No fun in pursuit of perfection

FOR THREE years I have been writing for this paper, and for three years I have been giving the same advice in my annual mail-out column. Being the type-A control freak that I am, my former columns have dripped of warnings: take everything slowly, don't commit yourself to activities or people early on, and don't assume you know who you are or what you want.

With but one year left before graduation, I now realize that I had it partly right. It is certainly unwise to commit yourself to anything or anyone without careful consideration, preferably exercised over an extended period of time. Furthermore, it is always a poor, poor idea to make assumptions, even about yourself. College will change you; take care to leave the door open for such a change. Take as many general, low-level classes as you can your first year, in all the areas in which you think you might have some interest. Expose yourself to as many different types of people as possible, and consider the idea that you might have something to learn from them. Sample as many organizations as you can. Keep active in every way, but don't settle down quickly.

This is all good advice, most of which I would have given (and did give) in years past. But as I look back on my time at U.Va., I realize that one huge, ongoing mistake runs through the course of my college career: I took it too seriously. In my wise old age, I feel that warning against this attitude is the biggest favor I can do my fellow type-A (does U.Va. take any other type?) students. For me, the list of suggestions detailed above was not advice; it was a roadmap to perfection. I assumed that there was one "right" way to be, and that if I looked long enough, reasoned well enough and went slowly enough, I could identify it. And even better: I could be it.

This is a mistake that I think a lot of us here at Virginia make. After all, we didn't get here by taking ourselves lightly. However, there is a difference between taking things seriously and allowing them to consume you. For three -- wait, who am I kidding, 21 -- years of my life, I somehow managed to miss this key distinction. By being obsessed with perfection, and thus viewing the world solely in terms of the perfect and the inferior, I set impossible standards for my peers, my environments and myself.

When I began nearly hyperventilating my second year after receiving a B+ on an economics test, I suspected that perhaps something was amiss. When I realized at the end of my third year that I had just spent the last three years of my life hurting the people I cared about the most because I asked them to be things they were not and things that they couldn't be, I knew something had to change.

In a place like U.Va., so disproportionately filled with bright, talented, motivated and beautiful people, it is tempting to chase perfection. It is tempting to think you can find it. The bad news is you can't. However, the good news is that once you accept this fact -- that you cannot be perfect, that your peers cannot be perfect and that U.Va. itself, like the rest of the world, is far from perfect -- you can and will find true happiness -- here, everywhere. And suddenly, "perfection" won't be so important anymore.

In his book "The Fellowship of the Ring," J.R. Tolkien wrote: "The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places, but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater." In my experience, such happiness can be found in work, discipline and love and concern for others. Don't chase the perfection U.Va. tempts you with. Instead, chase (carefully) the best that is within you, with everything you have. Work, love, spare no energy or effort and enjoy it all. Most importantly, though, no matter what life brings, learn early and remember what my two best friends have been trying to tell me all along: just relax.

(Laura Parcells can be reached at

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