Perfectionism is the natural outcome of an achievement-driven culture. When students are competing against their classmates to be accepted into top colleges, they must strive to develop the perfect resume. Who has the most—the most volunteer hours, the most unique extracurricular activities, the most expertly crafted personal essay—and, thus, who is the best? 

Learning ceases to be the object, replaced by the drive for achievement. And the mark of perfection is a moving target, always out of reach.  

Wilson Hill student Taylor Bledsoe recently interviewed author and professor Dr. Thomas Curran on the topic of perfectionism for her podcast, Aiming for the Moon. In their conversation, they explored the origin of perfectionism and its pitfalls, particularly for teenagers and students.  

Perfectionism, Dr. Curran says, consists of two main elements: high standards and a harsh, unrelenting inner critic. The latter separates the natural and worthy desire to master a subject from the crippling drive to be perfect. 

Aspiring to grow and develop nurtures a deeper love of learning, but if we are unable to embrace fallibility, perfectionism can actually hinder growth. 

“At root, perfectionism comes from a deficit of thinking,” he says. “I’m not good enough … I must go about the world concealing those imperfections from other people.” 

As educators and parents, we can anticipate the pernicious effects of perfectionism. And, more importantly, as followers of Jesus, we know our identity is not in our achievement but in Christ. 

It is our crucial task, then, that we raise students secure in their identity in Christ and unafraid of failure. 

What We Miss in Pursuit of Perfection

Cicero wrote that nothing is at the same time both invented and perfected.

When we pursue perfection, we miss the beauty of tinkering with an idea, the uncertainty in testing a hypothesis and the joy of discovery. Thomas Edison famously quipped, “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”

Perfectionism often pressures us to work too long on tasks and shifts our focus away from delighting in the work itself, making the outcome (in the case of students, the grade) the goal.

“You can’t fail at something you didn’t try,” says Dr. Curran, which is a protective mindset that can lead many students to remain in their comfort zone where they can safely excel.

This pursuit of safety often leads to a discomfort with feedback. As believers, we are called to grow and learn in community. Wise feedback is God’s loving and wise provision for us. Yet, in our pursuit of perfection, we miss the immense benefits of counsel.

Finally, we also fail to discern our own abilities and capacities as we prioritize perfection over considering our gifts and limitations, missing the joy of how God uniquely created us.

Perfection is Ultimately the Idolization of Self

To effectively counter perfectionism, Dr. Curran says, we must embrace our humanity. 

For Christ followers, recognizing our humanity is humbly recognizing our position in relation to God. He is holy; we are sinners. He is the Savior; we are in need of saving. He is perfect; we are not.    

In our culture, workaholism and perfectionism are trophies of achievement. When we glibly call ourselves perfectionists, we might think we’re signaling our commitment to excellence or even a desire to maximize God’s gifts. 

Yet, more likely, our perfectionism is the pursuit of an idol, the service of some image of ourselves that can never ultimately be satisfied. Perfectionism is concerned with external results like grades rather than the enduring internal formation of the heart and mind. This robs students of any joy of learning and glorifies the self, instead of God as the Creator and giver.

Perfectionism, if understood as something like an obsessive concern to “get it all right,” is not the ethos of the children of the Kingdom. It is akin to the spirit of the prodigal son’s brother, not the prodigal son himself.

2 Corinthians 12:9 reminds us, “​​But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”

Embracing our fallibility as humans not only releases us from the pressures of perfectionism; it also points us to the sufficiency of Christ.

We Are Defined by What We Love

We are defined by what we love, not by what we achieve. 

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal,” says Matthew 6:19-21. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

As educators, we want our students to invest in what lasts. At Wilson Hill, we train our students to love what is beautiful, good and true—absolutes rooted in the triune God of Scripture.

We can’t protect our students from failure—nor would we want to. Instead, we can nurture a deeper love of learning and continually point them to Christ—not their achievements— as the anchor of their identity.