My name is Duke, and I’m a recovering perfectionist.
I started my habit in grade school. I was a smart kid. The material was easy for me. I didn’t have to work at it.
I aced my first spelling test in first grade and I never looked back. The rush was incredible. I had done everything that was expected of me. I was recognized for my results.
My results. Not my effort. No one cared if I was making an effort.
I quickly developed a tolerance. So did my parents. When I brought home a report card with six As and one A-, we had a stern talk about the A-. I realized that the outcomes were more important than the process. I needed those outcomes. I was a fiend.
My best friend was a perfectionist too. His mom and mine would compare us, analyze our work, clamor for the upper hand. He was better at Math. I was better at English. He was better at baseball. I was better at soccer. We fought a lot. We played video games a lot. We tried not to think about our failures a lot.
Being perfect turned into being capable turned into being adequate. At least that’s how it felt from my end. I upped my dose, chasing the high of recognition. I started reading ravenously, two books a day, three books a day, grabbing all the loose factoids I could. Someday I’d need them. Someday.
My stash of knowledge started to pile up. I needed stronger hits.
In third grade I started getting parental help on school projects, desperate for the top grade, terrified of being the kid who didn’t build the perfect diorama.
In fourth grade, we were building cars out of wood for a group project. My friends’ car idea wasn’t good enough. Mine was better. I ditched my friends. I built my design. I won the race. I lost my friends.
In ninth grade, I discovered extra credit. It was a powerful stimulant. Finally, I could be better than perfect. This was real power. Even when I screwed up, I had a cushion. My GPA crept above the four point. My anxiety crept above the surface. I was addicted to the numbers. I was dependent on my extracurriculars. I was mainlining achievements. I was building a resume. I was building an empire. I was building a habit.
I lost it in my junior year. My parents split up and I slipped up and missed a few homework assignments. I bombed some midterms. My brain spasmed through perfection withdrawals. I was hurting. I wasn’t perfect anymore.
But perfection has two sides. I had been good at succeeding perfectly. I got even better at failing perfectly. I stopped caring, stopped pushing, stopped trying. I was still smart. My zero-effort semesters got me some As and some B minuses and a couple student awards and a false sense of security. I slid out of high school with a top-30 GPA and an academic full ride to MSU.
And then I failed better than I’d ever failed before.
I didn’t go to class. Didn’t study. Didn’t take tests. I was sad a lot. I played video games a lot. I stayed in my room a lot. I didn’t make friends a lot. Aside from my regular attendance at a few music courses, I was a waste of a scholarship.
I came home after three semesters with a 1.something GPA and an album in my brain. I recorded the album, perfectly on schedule. I started working on a second album. I missed a few recording dates. My release schedule stopped being perfect. I abandoned the second album.
My life has gone on like this, an alternating sequence of effortlessness and despair. I’ve gotten better at picking only the battles I know I’ll win without a scratch. I’ve gotten better at avoiding the things that scare me. I’ve mentally mapped a thousand successes and then walked away before breaking ground on the first steps. I’ve played video games a lot.
I’ve been the perfect (ha!) example of Carol Dweck’s fixed mindset model for most of my life. Resistant to criticism, afraid of challenges, envious of success, obsessed with appearances, allergic to failure. My mental habits have cost me relationships and opportunities. My self esteem has suffered. I’ve wasted a lot of time.
Here’s the good news – with a growth mindset, my experience can make me stronger, as long as I learn a lesson from my failures and move forward from them. I don’t need to look at my past trajectory as a liability; rather, it’s a valuable insight into my character, one I can use to change my choices and become a better human being.
My journey to Dev Bootcamp is helping me break my old thinking habits. Every line of code I write in preparation for Phase 0 holds a thousand ways I can screw something up. Usually, I screw something up. But here’s the funny thing: when I recover from a screw-up, the lesson I learn sticks with me way harder than anything I “learned” in school as a glorified test robot.
To accompany my prep, I’m reading Chade-Meng Tan’s Search Inside Yourself, a no-nonsense guide to mindfulness meditation and emotional intelligence. (For auditory/visual learners, there’s also a free video series that covers the core material.) In the book, there’s an interesting definition of meditation that I’d never heard before.
The author says that the “still mind, no thoughts, just breath” part of meditation isn’t the point of the exercise. It’s actually the step right before that state, where you catch yourself thinking of something else and turn your attention back to the present, that makes the practice meaningful. That moment of resistance is like lifting a weight – the more you do it, the better you get at it. Eventually you can bring the practice into your everyday life, turning your attention at will and holding it on what’s really important.
What’s really important to me now is code. And distractions are everywhere. Twitter notifications, emails, funny videos, and real-life distractions constantly pull me away from my text editor. So I’ve been working on mindfulness in my spare time, and I’ve started noticing small changes. I can pay attention to my work longer. I’m better at catching myself doing something random and useless and getting back on task. I’m more present in general.
Here’s the kicker – I need to keep a growth mindset for all of this to work. I need to see my failures to pay attention not as signs of weakness, but as opportunities to build up my attention muscles as I pull myself back to the work I need to get done.
If I give into perfectionism, I’m lost. I end up postponing learning for days at a time, wallowing in frustration and self-pity. I get stuck on failing perfectly all over again. It’s why I stopped posting here for several days; that’s how long it took for me to recognize that my time away was not evidence of a lack of desire to write. While I was away, I wasn’t getting much of anything done, because starting up again meant acknowledging that I had failed to meet my perfectionist standards.
This might be the hardest work I’ve ever done. I’m trying to re-wire my brain here, trying to look at everything I do with new eyes. At every turn, I have a choice to make. Either I can run from a challenge or I can build from it. Either I can kick myself for failure or congratulate myself for getting to the point where I can start building new strengths. Either I can run away from criticism or I can use it to get better at what I’m doing.
And you can too. I can’t be the only person endlessly teetering between breaking out and breaking down. There’s a third way, and it involves tolerating small, incremental changes and loving the moments when you don’t know if you can move on. In those moments, even a tiny step forward is proof that you can. And it’s a crack in the armor your brain has built to shield itself from real growth.
Ultimately, growth is death. It’s a leaving behind of a past self. But tomorrow’s past self is today’s present self, and the present self doesn’t want to die. A growth mindset means a willingness to suffer tiny deaths each day. I’m working on my willingness, letting my muscles tear so stronger tissue can grow to fill the spaces.
In high school, when I was nursing my impossible standards and clinging to a grade point that had nothing to do with my effort to grow, I used to roll my eyes at the motto on every student athlete’s sweatshirt: PAIN IS WEAKNESS LEAVING THE BODY. But now I’m starting to understand how true it is. Pain is weakness leaving the body. Challenge is complacency leaving the mind. Failure is perfectionism getting beaten into submission.
I can’t wait to screw something up today. Until I do, the video games can wait.