Born and raised in Indonesia, I grew up in a conservative family where expectations are always meant to be met. The word ‘pressure’ is something that comes on the first page of my dictionary, often on the day to day basis. It is said that it’s of a culture that is “forbidden to vanish as the so-called eastern culture will cease to exist due to (inevitable) globalization”, no matter how much the toll is taken on a child to carry such parental and social pressure for the sake of traditions and “good image”. Therefore, freedom for some people becomes taboo.
In the events when career- or even relationship-wise decisions need to be made, I often didn’t get a voice in such matter. I was always told that my parents knew what was best for me, even though at the time, I knew what my interest had been and what I’d like to do for a living. Perhaps, some of you reading this are familiar of what “success” means to your parents: becoming a doctor, serving for the country, or making it as a businessman/woman. I knew I’ve loved and cared about design (in its many fields) for as long as I could remember, and so I decided that this is what I’d like to do for a living.
On the other hand, paving a way for herself from the ground up for more than two decades, my mother has successfully established herself as a businesswoman. Her talent in making money-moves fits into the culture-established “success”, adopting a work ethic that has made her adamant and tough but resourceful. The amalgamation of my mother’s work ethic and societal pressure created an environment around me where everyone needs to be on a similar if not better pace. Not only at work, every aspect of things run at home needs to be at an outstanding standard.
My mother, by no means, is Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada, although shares the very same quality in her perfectionism at work that affects the quality of service, management, and the performance of employees in a good way. I too was expected to carry such level of performance at school and to participate in many after-school activities such as the science club, volleyball club, badminton club, the school’s flag hoisting troop. I was also not excluded from the classic Asian parents set of move to be sent to a music academy to learn piano for a year. One of the key events of not having a voice in a matter was when I was almost admitted into a flight school in Seattle, WA if not accepted by a famous business school in the same city by order of my parents because I refused to pursue a medical career. Wanting to fight for what I care about, it was only settled a year later, after all the effort and time to educate and convince my mother that graphic design is a profitable major, that I was alright to pursue a Graphic Communication degree in the UK.
Pursuing my passion in graphic design could possibly the most soul-fulfilling thing for me to do (I might not be at the right age to say so) and it has also been a tremendous privilege. However, this privilege became challenging when I didn’t get the exact number I wanted on my module report. It had gotten harder to accept reality when my parents couldn’t understand but were to expect nothing but flawless module reports for 3 years.
What’s worse was that I too wanted the same thing.
Getting a First* below 78% went straight to my “failure bin”. I wanted myself and my work to be more than excellent, and more like perfection, which in my book at the time was a polished, professional-looking body of work. I upped my performance during second and third year of university, working on sleepless nights, trying to have my work the perfect impression among my peers’ when it wasn’t expected, but I surely had my expectations set all the way up. Although the expectations did culminate on some modules, I was burned out for a month, not producing any single work. It felt terribly wrong to do nothing and it felt wrong if I didn’t get the 80% that I wanted, and when I did, I wanted 90%. Soon enough it wasn’t about design and producing a good, meaningful body of work. It was about numbers.
It became even more difficult when I deep down expected my peers to be excellent too. It felt like the threshold for our body of work was low, and that I wish it was way higher. In my head at the time, excellence was needed in our book of “what is good design and what isn’t” so that the students could produce a better work for their own sake. At the same time, I wanted the bar higher so we could come out of the university with a professional-looking portfolio and manner. It was very wrong, but I couldn’t shrug that feeling off. This projection of perfectionism onto others was something I was guilty of for awhile too, then I realized that I had been doing what my mother did, subconsciously. Later on I asked myself,
“Perfection, at what cost?”
Studying fictional characters who are obsessed with perfection such as Miranda Priestly (The Devil Wears Prada), Nina Sayers (Black Swan), and Andrew Neiman & Terence Fletcher (Whiplash) helped me understand forms of perfectionism. Even though multi-dimensional, there are three known forms of perfectionism: Self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially-prescribed. Miranda and Fletcher expect their employees & students to catch up on their level for the sake of what is best for Runway magazine or Shaffer Conservatory, although this creates constant stress amongst their workers or even abuse in the case of Fletcher’s students. Perhaps, this is a case of other-oriented perfectionism. This trait is what’s expected for the grandiose of a reputation that Miranda’s magazine or Fletcher’s school has established. But this trait also comes from both characters knowing full well that they are resourceful experts and are the best in their corresponding fields.
Andrew Neiman who already wants to excel at what he does suffers further under Fletcher to prove both himself and Fletcher that he is a good enough drummer, creating a toxic dynamic between the two as well as sustained physical and psychological abuse to an extent where Andrew still plays for Fletcher’s concert straight out of a car accident, getting humiliated by the tyrannical instructor cueing him up for the wrong music. However, Andrew continuing and nailing Fletcher’s tempo at the end reflects Andrew’s strive for perfection at the cost of his humanity.
Meanwhile, Nina Sayers who is obsessed with perfection beat by beat and succeeds flawlessly as the White Swan finds it harder to embody the polar opposite of her character, the Black Swan. Embodying Black Swan requires letting loose, following the stream of imperfection, and being the rhythm in a chaotic rapid, which is not what Nina is used to. At the end of the movie, Nina becoming both White Swan & Black Swan is the perfect balance that makes imperfection a perfection, a powerful mindset shift for someone who possesses self-oriented perfectionism.
These characters’ strive might be an inspiration to some, which is fine to an extent.
One’s idea of perfection differs from others’, but one thing that one needs to be mindful of is being good at what you do shouldn’t cost you your humanity. My personal take of adapting a version of perfection for work ethic is its idea as a form of help to raise the quality of work and self-satisfaction. But, it shouldn’t intent to justify giving half of the effort.
Hopefully, this story reminds you to be wary of the inevitable, forthcoming projection of unrealistic perfectionism that is toxic especially in a working environment that can affect you if not mentally, physically in the long run. If it costs you your humanity, maybe taking a few steps back is needed.
*First in the British higher education grading system is equivalent to A (70% - 100%)