced she quite knows. As time has passed, it seems that she has gained a sense of perspective about the difficult times she had there, and has been able to reflect upon the moments she cried in meetings with professors with a triumphant sense of pride that she is no longer a lonely and confused student. She now realises that it’s the journey that matters, and the rewards we garner from our efforts are made valuable only if we enjoyed the experiences we sought to get them.

Natalie realised that acting was her thing, after all. After she graduated from Harvard, she didn’t set up a new company or pursue a PhD like so many of her peers. Instead she continued to tell stories, and learned to dance, act and direct in multiple languages. For her, it was possible to take the road less travelled. Most importantly, she is focusing on the road itself, and not where it will lead. 

If you’re a perfectionist like me, try to focus on the road. Try not to think about your grades, but enjoy the very experience of studying itself. 

I’m on the road. I’m plodding along it now. It’s getting its grit stuck in my soles and slapping its mud up against my shins. And I like it. I’m doing just fine.

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