Salisbury’s Take: Striving for perfection is not healthy

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By: STEPHEN M. SALISBURY

Columnist

One of the reasons I wasn’t able to be successful in my college career until much later in life was because I always felt like if I could not be perfect, it wasn’t worth it to make the effort. I’ve had several discussions with students this semester who get so discouraged when the perfect A they expect to earn is threatened by one bad quiz or one low grade on a group project or bombing an exam for which they were sure they were ready.

As someone who has struggled with ADD and OCD issues his whole life, let me encourage you not to focus on the imperfections you encounter on your academic journey, but on the process of working as hard as you can to succeed.  It wasn’t until after I turned forty that I came to the realization that perfection is an unattainable standard. I wanted so badly to graduate with a 4.0 that I avoided coming back for my degree because I was afraid I couldn’t do it. That’s really sad because I could have changed my entire life trajectory sooner had I simply said, “I’m going to do my absolute best and if that earns me something less than an A or A+, so be it.”

My theory was put to the test at the end of my first full-time semester back in the fall of 2013. By this point I had completed the equivalent of one full semester by taking three classes in the spring and two over the summer and earned A’s or A+’s in all of them. This semester I was taking 17 credit hours, one of which was a Chemistry course which I learned later was what they call a “weed-out” class. In other words, this is the class that Chemistry and Biology majors are expected to take to see if they have the “right stuff” to survive in these programs. I was a 43 year old Economics major who hadn’t taken Chemistry since my junior year of high school.  But, I was bound and determined to face this challenge and overcome it.

I told my wife that semester that if I never saw another Chemistry textbook in my life, it would be too soon. I had a lecture twice a week, a lab lecture, a three hour lab, a discussion section and a Supplemental Instruction session provided by one of our Senior Chemistry students. All-in-all, I had five different instructors teaching me Chemistry for what amounted to five credit hours. I’ll never forget leaving my first lab and literally sobbing in my car thinking how awful I was going to be in that lab. Imagine, a 43 year old man crying in his car over Chemistry!

I asked my lab instructor, “Why is this so hard?”

He then said one of the most profound things I had never considered. “It must be hard.  Our reputation is on the line. When you go out there in the real world, we want your future employer to say they sure know what they’re doing over at IUSB.”

Essentially, what he was telling me was that if college wasn’t hard, it wouldn’t mean anything to have that degree. I got my first B in that lab section and my quest for perfection was over. What I learned through that experience, however, was invaluable.

The struggle is real. If you’re having a hard time getting through your classes, don’t be discouraged. Keep fighting. It is precisely because it is so hard, that makes it so valuable. It took me three times to get through a required mathematics course in my undergraduate years. Now, I’m working toward a Master’s degree in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science. I hadn’t written a line of code in my life until this past year. The point of sharing all this is to say that I am not exceptional. We all struggle to make it through this journey. We all have challenges that prevent us from earning the highest grade possible, but don’t focus on that. Focus on the fact that when you are done, you will be exceptional. Graduating with a college degree is still the exception and not the rule in this country. While more and more people are finishing college, the overall percentage of adults over the age of 25 who have one is still well below half. Don’t give up. When it’s all over, you’ll be glad you followed my advice.

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