My grandparents taught themselves how to golf in their 30s, making them late bloomers where the game is concerned. Within a few years of learning, they were beating everyone they played, winning competition after competition with the kind of ease that infuriates those who work relentlessly on their form. They started teaching me the game when I was 4 years old and by the time I was 11, I could beat anyone I played while using a starter set of clubs (seven clubs to the normal 14). The problems started when I received my first full set of clubs. My feeling at the time, contrary to those around me, was that I would doubtless continue to improve faster with the extra clubs and the subsequent accuracy they afforded. I was warned, however, by people who were much better than me that contrary to my belief, additional clubs required hours more practice per club and a ratcheting in of both expectations and attitude; it was the mind that needed to be controlled more than swing. I was young, however, and when you’re young you do everything with a loose freedom that either enhances your ability or hinders it. Mine was enhanced until I started thinking harder about the clubs and the potential consequences and pitfalls of every shot. I picked up perfectionism early and it pushed me just beyond mediocrity and held me just south of excelling.
Early on, competitions were easy, but later when they started to matter, I’d choke. I’d tighten up, start overanalyzing every shot, every swing, even every thought. This went on through high school and whenever I’d play in various competitions in the military. I played in college as a walk on, but it was more of the same. I could never seem to get my game to show up when it mattered. The frustration for both me and my various coaches was that outside of competition, I was solid. This is still true to a certain degree. I don’t play nearly as much anymore, sadly, but whenever I do, within a few swings muscle memory takes over. It even seems that the longer I go without playing, the better and more accurate I am. This, I’ve come to understand, is largely due to a complete lack of expectation on my part regarding my ability at the time; without applying the weight of how I should play, I end up playing the way I’m able.
This perfectionism manifested itself in every way that such an epidemic in one’s life can, despite my being well-versed on both its method and its madness. It would be inaccurate of me to say that this particular trait had nothing to do with my professional and academic success for the majority of my adult life. At the same time, it was also the architect of my eventual burn-out and failure; the transition between fearing that you won’t be good enough and believing it is very subtle. I’ve managed to obtain a pretty enviable balance in the last few years, primarily through finding ways to harness and focus the drive. Still. When I finished my masters thesis last May, my advisors and a number of the faculty voiced their amazement at the accomplishment based on the breadth of the research and the work involved. I think one reason that I have a hard time accepting compliments such as these is because I know how fine the line is that I walk in order to get to them.
I am not academically gifted by any stretch of the imagination and have always sucked righteously at taking tests. I was flattered when the door to a PhD swung wide here and by virtue of the work I’ve done, walked in without being too intimidated. I took the first test on Friday and felt genuinely confident going in following a week of studying compounded by junk previously learned. I did fine, but here’s the thing: I should’ve done much better and in thinking this, I’m setting myself up for disaster. As soon as I got the test, I started forgetting things, questioning myself, second guessing details, etc. I went in with an expectation of how I should do and proceeded to sabotage myself. Instead of unwinding Friday night and throughout the weekend, I spent it rehashing the minute details of every question with which I’d felt uncomfortable and being amazed at my inability to regurgitate stuff that I knew. It’s exactly the same as stepping up to a shot, knowing precisely how to hit it, then talking yourself out of it because you’re so afraid of not executing it exactly right. My eagerness to look at this as self-relegated mediocrity worries me because I know this is a very slippery slope: Studying becomes an endeavor to know everything instead of what’s required and, in the end, nothing is retained.
I’ve always been my own harshest critic and perfect arch-nemesis and in this I suppose I differ little from the majority of the world. There are certainly benefits to being your own devil’s advocate, but it’s important that it has a squelch, lest the devil’s become the only voice you hear. I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to negotiate with the part of me that seems to insist upon holding me back despite my best efforts and just when I think I have a handle on it, I seem compelled to remind myself of the failure involved in being good enough and how my expectations exceed anything I could ever hope to accomplish. An inability to ever be satisfied with one’s proficiency or accomplishments may be the worst fate possible because everything south of perfection is viewed as failure. There’s little difference between fearing failure and fearing success. I’m stuck in the middle. This is a pisser.
P.S. Johnny Law found my ring in a pawn shop last week! Three cheers for Johnny Law!
Sir @ September 23, 2008