Perfection: Being “The Best”

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Why is it so hard to accept our humanity sometimes?

For me, anything less than the best is bottom-of-the-barrel. “I almost did it” will never be as good as “I did it,” even if I learned incredible lessons and thoroughly enjoyed the journey.

Life is not black or white, good or bad, all or nothing.

I’m not perfect in all the things I do. I just gained 14 pounds. I rarely go to church. I’m not the world’s best writer, though I am good at being vulnerable. I suck at relationships. I’ve come in 2nd place twice on really important academic job searches.

I was an average student in my PhD coursework. (That sounds like I’m whining. I realize just being in the PhD program in the first place makes me pretty stellar.) I got into $200K worth of debt because I wanted to be called “Doctor.” Okay, there was A LOT more to it than that, but sometimes it seems that way. Especially when my degree is not marketable outside academia.

I had a house before I went back to school. I had to sell it when I didn’t know where I’d find a faculty position. It was a modest home, very nicely decorated and lovely on the outside. I always dreamed I’d have one of THOSE homes, though. The ones you see on the hill overlooking the lake. Or maybe they’re on a golf course. You get the idea.

Unattainable perfection. I learned to be happy with what I have. Jealousy only kills the spirit. I think this drive for perfection comes from an esoteric conflict between my humanity (the path I’m on now) and my spiritual downfall (would they call that greed?).

Maybe I’m trying to be something I’m not.

I wrecked my finances this way!

I can’t wait to publish my debut novel, THE SEVENTH LIGHT, which I am hoping to start querying next week. One of the agents to whom I want to submit accepted 1 out of 527 manuscripts in April. That’s intimidating as hell. I worry again about being second place. (Or third. Or two-hundredth.)

And yes, second place is really good, but it won’t allow me to use the word “Author” after my name. (OK, I already use it because I have a broad array of academic publications–from book chapters to journal articles to policy briefs–but I want literary credentials, too, dammit!)

I am tired of being average, second place, but maybe the Universe feels I still haven’t learned my lesson. Maybe it really is about the journey and not the end result. Maybe we are all supposed to be learning to accept things that are different from “the best,” but actually suit us and our needs even better.

And as I write these paragraphs, I’m thinking, wow, that sounds so cliche, like what we tell people who are runners up! Is “learning along the journey” just a consolation prize?

No. It’s the whole point of living. Not all of us get something we are “best” at doing.

There are other times when “be better” comes to mind. That comes with time. I submitted a poem for publication last night that I really thought was sheer perfection at the time I wrote it. However, picking it up 6 months after having written it showed even it needed some tweaking. I am impatient. I want to “be better” NOW.

And I want to be the best on my own terms, in my own unique style. If you ever read Young Adult fiction, Fallen, by Lauren Kate, is one of the best out there (in my opinion). Maybe that’s why it got picked up by Random House. I wonder where the beautiful prose comes from, what inspired her tone and voice and imagery. Mine’s pretty good, but hers is better.

Comparison is the mother of all misery. We shouldn’t compare, right? Except everyone else does. When I query this book, my letter will compare my book to Fallen because of its beautiful writing and intriguing plot, which no doubt are responsible for its commercial success. Will Seventh Light measure up? (Query letters have to compare stuff. If you don’t compare, others will do it for you.)

So, the pursuit of perfection is maddening. Perfection means, in part, being “the best.” It is a superlative and by necessity compares you to other people. As an adult, I would much rather be myself and be pretty damn good than try to outdo the others around me. But there remains that nagging part of my brain that goes, “I want to achieve what she has.”

I’ve actually achieved a lot. In my way. On my terms. Maybe someday, others will compare themselves to me.

. . . And then I think, what arrogance.

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I am a writer of Young Adult fiction and non-fiction. I'm also a public health scientist and educator.

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